The Berlin Wall’s surviving legacy

Nov. 9, 1989 arguably remains one of the most symbolic dates in modern history. The events of this day sparked the beginning to the end of an era, hinted at the failure of an ideology and inspired the reunification of a divided continent.

Why the wall?

Following the Second World War, the German capital of Berlin was divided into four sectors. Three of the sectors represented the territorial interests of the Allied nations – Great Britain, the U.S. and France. The largest sector was, however, under Soviet control.

After years of brain drain and thousands of defectors into Germany’s democratic west, Moscow recognized something had to be done. The solution came in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was erected. Upon completion, the structure effectively barricaded the city of West Berlin.


The Berlin Wall was the ultimate symbol of the Cold War. In practice, the cement barricades erected by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) sought to block the movement of people from communist East Germany to the country’s free Western territory. In reality, the barbed wire, watch towers and guard dogs came to symbolize the true essence of this era.

The structure came to embody the prevailing divisive mind set of the time: communism versus democracy, east versus west and oppression versus freedom. However, as the wall came down, this once powerful symbol instantly became redundant.

The fall

The dismantling of such a symbolic barrier held meaning not only in East Germany, but also spoke to a much larger revolutionary world.

1989 played host to both peaceful and violent revolutions across the globe. In Europe, the collapse of the Berlin Wall spurred further social revolution. Over the next three years came the fall of numerous communist and socialist regimes throughout the European continent, until finally the USSR ceased to exist.

Investigation into the fall of the wall in 1989 reveals a surprising paradox. Interestingly, as Newsweek remarks, “The West didn’t win the Cold War so much as the East lost it.”

Bringing the wall down

Today, conflicting reports remain as to who is directly responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall.
According to the BBC, the decision to bring down the wall was itself an accident.

What is known is that the Soviet Union’s Politburo opened the Berlin Wall hoping to control the exodus of East Germans into neighbouring countries, and to quell the mounting opposition movement within many Eastern European countries still under Moscow’s thumb. However, the revolutionary events that followed were never foreseen.

Today, the West credits former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for allowing the Berlin Wall to secede and for not crushing demonstrations and dissent throughout Eastern Europe through military means.

Yet according to Reuters, even today, Gorbachev finds himself defending the Soviet army’s inaction on Nov. 9, 1989 to many Russians.

Gorbachev vehemently argues that if the demonstrations that prefaced the collapse of the Berlin Wall had been crushed, World War Three would have broken out.

False promises

Interestingly, however, the year of 1989 was not without its naysayers. In his book The New Cold War, Edward Lucas explains how “the fall of the Berlin Wall turned the comfortable life of West Europeans upside down.”

Lucas says that Western Europe advanced so dramatically over the many years that the Soviet bloc member states were locked up behind “totalitarian bars.”

Through this period, the Western European community joined forces and collaborated to further their advanced societies through economic and political integration.

The European Union did not want to absorb any new members into its elite club. Members were not eager to accommodate problem-ridden states whose impoverished centrally planned economies, simmering ethnic conflicts and prevailing communist mentality embodied a mess they were not willing to clean up. Thus, the fall of the wall was viewed by some “not as a triumph, but as a tragedy.”

Today, a number of Eastern European countries have made great strides towards successful democratic development.

Although their progress has been hampered by the ongoing global economic crisis, reforms are underway. Two decades later, it is painfully clear that the Berlin Wall has left a legacy that Europeans are still striving to tear down.

Current walls

  1. Israel–Palestine: “Separation barrier”
  2. The U.S.–Mexico border fence
  3. The Korean Demilitarized Zone
  4. The Wagah Border Crossing (India–Pakistan)
  5. The Great Firewall of China
  6. Botswana–Zimbabwe: “Disease barrier”
  7. Cyprus: “Divided island”
  8. West Bank: “Security wall”
  9. Rio de Janeiro: “Poverty barrier”
  10. Northern Ireland: “Peace walls”