Why 1989 Matters

Twenty years later, historians, journalists, and intellectuals remember the year that changed the world

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November 9, 2009 marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that heralded the end of communism in Central Europe and ushered in a new world order. Opinion is still divided on how history will interpret the event, but as Germany hosts jubilant festivities and foreign dignitaries, few dispute its psychological and symbolic importance.

Twenty years may not be long enough to allow distanced, impartial historical analysis, but it is long enough to begin asking: What did 1989 mean? Here's what historians, journalists, and intellectuals are saying:

  • End of Eurocentrism  "With the fall of the wall, the Eurocentric world view began to fade," writes Stefan Komelius for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. "Europe lost its significance as the axis of politics, as the battle field for ideologies and power bids."
  • Triumph of Courage and Freedom The Editors of Die Welt remind readers, as many have done in the past week, that the success of 1989 was far from a foregone conclusion. The participants of the revolution, in fact risked "life and limb." Thus, "we celebrate on November 9 the courage of people, the freedom upon which all was placed, all was risked, and all was won. The wall did not fall; it was felled."
  • End of Some Dangerous Intellectual Trends  "This thesis," writes The New York Times' Ross Douthat, "has been much contested, but it holds up remarkably well. Even 9/11," he argues, "didn't undo the work of '89. Osama bin Laden is no Hitler, and Islamism isn't in the same league as the last century's totalitarianisms." These are bold statements, but Douthat sees a specific reason for the lesser risk in these modern ideologies, though his illustrating example is one many would contest: "Marxism and fascism seduced the West's elite; Islamic radicalism seduces men like the Fort Hood shooter."
  • Soul-Searching on the Left  In the Leftist magazine Dissent, Mitchell Cohen argues that 1989 was a stark lesson that, while the "Marxist criticism of capitalism" has value, "dictatorship-in-red, not to mention mass murder, is rather worse than the fetishism of commodities." In other words, the struggle with communism is crucial as a lesson that "[i]t is better to struggle perpetually with countervailing principles, like those of liberalism and socialism, or of individualism and solidarity, than to read the world through a single tradition (like Marxism) or to seek a holistic synthesis." Dissent, questioning, and moderation are invaluable as a tool against totalitarianism, and "[a] Left that learns must be secular in respect of its own ideas, rather than 'believe' in them."
  • The Awful Things Mostly Didn't Happen The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum points out that many at the time of the wall's fall "saw a dark future. The rise of virulent, angry nationalism," for example, "was forecast by more than one expert," while others predicted a growth in anti-Semitism or a "Fourth Reich," or perhaps "'witch hunts' that might be conducted against former communists." But though "[s]ome truly awful t hings did happen" in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, writes Applebaum, "the heart of Central Europe ... is peaceful and democratic. More than that: The inhabitants of Central Europe are healthier, more prosperous and more integrated with the rest of the continent than they have been for centuries." She cautions against taking these great post-wall achievements for granted.
  • A Lesson for Superpowers  Timothy Garton Ash, author whom to many is the ultimate 1989 authority in the West, reflects that "in the nine months that gave birth to a new world ... the United States and the Soviet Union were largely passive midwives." Both Gorbachev's and Bush's lack of action was crucial to the success of the revolutionary enterprise: "They made history by what they did not do. And both giants stood back partly because they underestimated the significance of things being done by little people in little countries."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.