The Resident Expert: Fall of the Berlin Wall

NYU Abu Dhabi Associate Professor of History Martin Klimke studies the intersection of political, cultural, and diplomatic history, with a focus on the exchange of ideas between the United States in Europe in the 20th century.

How has our understanding of the events that surrounded the fall of the Berlin Wall changed in the past two decades?

The scholarship on the fall of the Berlin Wall in particular — and of the end of the Cold War in general — has often been divided by two distinct narratives. On the one hand, the events of the late 1980s have been portrayed as a story of government leaders successfully bringing about change. According to this notion, people like US President Ronald Reagan, [President of the Soviet Union Mikhail] Gorbachev, [German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl, [French President François] Mitterrand, [UK Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher fundamentally shaped the military, political as well as economic developments that led to the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of Communism.

On the other hand, there has always been a powerful narrative of grassroots pressure, of people taking to the street in East Germany and other parts of the former Warsaw Pact countries voicing their dissatisfaction with existing conditions and demanding greater freedom, which eventually enabled many of the revolutionary transformations of 1989-1991.

Recent scholarship increasingly attempts to bring these top-down and bottom-up narratives in fruitful conversation with each other to gain an understanding that takes into account the dynamic between the two. Historians who were champions of a more traditional diplomatic history approach have, in fact, come around more and more and written books that have taken into account the dynamics of grassroots political mobilization and its impact on official decision-making processes.

What accounts for this change?

Since the end of the Cold War, many archives have opened their holdings, so we now have a much more complete picture of what transpired at that time. Once we acknowledge that the fall of the Berlin Wall was a process that was characterized by a multitude of factors, including an enormous amount of contingency, as well as a series of on-the-spot decisions made by (mid-level) officials who were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the burden that was being put on them as grassroots pressures increased significantly throughout the course of the year of 1989, our perspective changes.

This shift in perspective is also made possible by having at our disposal the archival legacy of an East German state that was pervasively monitoring its citizens, to the extent that we have a very detailed perspective now in terms of the historical record of how influential the grassroots movement was.

This should certainly not lead to a sole people's history perspective that entirely disregards the international framework or the actions and strategies of government officials, but a more inclusive historical approach. It is when we combine all of these factors that we get a very clear understanding that the triumphalist narrative of the West "winning" the Cold War — the idea the Gorbachev took down the Wall because Reagan pressured him to — is not only historically inaccurate, but an extremely short-sighted one.

What did Berliners think about the wall? Did the East and West Berliners think about it differently?

In the lingo of East German propaganda the wall was the anti-fascist protective barrier. If you followed that particular logic, you saw the Wall as a way to stem any kind of “imperialist” effort to undermine the “real existing socialism” in East Germany. That was the party line. If you were to subscribe to that line of thinking, then you would have seen the building of the Wall as a positive development. But, of course, that was a perception that many people in East Germany privately took issue with since the Wall not only severely restricted their freedom to travel, but also effectively cut them off from friends and relatives in the other parts of the city, thereby fundamentally changing their day-to-day life.

We tend to forget that before the Wall was built, there was a certain freedom of movement in the city that was immediately shut down. People went to the Western or Eastern sectors for specific purposes, whether they had a job there, went there for shopping, or to enjoy cultural events (e.g., theater performances at the Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin). Yes, it was a city separated by the individual Allied sectors, but there was a lot of circulation going on. The building of the Wall therefore came as an enormous shock.

In the West, the Wall instantly became the symbol of the failure of communism to maintain a state in which people wanted to live. In many ways it became one of the most prominent symbols of the Cold War, a physical manifestation of the “Iron Curtain” that divided a city and thereby a whole continent. In that sense it was a very important metaphor for both sides.

How did chance play a role in the Fall?

I think with regard to the actual events of November 9, 1989, we need to re-evaluate the specific dynamic in the weeks and month preceding these events, because the fall of the Berlin Wall was not something that anybody in the West expected or that Gorbachev ever wanted to bring about with his policies. It was a moment in which the erosion of the existing regime was seized upon by a social movement that had been gaining more and more momentum. As a result, an odd announcement by an East German government official at a press conference about the opening of the wall set in motion a trajectory which people had a hard time escaping.

It's not like Gorbachev or Reagan — or anybody else for that matter — willfully and strategically opened the gates of the Berlin Wall for unrestricted passage back and forth. It was a very unusual chain of events that finally led somebody who was overwhelmed with the situation to make a judgment call at one of the checkpoints. And that's really the curious part of the anniversary, that this particular step seems so random, so small in that respect, but that the implications and the repercussions are so enormous.

But it couldn't have been chance alone? What was happening in Europe at the time?

Of course there was the larger context in which this particular press conference unfolded, the context in which the dissent, the opposition movements, the demonstrations, the courage and emancipation of people in East Germany, took place. And this was most certainly characterized by a whole set of larger international developments, whether it was the Soviet reform efforts of glasnost and perestroika, or Hungary dismantling the fortifications on its border to Austria and allowing East Germans to leave the Warsaw Pact (thus effectively punctuating the Iron Curtain) in the months before it. The changes that were happening in the Soviet Union and elsewhere were certainly palpable in Berlin, so in that sense, Gorbachev and others deserve credit for creating an environment in which restructuring was to take place.

But it certainly was not a direct line from glasnost and perestroika to the Wall's coming down. The East German regime was dead set against any of these particular initiatives coming from Moscow and was very much aware of the possibility of cracking down on any kind of dissent, having observed the events of Tiananmen Square in China that summer. In not following the path of reform, however, the East German elite created a situation in which once it was challenged and showed an opening, it simply lost control of the situation. However, the peaceful resolution of this conflict was by no means a given.

Professor Martin Klimke’s research explores the intersections of political and cultural, diplomatic, and transnational history. It is dedicated to the role of America in the world with an emphasis on processes of transnational exchange in US-European relations in the 20th century, and more particularly in the period of the Cold War. Klimke analyzes the multifaceted impact “American” ideas and cultural practices have had once adopted in different sociopolitical settings, and the ways in which US history has become intertwined with other countries’ politics and societies.