It was a momentous event when it happened thirty years ago: the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It seemed a day of great hope and optimism:

By the time the Wall came down, the Communists had already lost their grip on Poland and Hungary. Before 1989 was out, Soviet-style regimes would surrender power in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Within the next couple of years, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union itself would throw over their Communist leaders and break up along the lines of nationality…

For those who had lived much of their lives since the Second World War in a bipolar global configuration, and under the constant threat of “mutually assured destruction” in a nuclear holocaust, the fall of the Wall was an event they never expected to see. Both sides had long made clear their intention to give no ground along it, after all, and their armed forces glared at each other in high states of readiness day in, day out, around the clock, across its crude divide.

I certainly had not expected to see the event; it caught me unawares. But as I wrote previously:

If the experts – academic, governmental, and media – had been unable to foresee this, then how could I trust them to guide me in the future? In retrospect, it was probably the first time I began to distrust my usual sources of information, although I certainly didn’t see them as lying – I saw them as incompetent, really no better than bad fortunetellers.

What they seemed to lack was an overview, a sense of history and pattern. Newspapers could report on events, but those events seemed disconnected from each other: first this happened, then that happened, then the other thing happened, and then the next, and so on and so forth. In the titanic decades-long battle between the US and the USSR, there had been a certain underlying narrative (yes, sometimes that word is appropriate) that involved the threat of Armageddon, and the necessity to avoid it at almost all costs, while stopping the spread of Communism. Although T.S. Eliot had said the world would end “not with a bang but a whimper,” who ever thought the Soviet Union would end in such a whimpery way, and especially without much forewarning? It seemed preposterous, something like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy throws the bucket of water on the Wicked Witch, who dissolves into a steaming heap of clothing, crying “I’m melting, melting.”

I realize that if I’d been more aware, there were signs that the Soviet Union was collapsing, and there were people—precious few—who planned for and foresaw it. But in general:

Predictions of the Soviet Union’s impending demise were discounted by many Western academic specialists, and had little impact on mainstream Sovietology. For example, Amalrik’s book “was welcomed as a piece of brilliant literature in the West” but “virtually no one tended to take it at face value as a piece of political prediction.” Up to about 1980, the strength of the Soviet Union was widely overrated by critics and revisionists alike.

In 1983, Princeton University professor Stephen Cohen described the Soviet system as remarkably stable.

The Central Intelligence Agency also badly over-estimated the internal stability of the Soviet Union, and did not anticipate the speed of its collapse. Former DCI Stansfield Turner in 1991 wrote in the US Journal Foreign Affairs, “We should not gloss over the enormity of this failure to forecast the magnitude of the Soviet crisis . . . Yet I never heard a suggestion from the CIA, or the intelligence arms of the departments of Defense or State, that numerous Soviets recognized a growing, systemic economic problem.”

More background about the Wall itself:

Before the Wall went up in 1961, hundreds of thousands of East Germans had availed themselves of unhindered access to the West through Berlin to gain the precious gift of freedom. During the 28 years the Wall was in place, scores of mostly young people, trying to escape the prison encased by its concrete and barbed wire, died from East German bullets.

On Nov. 9, 1989, when East Berliners once again acquired the liberty to pass through the inner-city partition, it seemed as if all was somehow right with the world. The strains of Beethoven’s immortal Ninth Symphony soon filled one of the great Berlin concert halls, with the word for “Freedom” substituted for “Joy” as the focus of celebration in the choral text of the final movement. And, as subsequent events cascaded toward the reunification of Germany, the end of the Cold War, and the more widespread collapse of Communism, many of us allowed ourselves to believe that world peace was at hand.

I was not one of those people who believed any such thing. But I knew a big change had occurred, and I celebrated.

I also knew I had no idea what a change such as this ultimately might mean. But we go forward into a future that’s ever-evolving, and ever-surprising us—even (or maybe especially) the “experts.”

[Neo is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at the new neo.]


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