Why did the Berlin Wall fall? It fell because Mikhail Gorbachev, dictator of the Communist Soviet Union, decided at his whim he would no longer use the Soviet Army to defend the puppet Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe.
Several factors led to that decision, not the least of which was that it had become clear that communism was an atrocity never worth defending.
Europe really had been divided between West and East, free and unfree, since the Communists won the Russian Revolution in 1918. In spite of the mass murders, mass starvations and mass tortures applied to enforce Communism, the Soviet ideology of equality-for-all was attractive to simple-minded people the world round.
When Europe was separated along new lines with Germany’s defeat in World War II, millions of Europeans moved West to avoid Soviet Communist oppression. Many fled through West Berlin, which sat in the middle of East Germany, but was under the authority of the Americans and other democracies. The Soviets decided to plug the escape route.
What many didn’t realize about the Berlin Wall is that it didn’t simply separate free West Berlin from oppressed East Berlin; it surrounded West Berlin and separated it from all of East Germany -- from the whole world really.
John F. Kennedy was president of the United States when the wall was built. He chided the Communists for the project. "We have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in -- to prevent them from leaving us," he said in 1963. But he did not act against it.
For two decades, the United States government felt powerless to do anything about the Berlin Wall or the series of other Soviet-bloc walls and checkpoints that added up to the Iron Curtain dividing Europe. Since the Soviet Union’s acquisition of atomic weapons in 1949, any challenge to its oppression risked nuclear war.
Evil empire. But after the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan to enforce Communist rule there in 1979, President Reagan, who took office in 1981, came up with a plan. He would help the Afghan mujahideen fight the Soviet invaders, stymieing Russian troops. In 1983, he would label the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” adding shame to their misery.
Then came the real stroke of luck. Soviet dictators started dying in rapid succession. They were old men.
Leonid Brezhnev died Nov. 10, 1982, after 18 years as Soviet dictator. Then Brezhnev’s replacement, Yuri Andropov, died Feb. 9, 1984, and Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, died March 10, 1985.
All shook up. The rapid succession of dictators shook the Soviet bureaucracy at the once-unshakable Kremlin. Officials who had kept their jobs by making alliances and protecting other officials now had three or four chances to break their old bonds and start thinking for themselves.
This is when the Soviet Communists chose Mikhail Gorbachev as their new dictator. At age 54, he was young for a Soviet leader. The Soviets had their fourth ruler in less than three years.
Not only were the demoralized people of the Soviet Union yearning more than ever for something new in March 1985, Gorbachev himself would be open to new ideas.
Tear down this wall. Ronald Reagan quickly planted a few ideas. Dismantle the new Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles pointed at Western Europe, he urged the Communist. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he said at the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987.
After a series of well-calculated negotiations, Reagan won Gorbachev's agreement to dispose of those missiles. On Dec. 8, 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the first-ever treaty to reduce nuclear arsenals.
Meanwhile, the Afghan rebels, equipped with American anti-aircraft missiles, were bogging down the Russians long enough to make them wonder aloud why they were fighting for oppression. In April 1988, after 11,000 Soviet battlefield deaths, Gorbachev withdrew the last Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
On April 5, 1989, Gorbachev told the Communists in Poland to legalize the pro-democracy trade union Solidarity and to allow free parliamentary elections in June. Solidarity dominated the election results, and Lech Walesa became president a year later.
The free dictator. The Iron Curtain of Europe had been torn, not by an uprising, but by Gorbachev, the dictator in chief, responding to accumulating pressures from within and without Russia and acting -- much more freely than his predecessors -- on his own morality.
Testing the new politics, the East Germans demanded that their Communist puppet dictator Erich Honecker resign, and on Oct. 18, 1989, he did. On Nov. 9, 1989, a crowd of East Germans and West Germans converged on the Berlin Wall, where in 28 years 136 Germans had been shot to death trying to cross.
On this night on Nov. 9, 1989, some Germans climbed the Wall. Some danced on top of it. Many looked around for the Communist guards to shoot, or at least to chase them. The guards looked away. Then someone brought out a hammer and began pounding and cracking the concrete.
Wall down. The Berlin Wall was breached. East Germans walked West. West German walked East. Germans who had not seen one another in decades found one another and embraced. All of Germany was free.
George H.W. Bush was U.S. president at the time. His most important contribution was to say little, to avoid declaring "We won" for fear that boasting would offend Russian pride and change Gorbachev's mind.
A day after the Wall broke open, Todor Zhivkov, the Soviets’ puppet leader of Bulgaria, figured out the new rules. The Soviet Union no longer would protect him. Like the other puppets of Eastern Europe, he had no reliable police state of his own. Zhivkov resigned and Bulgaria was free.
In Rumania, civilians angry over years of repression stormed government buildings in Bucharest and quickly put dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on trial for crimes against the people. On Dec. 25, 1989, they executed Ceausescu and his wife.
Distorted view. To the romantics with visions of democrats storming the gates, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria and Rumania looked like people rising up to overthrow their totalitarian dictators. But their real ruler was in Moscow, not in Warsaw, Berlin, Sofia or Bucharest. Gorbachev, their real ruler, already had acquiesced.
When the puppet dictators had Soviet protection, they could abuse their people. But now the puppets had no one to hold them up. Now they were defenseless.
On March 11, 1990, Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union. In the next year, with hardly a fight, Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics also would claim independence. Most took immediate steps toward democracy.
Evil empire dies. On June 12, 1991, Gorbachev allowed the first free elections in the history of Russia. Here, too, no uprising could claim credit. Boris Yeltsin was elected president and took office July 10.
The timing of Yeltsin’s election was especially fortunate because, as president, he was able to save Gorbachev from the Aug. 19-21 revolt of Communist Party hard-liners. Angry that Gorbachev’s reforms threatened their totalitarian careers, the hard-liners arrested Gorbachev in an attempt to reverse the liberalizations. Thanks to Yeltsin’s leadership, the coup failed, and Gorbachev was released.
As the Soviet Union’s republics and puppet states broke away one by one, and as Yeltsin’s democratic legitimacy eclipsed Gorbachev’s position, Gorbachev resigned on Dec. 25, 1991. The next day, the Soviet Union was dissolved. Its 73-year history of repression, aggression and 62 million (non-war-related) deaths was over.
Lesson of the wall. Gorbachev had freed the long-imprisoned masses of the Soviet Union, and its European and southwest Asian neighbors. But except in Afghanistan, where the rebels had substantial outside help, he never contended seriously with people who “rose up.”
That’s the real lesson of the Berlin Wall. Totalitarian empires don’t go down easily, particularly after they acquire nuclear weapons as the ultimate defense of their institutionalized oppression. Freedom is every human's right, but criminal regimes can deny it for whole lifetimes.
That wall would still be standing and Eastern Europe would remain a Communist prison if not for the combination of Reagan’s activism, the Soviet-Afghanistan war, the unusually quick turnover of Soviet leadership and, in the end, Gorbachev’s whim.
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See also: Life after the end of history, by Ross Douthat.