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How the Wall Really Fell
Calling for democratic reforms, some of the one million demonstrators in East Berlin on November 4, 1989, hold a sign reading "Who lies once cannot be trusted" at the Palace of the Republic. The building housing the Communist Parliament is decorated with the national emblem, the hammer and pair of compasses. (AP)

Calling for democratic reforms, some of the one million demonstrators in East Berlin on November 4, 1989, hold a sign reading "Who lies once cannot be trusted" at the Palace of the Republic. The building housing the Communist Parliament is decorated with the national emblem, the hammer and pair of compasses. (AP)

Twenty years ago this fall there was an earthquake brewing in Eastern Europe.

On November 9, 1989, the almost unthinkable happened. The Berlin Wall came down. The front line of the Soviet empire fell. It was astounding.

Americans have come to think it fell because Ronald Reagan said, “Tear down this wall!” My guest today gives Reagan his due, but says that is a simplification tied directly to a myth that drove the Iraq War. The facts of 1989, he says, are far richer.

This hour, On Point: The real story of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Joining us from New York City is Michael Meyer. He was Newsweek bureau chief for Germany, Central Europe, and the Balkans from 1988 to 1992. His new book is “The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall.” He is now director of communications and chief speechwriter for Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon.

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  • Ellen Dibble

    I spent a few weeks in both East and West Berlin in August 1989, and my questions were the same then as they are now: Are there any advantages to a less commercial system? (I had brought the same questions to Prague a few years earlier.) In 1989 I made some friends in East Berlin, and I think they, like me, felt that Communism would end, the Wall would fall — or why were they so shameless? The couple let me send crates of books. One big question to me: What is “Xerox”? I took a taperecorder (illegal) through Checkpoint Charlie but didn’t use it. I barged into a library and got a cold shoulder but was not arrested. It felt like the usual rules had been recently dropped, and it was suddenly five o’clock, grab your hats, and a sort of birthday party atmosphere was bubbling up (coexisting with military antifascist parade down Unter den Linden at noon).
    In West Berlin, it was very posh in the center, scars of World War II cheek by jowl with extreme modernism. In the West Berlin suburbs were fairy tale cottages with gardens smothering them, cheek by jowl with an iron/concrete sense of American military presence (across the super highway).

  • Drew

    I was 9 years old and living in West Germany at the time. The thing that stood out for me was the difference between the joyous celebration seen on television at the time and the next several years of re-integrating the East Germans into society. Despite sharing a language and culture there were feelings of xenophobia towards the emigrating easterners. I remember our West German landlord making statements about the East Germans being lazy or thieves. The literal wall was only part of the problem after all of those years.

  • Professor Michael Strmiska

    Concerning the Fall of the Wall and the Soviet Union, please also note that the 10 year, failed Soviet war in Afghanistan also played a role in exposing Soviet weakness and rallying the Germans, Balts and others to stand up to the USSR and seek independence. Might it be more accurate to say that it was the Afghans who brought down the wall and the end of the Soviet Union, more than Ronnie Reagan?

  • Joanna Drzewieniecki

    Don’t know yet what your speaker will say, but I am appalled by the lack of understanding of how the Soviet system fell. I was working on a doctorate in political science as the Soviet system was falling apart. One of my sub-specializations was precisely the Soviet Union. We read many documents which showed the process of Soviet elites coming to the conclusion that their system could not, as then structured, win the economic “war” with the West. They analyzed the series of reforms that various Soviet leaders had tried to implement and came to the conclusion that this “reformism” wouldn’t work, much bigger changes were needed. Of course, they initially did not want democratizing political change, only fundamental economic change. To sum this up: the Soviet Union fell from within. Western actions played a role but were not the main catalyst for change. And then, of course, we must never forget the role of so many brave people through the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

  • Todd

    The Berlin Wall may have fallen, but the ideology that built it still stands—it’s alive and well in Amerika.

  • Melanie Trent

    I was in junior high when the wall came down.

    I remember most the long distance phone service and Coca-Cola commercials that seized upon the event for advertising purposes. I challenge anyone to say they didn’t shed a tear when they saw at least one of those commercials.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I don’t know where and exactly lwhen Joanna was writing her dissertation. I did learn early in the ’90s that Communism fell from the fact it didn’t “work” economically. I am remembering back to my visit to Prague, a few months after the Chernobyl catastrophe, about Christmas ’87?, and I didn’t think the USSR was permanent then. I guess Newsweek and others let out the hint. The lady in secret service who must have been sent to watch me come in from the plane on the bus didn’t seem hard-core enemy. And people would stop me in dark streets to talk to me in German, which wasn’t allowed without reporting back. Photos of anything military was illegal. But I have a photo of Tank of Tank Square, their postcard for distribution.

  • Dana Franchitto

    Dear Melanie if I saw that coke commercial, I would also have shed a tear. one of sadmess that an authoritarian “communist” regime was being displaced by a manipulative madison ave. consumer paradise. either way democracy loses.
    Having said that, this show sounds like cheerleading for cold war victory. I’ve heard nothing about what really felled the wall.The SOviet Union was a crumbling ,sick giant. There weere no heroics invovled.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I wish others had stories to tell. Where I stayed a woman had come to buy a secondhand violin, and I helped her smuggle it out, at 5:00 AM, by hiding it inside a poster from the art gallery I had rolled into a tube. And of course we bribed the porters. “Everyone does,” as a British young man down the hall had passed the word.
    The radio worked with a metal pin stuck in it. Gorgeous music. Free church concerts. An artist selling a drawing of a lovely old house. And on New Year’s Eve? No food anywhere, not at the hotel or on the street. One place would open at 7:00 but I had to order an entire turkey. I ordered an entire turkey, but was still locked out. Went hungry.
    There were oranges available most days on the street, and in the center square was one store that sold one kind of doll, hundreds identical, sort of the Communist version of Raggedy Ann. I packed one, and when my bags were ransacked (secretly) before getting on the plane, the ransackers decided my loot (the doll) wasn’t worth taking.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I was talking about Prague, not East Berlin in that last post.

  • Kit Kimberly

    Having lived and worked as a journalist in Prague for 7 years from 1992, I picked up the Czech’s sensitivity to their geographic location as well as pronunciation of their names.

    Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, citizens of the states of the former Yugoslavia, Slovaks, and East Germans consider themselves CENTRAL Europeans, not East Europeans. And in fact, geographically, Prague is in the Centre of Europe.

    The Czech dissident who became president, Vaclav Havel, never corrects people; but his name is pronounced:

    Vats laf, not Vaklaf.

    The Czech/Slavic “c” is pronounced “ts” as all of us who learnt Czech learnt from the very beginning.

    I’m surprised your author doesn’t correct you or clarify on these two points.

  • E Frazey

    I remember it very clearly. I was on a plane headed to San Francisco from England where I was living at the time. The SF earthquake had happened a month before (anniversery this Saturday) and I was headed home to see friends and my US home.

    The pilot came on the intercom and told us all to wake up, the wall was being torn down right that minute, and that he had found the BBC and put it on one of the channels. Cheers and laughter from all over the plane, the trip took on an excited, party atmosphere somewhere over that polar flight.

    It was a good day.

  • Marion Hayden

    The fall of the Soviet Union was economical. Pres. Carter should get credit for halting wheat shipments to Russia that caused a food shortage

  • A. Oery

    In the summer of 1989, my siblings and I spent the summer in Hungary, our parents’ native country; we were highschoolers at the time. (My father is a ’56er”.) It was the summer of the reburial of Imre Nagy, the martyred leader of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Our grandparents were adamant that we not attend the reburial ceremony – so great was their fear that something terrible would happen, that the police or army would suppress this important, historical ceremony. My brother, the oldest and probably the most naively fearless “American” out of the 3 of us, told one set of grandparents he was visiting the other and vice versa and attended this ceremony, camcorder in hand, unbeknownst to all of the family. He was able to record the days’ events for our own history. It was, to us, a sign of the change to come and the bravery, hope, and determination of a new generation of Hungarians.

  • Wayne Abercrombie

    A couple of observations.
    - The people in Leipzig and surroundings who kept up the peace prayer services at the Nikolaikirche had something to do with the dissolution of E. Germany.
    - These things keep me hoping: who would have predicted, in 1975 or so, that the Berlin Wall would fall, and with it, the U.S.S.R., or that one could eat dinner in a restaurant in 2009 without being surrounded by cigarette smoke.

    - That the model of success of democracy was a huge factor in the fall of U.S.S.R. is both hopeful and troubling. What does this mean as we watch the heart of U.S. democracy – the legislature – become so dysfunctional because of greed (read: lobbying power).

  • David

    Blue robe, blue slippers, blue curlers.

    The look of Freedom from a totalitarian goverment.

    Maybe if we woke up from our sleepwalking here in America we would regain our Freedom from corporations.

  • Elizabeth Block

    In the spring of 1990 I was on the New York Thruway, and tuned in to the middle of an interview on NPR. The interviewee was clearly an elder statesman, because he was treated with great deference. He was talking about the fall of the wall, and he credited it all to the US policy of containment, our arms buildup, Reagan’s (and other people’s) tough talk. NOT A WORD about Gorbachev, Solidarity, the leaders and people of eastern Europe who created the civil society that brought the wall down and filled the hole left by communism.
    The elder statesman was Gerald Ford.

    I think some Americans believe that everything that happens in the world is caused by America – everything good, that is – and therefore, what the US wants, the US will get. Not true.

  • Brett

    To continue Elizabeth Block’s thread a little, I heard Gorbachev was really pissed that Reagan turned the whole thing into a self-promoting photo-op. The sentiment when media scrambled to get the opinions of upper echelon Americans was that Reagan had bankrupted the USSR with the SDI program, which was pure crap. They never spent any money on a program and we never spent any money on a program. Gorbachev worked very hard to unify leaders and people in eastern Europe. I believe he saw the USSR collapsing, and he and others wanted some Solidarity.

  • Ellen Dibble

    What amazes me (besides the speed with which something like democracy appeared in Eastern Europe — and did not then appear in Iraq as if by the same magic, or for that matter in much of Yugoslavia) was the way the secret police folded into society.
    I suppose some of Eastern European literature covers that reintegration, but the extent to which the Communist bloc was riven with informers is legendary. Man against wife and so on.
    There is much that is amazing beyond the fact that the iron grip of the Party let go, ab nun fort, “starting now,” or whatever the words turned out to be.

  • Alex

    I agree with those here that the U.S.S.R. fell because of the internal reasons. To me, the biggest reason was that that empire consisted of dozens of nationalities conquered and held together by force. Many of them hated Russia and each other. In this respect it was much different from China, N. Korea or Cuba. The force necessary to hold all those peoples together was financed by oil dollars. When oil prices plummeted in the 80s Soviet Union was left practically with no means to hold the Balts, Ukranians, Georgians, Chechen and so on and so forth, not to mention the Poles, East Germans, etc.

    If Soviet People had to wait for Reagan to liberate them as their only hope, I think they would still be behind that Iron Curtain.

  • http://www.competitions.org G. stanley Collyer, Ph.D

    I lived in Berlin as a student at the F.U. and student from 1959 to 1973. From my sources, some of the earliest signs that Gorbachev would be different than his predecessors were twofold:
    1. A western visitor to his office before he became party secretary noted that he had only modern Scandinavian furniture.
    2. He was friends (and sympathetic to) the Czech reformers of 1968.

  • Arnold

    I thought Obama got the Nobel for bringing it down, no?

  • Janet

    American gave up alot to fight the evil from Russia over the 50 years of the cold war. They are responsible for the defeating communism and setting free millions of people. All Americans should have received the Peace award for that.

  • Brett

    I think what I’ve enjoyed most about this thread is hearing people recollect where they were and what they were thinking, doing, etc., when the wall came down. It has also been good to hear direct descriptions of what it was like living or traveling in places that were under a communist regime.

  • Ellen Dibble

    The lady in the blue slippers (fluffy) who first made it through to freedom, as Michael Meyer saw it, might well have been the outgoing woman I had met there who corresponded. We both had breast cancer within a few years. I remember her husband was tall and young, more like an estranged son-in-law, and in a strange language I could not understand that at all. But I’d wish her to have that first step. Then again, I heard about the reputation of the Easterners in West Germany — they had been simultaneously thwarted, cheated, and sort of coddled for a couple of generations; there was a huge broadcast tower in East Berlin, and I suppose it was illegal to bring in western broadcasts, but I think it was done. Think fluffy pink “teddies” and shiny sleek “stuff.” I tried to photograph the Brandenburg Tor (behind the Reichstag, to the East), and found out someone had been shot for setting foot on the grass there, or it was mined or something. A tourist trap/attraction?
    A couple more points about the disintegrating Czech economy. At the airport the phones would not work; people did not “man” the desks. When I took a long walk to the TWA office to confirm my return ticket, I found a tiny office at the back of a building, down an alley. The door was wide open, and no one was sitting in there. The office was empty.
    Just about everyone in Prague had an elegant fur coat. (Siberia had plenty of large animals apparently.)
    The Old New Synagogue was open, and no one was inside to guard it or otherwise. The entire Jewish quarter was mine to explore. Pre-tourist. On the bus coming into town from the plane, the blonde presumed “minder” spoke to me, told me how to get to my hotel from the last stop, and all the while every pair of eyes in the very full bus were upon me. Obviously nobody but the blonde minder had permission to speak (in any language). No one spoke to anyone, actually.
    Breakfast downstairs was cheese and bologna. Dinner in the basement dining room next door was pickled vegetables and mystery meat. The only people with money were Arabs looking for prostitutes (apparently). I accepted a Pepsi in an elegant hotel lobby with one Arab, got invited to his camp in Syria, and wondered what his business was in Prague. As I say, this was a few months after Chernobyl. All sorts of handwriting was on the wall, I’d say.

  • http://whilewestillhavetime.blogspot.com John Hamilton

    This was an enjoyable story, full of human touches. It would make for a great movie. I’m impressed by the absence of ideology and bluster. He actually made me feel kindlier towards Reagan, though I still believe he was one of our worst presidents.

    It was nice to hear about the dynamics of other countries. We rarely hear anything about “Hungary,” a place with history and people whose lives are every bit as interesting and valuable as our own. This segment should go on your all-star list for fundraising.

  • http://www.campusreform.org Campus Reform

    Check out this activism response to the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall: http://www.campusreform.org/take-action/activism-ideas/rebuilding-the-berlin-wall

  • Brett

    That was a moronically funny website, there, Campus Reform! The ideas are, shall I say “sophomoric.” I particularly laughed at the ‘host a communism vs. capitalism lunch’ idea. You forgot to mention, when serving the “capitalist” lunch, you should make the food riddled with an array of toxins and maybe also sell it to the participants for an exorbitant price. If they complain, ignore them and charge them a fee to leave…hahahaha! You armchair neo-Libertarian types are so amusing. By suggesting this website, you appear not to know anything about communism if you think the US is determined to make its society a communist one–and has done so since the Berlin Wall came down; that is laughable…

  • Brett

    Campus Reform is sponsored by The Leadership Institute…C.R.’s goal is to indoctrinate young people toward neo-Con and Neo-Libertarian views through events of “activism.” Think of a Tea Party event for kids, only more propagandist. Take the current rhetoric you hear about the US moving toward Socialism and multiply that by the power of ten and you have Campus Reform!

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