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Today is the 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Today is the 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

For the most part, the “experts” failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union

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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Morning Sunshine | November 9, 2019 at 6:19 pm

I was 14. We delivered morning papers, but that morning when we got home, my mom reported a missing paper (it happened on occasion) but she kept one to read. I remember reading it after her, not fully understanding the magnitude of the news. I think that event is what started my love for news.

Back in the early ’70s I asked my grandmother, who had lived through the rules of Lenin and Stalin, why the Russians didn’t have a revolution like the Americans had. She told me they were afraid, because the Red Army had never been defeated. But, she said, if it should ever suffer a defeat and thus show that it was vulnerable, the USSR would fall very soon thereafter. She didn’t live to see her words come true, almost 20 years later.

    Milhouse in reply to Milhouse. | November 9, 2019 at 6:21 pm

    PS: I forgot to add that the credit goes to Ronaldus Magnus, who engineered the Red Army’s defeat in Afghanistan. That was the domino that set the whole sequence in motion.

      alaskabob in reply to Milhouse. | November 9, 2019 at 8:42 pm

      I’d add Pope John Paul II and Poland as an internal fuse. The Soviets knew he was trouble but missed when their Bulgarian henchman failed. Solidarity helped.

      “Lenin’s Tomb” is a very good book to see the internal demise of the USSR. Unfortunately, its author has failed miserably to see that he backs an American version of the same oligarchy he wrote about. The Democrat Party has the same corrupt underpinnings as the CP of the USSR.

    pst314 in reply to Milhouse. | November 9, 2019 at 6:35 pm


    Barry in reply to Milhouse. | November 9, 2019 at 11:05 pm

    “…because the Red Army had never been defeated.”

    An unarmed population has no means of fighting a military or police force.

    It is my opinion that the core DNA of the Russians wants to be ruled over. 2000 years of serfdom is self selecting.

      Milhouse in reply to Barry. | November 9, 2019 at 11:33 pm

      The proof is what happened. As soon as the Red Army showed that it could be defeated, the Russians did rise up. No amount of theorizing can wipe away that fact.

        Barry in reply to Milhouse. | November 10, 2019 at 1:17 am

        What did the military do?

        My statement is correct.

        The only means an unarmed population has against an armed military is to die rather than submit. The Russians have always been unarmed and have always submitted. Not much has changed. They are still being ruled.

          Milhouse in reply to Barry. | November 10, 2019 at 3:21 pm

          Except in 1991, when they didn’t submit.

          Barry in reply to Barry. | November 10, 2019 at 7:50 pm

          I notice you didn’t answer the question, which is the answer to the lack of submission.

          However, I’m not going to say that the Afghanistan war had zero influence on the Russian citizens. Unlike the Russian citizens, the Afghani’s were well armed, thanks to Uncle. And the unarmed Russian citizens damn well knew it.

          Now, answer the question.

        Milhouse, correlation is not causation, you KNOW that. You could just as well argue that the Soviets lost in Afghanistan because the general population no longer believed what the Party was selling, so did the minimum to “get by” both in civilian and military life.

        And of course saying this ONE thing caused X is generally not true in general.

          Milhouse in reply to BobM. | November 10, 2019 at 3:20 pm

          Correlation isn’t causation, but a successful prediction by a subject expert should take priority over raw theorizing by outsiders. The fact is that it happened just as she predicted. The defeat in Afghanistan gave the people the courage to stand up for themselves, which they had never dared to do before.

          Barry in reply to BobM. | November 10, 2019 at 7:47 pm

          She’s an expert because she is your grandmother that lived in Russia?

          Then my secretary is an expert because she lived in Russia, and lived there during that time.

          She doesn’t agree with you or your grandmother.

          Milhouse in reply to BobM. | November 11, 2019 at 9:36 am

          Your secretary (if you even have one) did not live there during the rules of Lenin and Stalin. I doubt she’s even old enough to have experienced Brezhnev’s rule as an adult.

          More importantly, she did not predict the rising, so her expertise is irrelevant.

          Barry in reply to BobM. | November 11, 2019 at 10:09 am

          Your grandmother (if you even have one) did not live there during the Afghanistan war and 1991.

          I doubt she’s young enough enough to have experienced the actual situation on the ground.

          More importantly, correlation is not causation, so her theory is irrelevant.

          Barry in reply to BobM. | November 11, 2019 at 10:11 am

          I’ll just note two things here:

          1. You will not answer the question. I know why.

          2. You resort to your usual and make it personal and ugly.

          Milhouse in reply to BobM. | November 11, 2019 at 5:18 pm

          What question? The fact is that the people resisted, which they had never dared to do before. I wrote in the beginning that my grandmother was not there in 1991; she was there when the people didn’t resist, and she knew exactly why, and she correctly predicted when they would rise. That makes her an expert, and your alleged secretary not.

          Barry in reply to BobM. | November 11, 2019 at 6:02 pm

          You are entirely ignorant of what took place in 1991. It was not the people rising up against the commies, it was not a revolution, it was a inter party coup. Gorbachev won. Yeltsin helped. Then it began to fall apart. Short story, I’m not going to write a book here.

          “What did the military do?”

          The conscripts that made up most of the Russian military were not inclined to shoot their own. Afghanistan or not. That simple. That is the answer to the question.

          Did Afghanistan have some bearing on the Russian psyche? Of course, but to what extent no one knows, and your hypothesis is rather simple and silly.

          I’ll tell my secretary, now retired, that she is “alleged”.

          Go peddle your ignorant theory to school children.

I saw it coming; the clear signs that even the Russians had given up that Khrushchevesque insistence that Marxist-Leninism was the only way to the future. They were playing catch-up, and they were finally admitting it. I saw it in machine design—the Mig-27, the Buran, the AK-74; nothing like their earlier stuff (well, sorry . . . ex-Rocket Scientist, of course that’s what I’d notice). I didn’t know when, though.

It was also clear that the West should have seen it coming, and maybe it did, but too many coddled it along because they couldn’t imagine their careers without a Soviet bloc. The entire Brezhnev era was about the West propping up the Soviet Union, little more than a big Third World country with lights, and pretending that it really was a world power.

notamemberofanyorganizedpolicital | November 9, 2019 at 6:37 pm

The wall came down, and out from under the rubble crawled out Angela Merkel…….

Who benefitted most from the cold war?

If you can answer this then you will know why the demise of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall was not foreseen by most.

Given how we have surrendered our schools to the left and the generations of nuts it has produced, we might as well put the wall back up.

I remember the day vividly. My mother called me just as I got home from work and told me turn the tv on. We cried in joy together.

But, we missed the opportunity. We missed the opportunity to remake the world (in part – I’m not a dreamy-eyed prog) and strengthen freedom. Instead we let out our collectively held breath and relaxed, convinced that peace was at hand. (Not me – I’m not a dreamy-eyed prog.) Idiots. To believe that man will inherently strive for freedom (instead of security) requires ignorance that only the highly educated can achieve.

Still, I lifted a glass with my son yesterday. We toasted freedom and those who stood guard those years.

Exit quote:
As long as there is an America, there is hope.
Unknown East Berliner speaking across the wall to my mother and uncle, ~1965