The fall of a wall and its legacy: Roberto Rabel recalls the dramatic events in Berlin 30 years ago.

AuthorRabel, Roberto

More time has passed since the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989 than the period when it stood from 13 August 1961. Yet, while in place, the Wall was one of the most painful symbols of the Cold War's stark division of Europe into two blocs perpetually on the brink of potential conflict. The breaching of the Wall 30 years ago--an exuberant, spontaneous triumph of human will--remains the most memorable moment in a now virtually forgotten but then almost unthinkable sequence of events that shattered communist regimes in Europe, re-unified Germany, toppled the Soviet Union itself and ended the ideological confrontation that overshadowed the international political order from 1945.

The dismantling of the Wall was, in fact, more a culmination of rising dissent in the Soviet bloc than the cause of that authoritarian system's collapse. Earlier developments in Poland were especially critical, beginning with defiance of the communist regime in Warsaw by the trade union-led Solidarity movement from 1980. The subsequent imposition of martial law only eroded the Polish communists' legitimacy, leading to the concession of the Soviet bloc's first partially free elections in June 1989. By then, change was afoot in other parts of the communist world too, such as in Hungary, which began experimenting with market reforms from 1988. In August 1989, some two million citizens of the Soviet Union's Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) formed a human chain almost 600 kilometres in length to protest the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had deprived them of their national independence. As these manifestations of pent-up pressures for freedom--political, social and economic--grew bolder around Eastern and Central Europe, there was another key contextual factor.

The impact cannot be overstated of Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership from 1985 of the Soviet Union. His response to the economic sclerosis and political bankruptcy bedevilling 'real existing socialism' was to embrace perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). His so-called 'Sinatra Doctrine' created an unprecedented space in which the Soviet satellite states could 'go their own way'--unlike earlier dashed efforts such as in Hungary and Poland in 1956 or during the 'Prague spring' of 1968 when Moscow's tanks crushed dissent. In 1989, the Red Army did not march in as demands for independence and rejection of communism spread like a contagion around the Warsaw Pact states...

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