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The Berlin Wall Still Teaches Invaluable Lessons 30 Years After Its Fall

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I would like to share with readers three lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The first, what it teaches us about history. Historicists believe that history is teleologically guided by impersonal forces that shape things inexorably. Several thinkers, among them Karl Popper in The Open Society and its Enemies, debunked this theory compellingly in their day. But many people who are not necessarily inspired by ideological considerations take historical events for granted. How often have we heard that the fall of the Berlin Wall was inevitable?

A close look at what unfolded prior to November 9, 1989, indicates that certain choices individuals made at a particular point in time were crucially important and that there was nothing inevitable about them—nor about their timing.

It was not inevitable that Mikhail Gorbachev would respond to the unrest in the Soviet empire in the way he did weeks before November, 1989. His intention had been not to dismantle communism, but to reform it in order to save it from within.

When East Germans began to flee to Czechoslovakia, seeking to enter the West German embassy, and to Hungary, where the barbed wire on its Austrian border had been removed, Gorbachev could have reacted as his predecessors did, in Hungary in 1956 by crushing Nagy’s attempt at reforming the communist system and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 by destroying Alexander’s Dubcek’s Prague Spring. After all, earlier developments in Poland highlighted the danger of threatening the entire communist structure. But he decided not to intervene, taking many risks against his own position in Moscow.

Another crucial decision was the October 1989 coup led by Egon Krenz against the hardline leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, whose Stasi was the most robust political police in the empire. Until then Honecker’s loyal disciple, Krenz had been approached about removing Honecker months earlier and had refused. Honecker was not only highly respected in the Soviet orbit but also a powerful ally of those who resisted Gorbachev’s reforms in Moscow and elsewhere.

A second lesson I take is the devastation the communist system can bring on a country with a strong economic base and culture.

East Germany’s Saxony had been the leading state in Germany’s industrial revolution in the 19th century and, as one of the free cities of the Holy Roman Empire and a member of the Hanseatic League, a medieval commercial confederation that had a long tradition of enterprise and trade. But at the time of the country’s reunification in 1990, East Germany’s productivity was one-tenth that of its western counterpart; its per capita income represented about one-third of the other side’s. Despite the equivalent of 1.6 trillion euros spent by the German government in trying to make the eastern states converge with the western states, by 2010 the eastern states’ per capita income was still one-third below that of the western states.

The third lesson is that the fight for freedom needs to be constantly renewed. Today, given the social frustration among many Germans from the east, illiberal populist movements have caught the imagination of many voters. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party recently garnered one-fourth of the vote in Brandenburg and Saxony, reaching second place. Their slogan—“Let’s complete the change”—directly addressed the eastern states’ resentment at their failure to catch up.

November 9, 1989, has become engraved in the memories of freedom-loving people around the world. But new walls have been erected and will be erected in the future. The fight goes on.

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