Why 1989 Doesn't Matter

Tearing down the Berlin Wall? No big deal.

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As conventional wisdom has it, the fall of the Berlin Wall marked a watershed moment of world-historical importance. Today in Berlin, world leaders are retracing the steps of the first East German crowds who poured into West Germany 20 years ago. Speeches and editorial pages are ringing with inspiring and familiar platitudes about freedom, democracy and human rights. But is the event that brought an end to the Cold War really the crossroads that scholars and politicians make it out to be? A few contrarians think not:

  • "A Moment of Revelation, Not Revolution," writes Niall Ferguson in Newsweek. He argues that the Soviet Union was a crumbling empire long before the wall fell and rejects claims that Eastern European dissidents helped precipitate the USSR's dissolution: "1989 was a moment of revelation, not revolution: it revealed the true nature of Russian power by stripping away the deceptive trappings of superpower status." Ferguson argues that abysmal Russian leadership of this vast territory remains today. So where's the change? "Not only did the same kind of people end up running Russia as had run it before 1989—step forward, Vladimir Putin—but they managed to avert a complete breakdown of the vast Russian Federation itself. The Soviet empire had gone, but to a large extent the Russian empire remained, extending all the way from Volgograd to Vladivostok: still the last European empire in Asia, with a territorial extent that would have delighted Peter the Great."
  • East-West Military Tensions Haven't Subsided, writes Steven Erlanger in The New York Times: "Not all Russians agree, but many do argue that the end of the Warsaw Pact should have led to the disbanding of NATO, or at least a decision not to expand the alliance to include states that were once part of the Soviet Union." Erlanger quotes Russian scholars who reject the idea that the political climate has changed: “People mix the fall of the wall with the fall of Jericho in the Bible, as in, ‘We’ve won; history is over,’ etc... But to me it’s the beginning, it’s the prologue of an opera with a cymbal crash, the prologue of 15 to 20 years of Western arrogance.”
  • Demonstrations in Hungary Marked the Real Turning Point, writes Mitchell Koss in The Los Angeles Times. He argues that mass protests staged eight months before the fall of the Wall truly marked the beginning of end of the Soviet system: "On March 15, as we videotaped from the steps of Magyar Televizio, some people carried a list of demands for democracy up out of the crowd. The door of the television station opened, and the list was accepted. That evening, it was read on the news. Tens of thousands of people marched peacefully through the city. The world was changing as we watched, but we didn't report that the Iron Curtain had torn open, because we had no idea that it had."
  • The Fall Didn't Bode Well for East Germany, writes Bruni de la Motte, an English professor who lived in Potsdam during the fall, in The Guardian. "Of course, unification brought with it the freedom to travel the world and, for some, more material wealth, but it also brought social breakdown, widespread unemployment, blacklisting, a crass materialism and an 'elbow society' as well as a demonisation of the country I lived in and helped shape. Despite the advantages, for many it was more a disaster than a celebratory event."
  • Communist Ideology Still Thriving, writes Melanie Phillips at Daily Mail: "What is perhaps less obvious is that communism did not just vanish in a puff of historical smoke. The Soviet Union was defeated and fell apart, for sure. But the communist ideology that fuelled it did not so much disintegrate as reconstitute itself into another, even more deadly form as the active enemy of western freedom... This was what might be called 'cultural Marxism'. It was based on the understanding that what holds a society together are the pillars of its culture: the structures and institutions of education, family, law, media and religion. Transform the principles that these embody and you can thus destroy the society they have shaped."
  • Disappointment and Disillusion Before and After, writes Charlotte Methuen at The Guardian: "There can be no doubt that 1989 left a legacy of disillusionment and unfulfilled hopes. Many of the countries of post-communist Europe are on the brink of economic collapse... But none of that was much different before 1989, although propaganda liked to pretend otherwise. In the west, the loss of the ideal of lived socialism in central and eastern Europe may have given space for a renewed and alarming appeal to the ideals of the market. But that too was in place long before 1989."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.