The Complicated Legacy of the Berlin Wall’s Fall

The momentous event thirty years ago unified Germany and reshaped the map of Europe
Large pieces of concrete wall with graffiti on them, on display behind a railing. The fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago unified Germany and reshaped the map of Europe
At the Berlin Wall memorial in Germany, sections of the wall on display. “Most Germans would agree that the combination of euphoric experiences and bitter legacies makes the memory of the wall’s collapse a complicated one,” said David Art. Photo: Ingimage
November 8, 2019

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November 9 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the iconic barrier that divided East and West Germany between 1961 and 1989. The fall of the wall symbolized not only the end of Cold War tensions, but soon also communism. It reunified Germany in what has been described as the single most dramatic transformation of the political map of postwar Europe.

To understand the legacy of this historic event, Tufts Now spoke to David Art, a professor of political science who specializes in comparative politics, with a regional focus on Europe. Art served as the co-convener of the European Consortium for Political Research’s Standing Group on Extremism and Democracy and is the author of Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe and The Politics of the Nazi Past in Germany and Austria.

Art explains that although there are virtually no physical traces of the Berlin Wall left, the “wall in the head” remains, referring to the difference in mentalities between people living in Western and Eastern Germany.

“Politically, East Germans are less supportive of democracy than West Germans and vote in greater percentages for extremist political parties of both right and left,” Art said. “The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a xenophobic political party that has done particularly well in former East German states.”

Art recently talked to Tufts Now about the circumstances surrounding the fall of the wall and the current view of Germany in the Europe.

Tufts Now: What immediate circumstances led to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961? 

David Art: Usually, when countries put walls or barbed wire on their borders, they are attempting to keep people out. But the Berlin Wall was designed to keep East Germans in and to prevent massive emigration of its population to West Berlin’s enclave of democracy.

“Thirty years later, it is astonishing how little other European states fear the Germans,” said David Art. “If anything, there are perpetual pressures from its neighbors for Germany to take on more, economically, politically, and even militarily.” Photo: Kelvin MaThe “brain drain” of skilled workers and the highly educated from East Germany had become so severe by 1961 that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev suggested that the East German puppet regime erect a physical barrier.

The East Germans surprised the rest of the world when they did so on the night of August 12-13, 1961 by erecting barbed wire fences along key crossing points in West and East Berlin. The first concrete walls were built several days later and extended across the rest of the city and of Germany. 

What led to its fall? Was that driven more by what was happening in Germany, or part of larger currents of the fall of Communism in Europe?

Like its construction, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a surprise. While in hindsight it was clearly the decision of Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev that the USSR would no longer militarily support communist regimes in Europe that was the necessary condition for the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe, there was little reason to believe on October 9, 1989 that the Berlin wall would fall a month later.

But massive demonstrations against the East German government in Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin forced it to announce an easing of travel restrictions, which was interpreted by the population to mean that the wall was now open. When East German border guards failed to shoot at civilians climbing over the wall into the west, an exodus followed.

What was the immediate impact of the fall of the wall on German society and politics?

It was widespread euphoria, both in East and West Germany. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl eased the economic adjustment for East German consumers by announcing a one-to-one exchange rate for the West and East German marks. This allowed East Germans to feel, at least for a while, that they were the economic equals of West Germans. The peaceful fall of the wall also allowed Kohl to move rapidly toward reunification.   

What is the legacy of the fall of the wall in Germany and, more broadly, in Europe?

It had profound ramifications for the rest of Europe. Kohl agreed to the creation of a common currency in the immediate aftermath of unification, largely to reassure other European states—and France in particular—that Germany would pursue deeper European integration even as its power increased. Another direct consequence was NATO enlargement.

Allowing unified Germany to remain outside the NATO alliance was unthinkable for the United States, but the USSR was similarly adamant in preventing NATO enlargement. The USSR, which was in the midst of an economic and political collapse, lost a series of diplomatic negotiations, and NATO expanded first into East Germany and later into most of the rest of the former Warsaw Pact countries. Russia’s wars in both Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014-present) were directly tied to security issues whose origins lie in the collapse of the wall.

Within Germany, the fall of the wall is contested. Some rightly celebrate it as the only time in German history that the German people overthrew an authoritarian regime. Some view the fall of the wall as the first step in West Germany’s colonization of the east. Most Germans, however, would agree that the combination of euphoric experiences and bitter legacies makes the memory of the wall’s collapse a complicated one. 

A unified Germany was at the heart of both world wars, and splitting the country in two was seen as a safeguard to avoid more conflict. How is the unified Germany viewed in Europe now?

At the time, Kohl needed to overcome significant pushback from the French and the British to achieve German reunification. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once quipped that she liked Germany so much that she wanted there to continue to be two of them, and Francois Mitterrand’s price for permitting German unification was that the country abandon the mark for the eventual euro.

Thirty years later, it is astonishing how little other European states fear the Germans. If anything, there are perpetual pressures from its neighbors for Germany to take on more, economically, politically, and even militarily.

Kalimah Redd Knight can be reached at kalimah.knight@tufts.edu.