How Did the Fall of the Berlin Wall Affect the World?
The Berlin Wall (or Berliner Mauer in German) was more than just a barrier, and a physical division of East and West Berlin. It was a symbolic boundary between communism and capitalism. Berlin, itself, was an outpost for the West and the Soviet Union (USSR) during the Cold War; and an “important piece in the global chess board”. The fall of the Berlin Wall, in November 1989, was joyously celebrated by the free world along with the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. What events led to the erection of the Berlin Wall? What key events happened between its installation and ultimate dismantling? How did the fall of the Berlin Wall affect the rest of the World?
At the end of Second World War, Germany had been divided into four zones controlled by the USA, France, Great Britain and the former Soviet Union. This was the result of the Yalta/Potsdam conferences of February and August 1945 respectively. The agreement split Germany into four sectors of control. The Soviets controlled the East whilst the UK, USA and France had zones in the West. Interestingly Berlin was split in a similar fashion despite being situated so far into East Germany.
The relationship between the Soviet Union and the West soon deteriorated and the world would find itself in the Cold War. West Germany, and thus West Berlin, would become a thriving capitalist and democratic state. East Germany, a communist and significantly less prosperous state. Berlin was quintessential of that contrast. The fact there was a thriving example of capitalism so deep into Soviet territory was a sore spot for the Soviet Union at best, and humiliation at worst.
There was a vivid difference in living standards between East and West Berliners. West Berlin’s economy was labelled an “economic miracle” thanks to the support it received from the West. This was in stark contrast to the east part of Berlin which the Soviets had little interest in developing and human freedoms were restricted. Furthermore, the culture of control created by the Stasi (East German Secret Police) had produced a paranoid society; neighbours, close friends, and schoolteachers were manipulated to inform on one another.
There is sometimes a misconception that all states east of the Berlin Wall were members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The USSR members were Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. The satellite states comprised of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. “Each had a communist government; in the West they were called satellites because they clung closely to the Soviet Union like satellites round a planet” (schoolshistory.org.uk).
At the end of the WW2, large parts of Europe were not only physically scarred, but battle fatigued. The Nazis had marched through the east leaving significant body counts and no small amount of war crimes in its wake. In the spirit of liberation from the Nazis, mangled infrastructure, a hungry population, Stalin and communism was not as unappealing is it later would become.
The grip Russian communism had over the Soviet republics and satellite states took several years to cultivate. Stalin drew up a plan to bring all European communist parties together with the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau) in 1947. This was to cement Russian style communism in the Eastern Bloc. To rival the Marshall Plan, 1949 (a U.S. program providing aid to Europe following the devastation of WW2), the Molotiv Plan was introduced to aid satellite states. The motivation behind this was twofold; to present an alternative to any states fantasising about taking American aid and reassuring Eastern Europe that the Soviets had the resources to provide.
Propaganda become a useful tool of control for the communist and the East German Democratic Republic (DDR/GDR). East Berliners were regularly presented ideas and imagery promoting the West as the aggressors and/or uncultured and/or dishonest. The image below is an example of that, the suggestion is that the US selling fast moving consumer goods (presumably to West Germans) and “taking” the art.
Some of the communications were patently ridiculous. The communists promoted the idea that the Americans were dropping beetles on potato crops. There was an infestation issue but only the fanatical communist would believe the U.S recruited an army of beetles. The justification for building the Berlin Wall was to protect East Berlin from western aggression. There is a saying cited by Serhii Plokhy (Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy) which provides insight to the level of susceptibility to propaganda behind the Iron Curtain:
“If you want to fill your fridge, plug it into the radio”
There was another mechanism used to create Russian type communism in the satellite states and specifically East Germany. An efficient and ruthless KGB style Secret Police.
The STASI: Ministerium fur Staatssicherheit
“The shield and sword of the party”
Crimes in Eastern Germany include “hostility to the regime” and “attempted flight from the East German Republic”. According to Wikipedia, the Secret Police agency, formed in 1950, had over 91,000 employees and an incredible 174,000 informal employees. Other estimates are much higher: “Former Colonel, Rainer Wiegand, who served in the STASI estimated the figure to be as high as 2 million”. (John O. Koehler, STASI, The untold story of the East German Secret Police). Wilhelm Zaisser was the first Minister of State Security but after a series of political manoeuvrings gone wrong, Erich Mielke would take charge.
East Germany imprisoned more than 750,000 people who tried to flee to the West and 809 died or were killed in escape attempts according to studentnewsdaily.com. Not all attempts to flee where unsuccessful. In September 1979, two families constructed and flew a hot air balloon into the West. Two colleagues at a plastics factory; Peter Strelzyk and Gunter Wetzel masterminded the project which took a year and a half to execute. Both men took their young families, indeed Andreas Wetzel was 2 at the time, and bravely flew over the heavily fortified Wall, those guarding armed and instructed to use lethal force. Quintessential of that lethal brutality occurred on August 17th 1962. Peter Fetcher was shot and left to die in full view of the western media. Fetcher, only 18 at time, was trying to escape to West Berlin to stay with his sister. He was shot several times near Checkpoint Charlie and all the assistance he received was from the West Berlin police who threw medical kits towards him. Fetcher cried out for help and crowds gathered on both sides of the divide. He bled to death after about an hour.
The Berlin Blockade
The Berlin Blockade was, perhaps, the first significant crises of the Cold War. In 1948, the Soviet Union blocked all rail, road and canal access to the western zones of Berlin. The map below reminds us just how deep into Eastern Germany Berlin is situated and highlights the seriousness of the Blockade. Western Berliners found that medicine, food, fuel and other basic goods had become sparse. The Soviets actions were in response to the American offer of aid to struggling European countries. There were also concerns about a plan for a common currency amongst the UK, US and French controlled sectors; fearing a future merger of western controlled zones. The aid was the result of the Marshall Plan signed by President Truman on April 3rd 1948. The Plan, or officially the European Recovery Program, would favour the Allied nations with less being offered to the Axis or those countries who remained neutral during WW2. Although offered, the Soviet Union blocked to Eastern Bloc counties like Poland and Hungary.
The Soviets believed if the local population were starved of resources, Britain, America and France would be forced out of Berlin for good. The timing of the Molotiv Plan was no coincidence. President Truman was unambiguously defiant; “We shall stay, period”. The response is what we refer to now as the Berlin Airlift which lasted more than a year and carried more than 2.3 million tonnes of cargo into West Berlin (history.com). Rationing was implemented but most Berliners supported the Airlift. History.com reports of a local saying which serves as evidence of which way West Berliners politically swayed:
“It’s cold in Berlin but it’s even colder in Siberia.”
The Blockade of Berlin did not achieve the objectives the Soviet’s had desired. West Berliners did not reject their allies and furthermore, a unified Federal Republic of Germany was established in May 1949.
The Wall Construction
Many East Berliners were fed up of the restricted way of living. They were aware that West Berliners could travel unmolested. The rapid growth of West Berlin afforded them the ability to buy appliances and build comfortable homes.
An article by B.R Shenoy 1960 expressed some of the differences between West and East Berlin:
- By 1960 rebuilding from bombing damage in West Berlin had almost been complete. In the East “a good part of the destruction remains; twisted iron, broken walls and heaped rubble are common enough.
- West Berlin traffic is “jammed with prosperous looking automobile traffic. Buses and trams dominate the thoroughfares in the East.”
- East Germany was less developed had lower levels of education and higher unemployment (Grossman et al 2017)
- The Soviet’s “pilfered factory equipment and valuable assets and shipped them” East. (Jennifer Roseburg, 2020)
With West Berlin geographically so close, many would simply abandon the east for west. The result was a mass exodus of skilled labour to the west. It is estimated that between 1949 and 1961, nearly 3 million people fled East Germany (Major, Patrick. Walled In: Ordinary East German Responses, 2011). This was an issue for the Soviets, and it was thought that the Soviets would use military force to take West Berlin.
The Solution for them was to build the Berlin Wall in 1961. The initial “Wall” was remarkably installed over the night of August 12’th and comprised of large concrete pillars and miles of barbed wire; even the telephone wires were severed. This had a massive impact on East Berliners living standards. Many would commute to the west to take employment with better remuneration. The "Wall" stopped that.
The Berlin Wall itself stretched over 100 miles and was upgraded several times to become more effective at stopping people scaling it. It ran the parameter of West Berlin making it an oasis of sorts. Such was the initiative of desperate East Berliners the Wall was upgraded and resourced with manned towers, an inner wall and an electrical fence. Buildings close enough to the Berlin Wall had wall facing windows boarded up.
Some Berlin Wall facts: (nationalcoldwarexhibition.org)
- Total length 91 miles
- Concrete segment wall height 3.6 m/11.81ft
- Anti-Vehicle trenches 65 miles
- Number of watch towers 302
- 3 or 4 watch towers per mile
The Fall of the Wall
In the mid to late 1980’s the Soviet’s strangle hold on Eastern European countries like Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia was weakening. East Germans who wanted to leave could easily escape through other borders where communism was faltering. On the 9’th of November 1989, thanks to strong western pressure, there was an announcement stating the permanent relocation could be arranged at any checkpoint along the East-West border. Many approached the “Wall” tentatively, perhaps remembering the events of Tiananmen Square earlier that year and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
A mass of people congregated on both sides and chipped away at the “Wall” with hammers and small tools. East and West Berliners greeted one another to celebrate. Germany was officially reunited on the 3’rd of October 1990.
How Did it Affect the World?
The fall of the Wall was a significant factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union along with “overspend” and in the “economics of the madhouse”. (Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, 2015). The Wall fell; so did the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact was disabled in 1991.
The geopolitics of Eastern Europe changed along with the hopes and prosperity of the many who previously lived behind the Iron Curtain. In 1999 Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland joined NATO, followed by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia in 2004, Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020. It speaks volumes of the impotence of Russia who, at the time, could not intervene when NATO was at war with Russia’s ally Serbia.
The Wall coming down, subsequent German reunification, and the failure of the Soviet Union had let NATO and the European Union arrive at Russia’s borders. In fact, by 2004, every single European Warsaw Pact state had joined NATO or the EU (Tim Marshall). 50 years ago the idea of American troops stationed in Poland, a few hundred miles from Moscow, didn’t seem plausible without a serious military conflict.
The official date of German Unification was the 3’rd of October 1990. Germany would become the world’s 4’th biggest economy and the economic powerhouse of Europe. Its GDP would be in excess of $4 Trillion as at 2019.
In the immediate aftermath of the Wall falling, STASI offices were attacked / looted / sacked by euphoric Berliners. This was symbolic as the East German Secret police was the suppressive apparatus used by the Communist Party. After the STASI archives were opened, citizens learned of the sheer scale of surveillance and network of informants. The STASI and party official’s charge sheet read: murder, kidnapping, torture, and a plethora of others.
A reunified Germany had many jurisdictional, moral and pragmatic questions in the immediacy. There was lust of revenge from the East Berliners, somewhat contrasted by West Berliners who’d spent years building institutes of law and associated beliefs (e.g. the right to a fair trial, innocence until proven guilty). It is worth noting at the point Germany, in the early to mid-1990’s, was still processing Nazi war criminals.
Party officials and STASI defence representatives questioned how East Germans could be tried in another sovereign state (West Germany) for what they saw as their obligations; others may call it state sponsored crime. Former West German Supreme court judge, Ernst Mahrenholz, said “the sharp sword of justice prevents reconciliation”. His was not an isolated voice as John O. Koehler discusses: “a number of politicians and liberal journalists pleaded for amnesty for crimes committed by former DDR leaders and Communist Party functionaries”. The Foreign Minster of West Germany whilst it was reuniting, Klaus Kinkel, had starkly contrasting views: “We must punish the perpetrators…we owe it to the ideal of justice”. There were practical issues due to the volume of cases and incidents to investigate some of which fell under the statute of limitations. “From the of 1990 to July 1996, 52,050 probes were launched into chargers of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, election fraud and perversion of justice. In those five and half years there were only 132 convictions” (figures reported to federal government in 1997).
The communists ceased to be influential in Germany after reunification. East Germans could look forward to a better life as the wall came down. Things, often taken for granted in the west, were now luxuries in the post-Soviet era. Individuals could now be self-employed, climb up the social ladder, travel and enjoy foreign media. However, the good life was not going to be immediate. Most employment in the east was through state owned organisations and when they were privatised job losses followed. Unemployment increased and the West Germans were growing bitter about having their taxes increased to develop the former Eastern German economy. East Germans looked back through “rose tainted” lenses and pondered if life was better before the Berlin Wall fell. Even as time passed cultural differences existed in what was called “the wall in the head”.
In the short term, the fall of the Wall has not been as prosperous as hoped. Once the repressive communist regime started to crumble there ensued a series of wars which included acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide which required international intervention by NATO. The biggest atrocity was the 7000 Muslim men massacred in Srebrenica July 1995 (www.cfr.org). Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia – Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo all become independent states. Across the region there are still simmering ethnic divisions. Those deeply held divisions were very significant and Eastern European Revolutions of 1989/90 provided the impetus.
The newly constituted Russian Federation got its first democratically elected President in Boris Yeltsin who embarked upon swift market-oriented reforms. In the process the ensuing inflation devalued the savings of ordinary Russians and sent millions into poverty. Gross Domestic Product shrunk by 40% between 1991 and 1998. Between 1991 and 1994 life expectancy in Russia dropped by 5 years. In 1998, Russia defaulted on its debts and its economy crashed. The collapse of the wall ripped through the fabric of Russian society who in 1998 saw a massive increase in corruption and organised crime (www.cfr.org).
Russia descending into civil war in 1993 as a power struggle came to ugly fruition between President Yeltsin and the Russian parliament, supported by Vice President Rutskoi. In response to Yeltsin dissolving parliament with the intentions of holding elections in December that year, Rutskoi declared himself President. In early October 1993, supporters of parliament and Rutskoi blockaded streets inhibiting access to many major streets in Moscow. This resulted in violent clashes with the police. Rutskoi, along with other parliamentary members barricaded themselves in the White House (Russian Parliamentary building); other supporters seized the Mayor’s office and an attempt to seize a local television outlet was rebuffed.
On the 4’th of October, Yeltsin supporting military personnel rolled up to the white house with tanks and snipers. After hours of tank and sniper fire, special forces stormed the building and arrested the conspirators. Many Muscovites, who were only there for the spectacle, were injured or killed by casual bullets.
A more stable Russia with a renewed resolve is clawing back a degree of influence in Eastern Europe. As a mass exporter of energy, Russia has managed to dampen criticism of her exploits with regards her annexing of Crimea from Ukraine. Putin was prepared to leave Central and Eastern Europe with no gas after he cut supply to the Ukraine pipeline in winter 2009 over a dispute with Ukraine. More than 25% of Europe’s gas and oil comes from Russia. 100% of Latvian, Slovakian, Finnish and Estonian energy is supplied by Russia. 50% of Germany’s energy is purchased from her old foe (T. Marshall).
East: Former Soviet Satellite States
“Countries in Central and Eastern Europe witnessed strong economic growth, rising living standards, and new-found personal and political freedoms” (The World Bank). The grip and influence of communism would loosen across the Eastern Bloc region.
In Poland, to quiet unrest, the Solidarity movement were invited to participate in round table talks in 1989. The Round Table Agreement legalised trade unions, created the office of the Presidency and established a Senate. The new office of the Presidency would abolish the power of general secretary of the Communist Party (Europe.unc.edu). Having gained legitimacy as a political party, they won 99% of the seats in the Senate. “Poland’s economy has doubled in size since it emerged for behind the Iron Curtain” (T. Marshall, page 97).
The Communist Party in Czechoslovakia was overthrown in 1990 after free elections resulted in Vaclav Havel becoming President. In January 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two separate countries in a "Velvet Divorce". Hungary held its first free elections in 1990 and withdrew from the Warsaw Pact. The Communist government in Bulgaria stepped down in 1990 after Bulgarian opposition groups formed the Union of Democratic Forces.
“On 22’nd December 1989, Romania’s Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in a violent revolution; 3 days later he was executed along with his wife Elena”. This in contrast to Solidarity’s victory in Poland and the "Velvet Revolution“in Czechoslovakia.
The Berlin Wall dismantling saw anti-communism, and communism intolerance, spread quickly around Eastern Europe with free elections and economic reforms following suit.
East: Former USSR
Estonia GDP in 1987 was about $2000 per capita, compare that to 2018’s £19,948.90 (tradingeconomics.com). The transition from planned economy was not easy, and certainly not immediate. “Nobody actually understood how backward and underdeveloped the communist economies were” wrote Mark Laar on Heritage.com. In 1992, Estonia had it's first democratic elections since the second World War. It was the first former USSR state to implement its own currency: the Estonian Kroon. The reforms derived from various international think tanks with institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the Adam Smith Institute. It is difficult to imagine this before the Wall came down and political division remained intact.
Latvia became independent in August 1991. As with their former USSR states, they experienced a shock with a sharp decline in GDP. However by 1995, the Free Trade Agreement with the EU come into force and by 2000 65% of its exports went to European Union members (www.piie.com). As the years have passed, along with many political scandals, Latvia has developed its anticorruption policing and law institutions.
Lithuania was the first Soviet Republic in 1990. In the immediate years after the Berlin Wall fell, inflation was high as was unemployment. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1995 until the trade balance became positive. This pattern of economic collapse, reform and strong growth is apparent. Like Latvia, according to first post-communist Head of State Vytautas Landsbergis: “forces of the past, former regime” are working against reforms. He suggests bribery and impropriety are factors. Central to any fair and prosperous society must be law cemented in institutions. Landsbergis believes communism was never defeated in Lithuania and worries influencers of the past will undermine democratic stability. The individual’s faith in justice will dissipate if the same people (of the past) are wielding the same power.
The Republic of Belarus was born on August 1991. In 1994, Alexander Lukashenko was elected president of Belarus as was he in 2001 and 2015. Indeed, according to the BBC, no significant opposition leader could stand in 2015. Western observers have cast doubt on the integrity of these elections. Belarus continues to have strong ties with Russia and in 1996 the Union of Belarus and Russia was founded. In 2005, the U.S called it “Europe’s only remaining outpost if tyranny” (bbc.co.uk). For instance, in 1999, opposition leaders Yury Zacharanka and Viktar Hanshar disappeared and are presumed dead. It subsequently emerged through eyewitness testimony that the state was responsible.
Although Russian leaning, there has been dispute with the milk war and gas disputes between Belarus and Russia. The fall of the Berlin Wall has changed many things around old Soviet Republics; however, it appears Belarus eyes are looking east rather than west despite what lip service they may pay to the contrary.
Ukraine became independent in 1991. In 2004, protests forced a more pro-Europe change of government. Further protests were sparked in 2014 when the, then, Kremlin leaning government stalled on a deal with the European Union. The people of Ukraine were making it very clear that the freedoms gained after the wall came down would not be reversed. Russia would soon seize Crimea and support insurgency in Eastern Ukraine.
The wind of change did not neglect Moldova who became independent in 1991. In 1994 it become a member of NATO’s “Partnership of Peace. In 1992, after it initiated market economy polices, Moldavians endured economic hardship also being the only former Soviet state to return communists to power in 2001.
West & The European Union
The European Economic Community, created in 1957 with the Treaty of Rome, became the European Union as a result of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. Perhaps the biggest achievement of the EU is the Schengen Agreement of 1995 which gave EU citizens freedom of movement among most of the member states. Between 2004 – 2007 the EU grew from 15 to 27 members.
Without the collapse of the Soviet Union it would have simply been impossible for many east Europeans to join the EU. Even if they had the support of every single respective citizen. There is a plethora of example of how the Soviet machine squashed uprisings.
Interestingly the collapse of the Soviet Union has not changed Sweden's or Finland's status with regards joining NATO. Russia has threatened to “respond” should they chose to do so.
United States of America
To the broader world it symbolised the fall of communism in Europe. It was relief for America who had been taken to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. America would also have to reorganise as they would no longer need a military force of that magnitude in the European theatre. According to Stipes.com, 2003, United States service personnel levels in Europe are less than a quarter compared to Cold War times. It left, at the time, America as the only Superpower and allowed the US a “free hand” to spread democracy around the globe. Whether this was a positive or a negative is a debate for another article.
Social and economic Globalisation gathered pace with America standing vanguard. The bipolarity of “liberal democracy versus socialist communism” (Zimmerman 2003), which inhibited Globalisation, had, to a large extent, been removed. This “increased connectivity” around the world was the backdrop of “unconstrained corporate capitalism on a planetary scale” (A. Bacevich, The Guardian, 07.01.2020). In 2017, Apple Inc had a larger cash reserve than the US government. In recent years, there has been strong criticism of how politically influential these mammoth conglomerates have become. Particularly, those in the fossil fuel sectors.
America, in the modern age, as always awarded itself the moral authority to police the world. Certainly, after the wall came down, their global leadership was relatively unopposed. They were opposed only by the restraints of brass necks to “manage the world order favourable to American interests and values” (A. Bacevich). The emergence of China has given the U.S reason to pause for thought.
Baevich’s article suggests that America largely squandered its Cold War victory. He argues too many people have been left behind in the pursuit of wealth. Attempts at introducing reforms in the medical and welfare systems are often rebuffed as being too socialist. Perhaps a residue of anti-socialist propaganda of the Cold War era with the subtext of evil and wrong.
There has been a level of friction between America and Europe. Former U.S Defence Secretary was a “scathing critique” (www.cfr.org) of most NATO members over their reliance on the U.S for security. In 2013 only 4 members spent the requisite 2% of GDP on defence. Perhaps due to the lack of the Cold War foe, frictions further appeared when it emerged the U.S security apparatus spied on European citizens and leaders.
Other Parts of the World
In Africa it allowed the west to be firmer over Apartheid in South Africa as it was previously hampered with the belief that the National African Congress was a communist organisation. Nelson Mandela was released shortly after the Berlin Wall was pulled down. Other states in Africa, which had been supported by the Soviet Union and the west soon found that support removed and descended into civil war. Quintessential of that was Zaire, known now as Congo, who, under Mobutu Sese Seko, was supported by the west. After reunification, support was less forthcoming and Seko was deposed. This left a power vacuum that descended into conflict which killed many thousands of people.
There have been some other affects to reunification in Africa. For instance, those African states who, economically, were closer to the Soviets ideals, found themselves having to make closer economic ties with the west. This meant reform and benefited more the wealthier Africans. Those who had previously relied on state welfare, however modest that was, found that removed and thus became poorer.
The Berlin Wall falling has been a positive for many people around the world. Of course, the removal of any repressive regimes can never be a bad thing. Germany unified without triggering war. Although many had a tough transition to a market economy, the Eastern Bloc is more prosperous, and their citizens enjoy more personal and political freedoms. Freedom of movement will allow Eastern Europeans to relocate to Western Europe which in turn will help their aging demographics. The Cold War passed without nuclear war which would have had a cataclysmic effect on our way of life.