In the middle of the night, 25 years ago last week, the Berlin Wall fell. In hindsight it seems almost inevitable, but at the time it was beyond unexpected. The story could easily have turned out very differently. And there are those – such as Russian leader Vladimir Putin, at the time a KGB operative in East Germany – who wish it had. In the West, the collapse of the Wall is a story of the triumph of freedom over tyranny. But from Beijing to Moscow, anti-democratic regimes have looked at the events of a quarter-century ago and learned very different lessons about power, violence, and what happens to those who hesitate to use them.
On Nov. 9, 1989, an East German government rocked by widespread protests decided to loosen travel and emigration rules. In the past, the regime had always been able to rely on the threat of force to quell dissent. And in this, it had always had the support of its masters in the Soviet Union. When workers rose up in 1953, Moscow helped to put them down. After one-fifth of the East German population moved to the West and the rest looked likely to join them, Moscow backed the 1961 decision to build the Berlin Wall. The Wall, and a similar barrier along the entire border with West Germany, were continuously expanded and improved, and overseen by thousands of guards under orders to shoot anyone trying to escape from the police state. In three decades, hundreds were killed. But by 1989, the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev appeared to no longer want to maintain its empire by violence and threats.
At a press conference on the afternoon of Nov. 9, East German government spokesman Gunter Schabowski announced the new border policy. But he misunderstood it, and mistakenly said that the frontiers were to be fully opened, immediately. His shocking words were the lead item on West German supper-hour newscasts – which could be seen by East Germans. In response, thousands of East Berliners immediately went to the border crossings, demanding to be let out. Those massive crowds unbalanced the borders guards; they frantically called their government superiors, asking for instructions. None came. Moscow had left Berlin without marching orders. And now Berlin was doing the same to its armed enforcers.
And so, before midnight on Nov. 9, guards decided they had no choice but to stand aside and let the river of people pass. Soon, they were not just passing through the wall – East and West Germans were also climbing on it and taking axes to it, acts that only a few hours earlier would have been met with fatal gunshots. But there were no gunshots that night. The police simply stood down. Before sunrise, the Wall was gone. It was physically still there – it took years to fully disassemble the hundreds of kilometres of concrete, barbed wire, booby traps, mines and guard towers – but it had been breached. The doors of the prison were open.
Across Europe, all of the walls came down. The former jail wardens, Moscow's puppet regimes, quickly gave up power. Within less than a year, Germany was reunified. A year after that, the Soviet Union itself came apart. Soon the Soviet Union's former Eastern European satellites began joining the European Union and NATO. So did parts of the former Soviet Union itself.
Twenty-five years ago, East Germans crossing into the West would return carrying what was for them a precious delicacy: bananas. And East Germany's backwardness is all the more remarkable when you consider that it was the most economically advanced part of the communist world, with living standards higher than the USSR. Twenty-five years later, Eastern Europe's formerly stagnant prison societies are transformed. Eastern Europe is now prosperous, free and very much a part of the West. Communism is dead. And the Soviet Union is gone.
Not everyone is happy with this outcome. Mr. Putin famously referred to the end of the Soviet Union, the last domino in the chain reaction started by the fall of the Wall, as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." This year, several Russian lawmakers called for an investigation against Mr. Gorbachev, charging him with having caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. To accuse someone of having brought about the end of a state responsible for the murder of millions, the imprisonment of tens of millions and the oppression of hundreds of millions is a bit like accusing someone of having brought down Nazism. But the people who run post-Soviet Russia don't see it that way.
Mr. Putin saw a regime – the regime he served – unwilling to maintain power by force. Unlike the Chinese communists, who in the summer of 1989 decided that the only way to stay in power was to send the tanks into Tiananmen Square, Mr. Gorbachev seems to have believed that Soviet communism could govern by means other than the barrel of a gun. He was mistaken.
It was once said that Britain created its empire "in a fit of absence of mind." From the perspective of Mr. Putin, that's how the Soviet empire was lost. Mr. Gorbachev's decision to take a different route from his colleagues in Beijing opened the door to the freedom of Eastern Europe. In the West, that's cause for celebration. But the outcome achieved by the final generation of Soviet leaders – the failure of their leadership, and the end of the country they led – is not the outcome that most people in power would be expected to choose. It isn't even what Mr. Gorbachev wanted. What happened was a happy accident. But in Mr. Putin's universe, it was just an accident, and a cause for reflection on how to avoid a repeat.
It turns out that in 1989 the Wall was not destroyed. It was put into storage for a while, and then re-erected several hundred kilometres to the east. It now stands somewhere west of the internationally recognized Ukraine-Russia border, on the outskirts of Donetsk.
In the year of the 25th anniversary of the unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall, Mr. Putin shocked the world by launching an invasion of Crimea, followed a few months later by an ongoing stealth invasion of Ukraine. But should we have been surprised? We have taken lessons from 1989. So has Mr. Putin.