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The History Briefing on the 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Saturday, November 9th was the 30th anniversary of one of the most symbolic moments in modern history. The collapse of the Berlin Wall was supposed to signal the end of the Cold War and usher in an era of lasting peace and the spread of democracy. On this historic date, many of us look back at photos to celebrate the event as a victory for the US and the ideals it stands for. However, after the wall fell there were lasting effects that still inform modern German politics today. The wall had both historical as well as cultural significance. Here’s what historians have had to say on this significant date.

James Carroll, an author and columnist for TomDispatch, wrote a compelling piece that traces the nationalist sentiments and fear of nuclear war that led to the construction of the wall in 1961. He contended that the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall should serve as a reminder of how the physical symbol of the Iron Curtain came to be. The wall was built to divide the East and the West as they neared an ultimatum; war was seen as inevitable. Carroll points out that the narrative of American wars defined as campaigns of “good versus evil” was applied to the wall and continues to be applied to American conflicts today. His argument adds historical context and an important lesson to the news of the anniversary: we are entering a new Cold War and we would do well to remember the lessons of the Berlin Wall. War can’t always be the answer, and the actions of individuals who want peace can eventually force leaders to get out the way and let them have it.

Elena Souris, a research associate for the political reform program at New America, wrote an intriguing narrative in the Made by History section of the Washington Post connecting the fall of the wall to the increasingly polarized state of German politics today. She argued that the reunification process was largely western-led; that has resulted in disproportionate representation in government. When a quick reunification process was decided on, East Germans were left without the infrastructure and business education to keep up with the development of West Germany. Souris highlights some surprising statistics that show this historical underrepresentation: in the elections of 1990, 19 percent of the new parliament was from the eastern half of the country despite constituting 25 percent of the population. She also connects the rise of far-right political parties in the last few years to the effects of reunification. Germans from the east typically make less than those from the west and in 2015, eastern states had poverty levels higher than the national average. As a result, Souris contends that the recent success of the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party in the east can partly be attributed to easterners’ dissatisfaction with their lack of representation over the past three decades. Her article adds to the news story of the anniversary by showing its lingering results are not all feel-good stories for the people who have actually lived through it.

Dr. Bryn Upton, a professor of history at McDaniel College, presented an interesting case for how the wall should be a lesson for governments today – a lesson on how border walls don’t work. He attests to the continued desire to migrate from East Germany to West Germany despite the wall, pointing out how over 5,000 people still attempted to escape around the wall despite the obvious danger. Upton details the exact cost of the wall, both in terms of cost but also through the debasement of human life and separation of families. The collapse of the wall was met with messages of support from US presidents. Upton argues, then, that the physical barriers we’ve seen built up along the southern border of the US starkly contrast the campaign to bring down the Berlin Wall in the first place. It adds to the news of the anniversary by showing how anniversaries of historical events, like this one, should directly inform and influence the decisions that we make today. 

Albinko Hasic, a PhD student at Syracuse University, wrote an article detailing the tension-filled process of opening the border and destroying the wall between East and West Germany 30 years ago. He goes through the events as they unfolded, from the press conference held by East German official Gunter Schabowski that announced that permanent relocations from East Berlin to West Berlin were possible, to the surge of people that forced guards at the border to make a decision: fire on the crowd or let them through. Hasic explains what these moments meant to people in the moment versus how they have had lasting effects on the world to today. He brings context to the fact that while an anniversary such as this one is typically remembered as the symbolic end to the Cold War, it realistically means so much more.