The Berlin Wall, 1961-1989

The Berlin Wall started to crumble 20 years ago today, November 9, 1989.  What a weird beginning of the end of the Cold War:  in the early and mid-1980s, Americans had worked themselves up into a frenzy of “Evil Empire” fear–any of you old-timers like me remember Red Dawn and The Day After, and Testament?  (The video below, Nena’s “99 Balloons,” English version, is a little treat for all of you.  That’s what the MTV generation was grooving on in the early and mid-80s, while Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan were summiting at Reykjavik:  big hair and nuclear war!  The original German version, “99 Luftbalons” is here.)  And President Reagan had big hair too, remember?

But with the fall of the wall, decades of fear in the U.S. were over, or so we thought hopefully.  I remember listening to the news on my radio in my dorm room, looking out over the darkening college green on that late afternoon, watching lights come on across the campus, and trying to remember every detail of where I was and how I felt at that moment, in case I ever had the opportunity, perhaps through some new, heretofore unheard of technology or non peer-reviewed media through which I might in the future share my memories of this happy day. . . One of my good friends had just submitted an application for a Watson Fellowship to study the graffiti on the Berlin Wall, and she was concerned that her application was being made irrelevant as we watched the news reports.  (Of course, the fall of the wall only made her project look extremely prescient and timely–she won the fellowship, although I can’t recall how she ended up tweaking her research project.)

It was strange how in the U.S., the Cold War was purged so quickly from the zeitgeistToo bad nobody told those nations in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and even the parts of Europe that had been hosting our proxy wars with the Soviet Union that they should just be excellent to each other and get themselves a souvenir chunk of that wall because all our troubles were over!  Maybe I should say that 1990 was an awesome year–it was a brief interlude between November of 1989 and the spring 1991, when Yugoslavia fell apart.  (Not everything from the 1990 global respite fell apart:  Nelson Mandela was released from prison in the winter of 1990, and he’s still out!  And, oh yeah:  Germany is still united, and it hasn’t invaded Austria or Poland.  Yet.)

0 thoughts on “The Berlin Wall, 1961-1989

  1. I don’t think any song quite captured the moment as well as this one

    A woman on the radio talked about revolution
    when it’s already passed her by-
    Bob Dylan didn’t have this to sing about,
    you know it feels good to be alive.

    I was alive and I waited, waited
    I was alive and I waited for this.

    Right here, right now,
    there is no other place I want to be.
    Right here, right now,
    watching the world wake up from history.

    I saw the decade end when it seemed
    the world could change at the blink of an eye.
    And if anything-
    then there’s your sign… of the times.

    I was alive and I waited, waited
    I was alive and I waited for this.
    Right here, right now

    I was alive and I waited, waited
    I was alive and I waited for this
    Right here, right now
    there is no other place I want to be
    Right here, right now
    watching the world wake up from history…

    [I especially appreciate the way the video shows the mediated experience all of us outside of Berlin felt watching…]


  2. Heh – I remember seeing the news about that – I was just starting high school,and just getting interested in history in a big way. I remember how extraordinary it was in the sense that most people I knew generally assumed that the Cold War would continue in some way into the indefinite future, even if Gorbachev’s glasnost would make it much less heated.

    It ended up effecting my family directly because one of my younger brothers ended up going to graduate school in what used to be East Germany, and meeting and marrying my sister-in-law, who grew up until the age of 9 in East Germany. They and my niece currently live in Dresden, and ironically most of the time that I have spent in my two trips to Europe has been in what was considered “enemy territory” until I was in high school!

    (Even 1990 wasn’t all sunshine internationally, though – that was the year Saddam Hussein decided to grab Kuwait and Bush the elder organized the big alliance and troop buildup to push him out, though the brief actual war was mainly in early 1991.)


  3. Talk about obsolete mapstands. My youngest students don’t even have a glimmer about the Soviet Union; not that they’re all that clued about Russia either. And then Fukuyama wrote that book about _The End of History and the Last Man_. I notice it has a “New Forward” in the revised edition, always problematic for those categorical futurist books, or the ones that have subtitles like “How Wednesday Changed The World.” I tell my students that this is what you get when you let political scientists do history, much less roll the credits on it. My first “war” movies were very late post-Korea; technicolor things about Migs and F-84s dueling over the South China Sea. Impressive enough, visually, as I recall, if a bit thin on analysis.


  4. Yeah, wow. I remember watching both the Tienanmen Square massacre and the Fall of the Berlin Wall on CNN in the lounge. I then applied to a study abroad program and spent the Fall semester of 1990 in Budapest.

    It was a surreal experience to watch what the Hungarians called, “The change in system.” While I was in Budapest I saw the first free municipal elections (National elections had happened in the Spring of 1990) and then a Taxi & Truckers strike in November 1990 because the new government had to raise taxes and cut fuel subsidies to make ends meet. This was one of the first indications that the end of communism was not going to be easy and the transition to capitalism and liberalism was going to take a long time.

    I didn’t go to grad school until 1996, but since then I have gone back to Hungary every couple of years. Things changed for the better in the 1990s and up to 2001/02. People were able to raise their standard of living and participate in politics (or slide back into apathy, but unlike in the Kadar years, it was their choice, not the state’s). What ever the flaws of capitalism, peoples lives were and are measurably better.

    But things have gone sour since then. There is an unabashed rise of Racism (against the Roma), Anti-Semitism (against Jewish Hungarians) and Nationalist Chauvinism (against the EU and anyone who isn’t Hungarian). The new liberal state has been unable, or unwilling, to actually ensure that Hungary’s few minority groups actually get to exercise their constitutional rights. Meanwhile, fascist paramilitary groups like the Magyar Garda, are able to riot in downtown Budapest, or carry out murders and beatings of the Roma with near impunity.

    The irony now, is that the former communists jettisoned their Marxism and the Kadar hardliners in the 1990s. Now they are the technocratic party of neo-liberal capitalism. FIDESZ – the Young Free Democratic Alliance, once the voice for rule by law, free markets, and human rights has now become a right wing populist party; aiming to restore the same sorts of social welfare benefits that thrived in the Kadar years. Until the next election, FIDESZ will operate in a tacit alliance with the far right Jobbik movement. No doubt once FIDESZ regains its parliamentary majority, they will jettison Jobbik.

    So things are good in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hats off to the Germans, they have made good on the promise of 1848 and 1989. People are certainly better off than they were twenty years ago, but it remains to be seen what kind of history the citizens of the former Eastern Bloc will produce in the next two decades.


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  6. Twenty years ago tonight I was teaching a US history survey course, and even though I was no where near the Cold War yet, the fall of the wall was all we could talk about. Since it was a night class most of the students were “non-traditionals” who had grown up their entire lives with the possibility of nuclear war. But there was one yound dude, maybe 18 or 19, who was totally oblivious to what this meant. “I don’t see the big deal” he said. I did not not have to respond, the rest of the class went balistic and “explained” to him what it meant. It was very funny to watch.


  7. I find it interesting how dependent we are on technology for instaneous images of history in the making. In November, 1989, was in Ecuador undertaking my dissertation research. It was really frustrating because I didn’t have a television set! I knew that the world was changing but I could’t watch it happen.

    Ecuador’s newspapers did not have front page pictures of the wall coming down. Instead, they showed pictures of East Germans with grocery carts full of bananas in West Berlin grocery stores. Free world to Ecuadorians meant more markets for their most important export….


  8. I think the film credits for a deplorable cinematic decade must certainly include “Rocky IV, the next world war” to say nothing of Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy in “War Games” (Joshua is my computer password whenever I can get away with it).


  9. I always liked 99 Balloons. Another song that I associate with the last days of the Cold War is Mad World by Tears for Fears.

    But I also give Roger Waters props for The Fletcher Memorial Home too:

    Take all your overgrown infants away somewhere
    and build them a home
    a little place of their own
    the Fletcher memorial
    home for incurable
    tyrants and kings

    They can appear to themselves every day
    on closed circuit T.V.
    to make sure they’re still real
    it’s the only connection they feel

    Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Reagan and Haig
    Mr. Begin and friend Mrs. Thatcher and Paisley
    Mr. Brezhnev and party
    the ghost of McCarthy
    the memories of Nixon
    and now adding colour a group of anonymous Latin
    American meat packing glitterati

    did they expect us to treat them with any respect…?

    I definitely recall watching Red Dawn in the theater when it came out and it did a good job instilling some fear. By that point my dad already had a comprehensive plan to survive a limited nuclear war and I imagine he saw the movie as helping get the kids on board even. He was also a huge fan of Star Wars (the missile shield) as being the only thing that would finally keep us safe from the Red Threat.

    Which also reminds me – I saw The Men Who Stare at Goats yesterday and a couple flashbacks are set in the Cold War era. They allude to Reagan favoring the New Earth Army program because of its use of the term Jedi, for example.


  10. I was taking a U.S. foreign policy course that semester–the poor professor had to keep updating and changing the end of the syllabus. At the time I felt sorry for him but now I am thinking that must have been an amazing semester for him to teach.


  11. Thanks for all of your “Memories. . . !” I feel like I’m in an extended run of Cats. (Kidding! Love you all, and the 80s/early 90s music flashbacks too.)

    I’m glad Matt L. brought up Tianenmen Square. That was so exciting, and then so demoralizing. Not all totalitarian regimes were on board with the spirit of ’89. RE: Nikki’s experience taking a U.S. foreign policy course during the fall of 1989: I took an American Revolution in the fall of 1988, and then was thrilled to see the kinds of crowd actions (on a much more massive scale) historians of the Revolution have described as central to the political revolution of 1765-76 on the teevee, only this time in China. I remember thinking how different that generation of Chinese students were compared to my own generation of Regan-era glibertarians. (Of course, I generalize…)

    We also have forgotten the overthrow (and execution) of Ceausescu in Romania in December of 1989–that was cool. (Well, the overthrow part; even criminals deserve fair trials, after all–that’s who trials are for!)


  12. Random thoughts:

    My late mother cried when I called her to find out how she felt. As a German (and then a West German), the fall of the Wall brought back memories of family members she hadn’t seen for some time. My uncle and his family fled from the Russians as they advanced into Germany at the end of World War II. (The area he lived in is now in Poland.) For all the fears of what a reunited Germany might do, for my German relatives who lived through the War and the subsequent division, the Wall’s fall was, in a strange way, a sort of redemption–they remembered the years before Hitler and the years of Hitler’s dictatorship, so I think theirs is a different timeline, and a reunified Germany is a romanticized redeemed Germany.

    Yet. Yet. Yet. November 9th is also the anniversary of: the date of the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the declaration of the Weimar Republic in 1918; the anniversary of the 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch; and
    the date of Kristallnacht in 1938.

    Gloria Steinem said this in 2005 about the Berlin Wall: “It was the first female-style revolution: no violence and we all went shopping. “


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