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"You don't think about the Wall any more. It no longer means anything inside Berlin. But it's there, inside my mind. I'll always be on the wrong side of it."

Henrike Engel, who tells me this as we sit on the edge of Alexanderplatz, was born four years before the Berlin Wall was breached by tens of thousands of peaceful protesters – an event whose 25th anniversary will be celebrated on Sunday. The place once known as "East Berlin" is now the centre of Europe's economic and intellectual capital, West Berlin is now a sleepy afterthought and the remaining slabs of wall cement between are left there only for the tourists.

Yet Ms. Engel, like a great many born in the former German Democratic Republic, says she is still shaped by it. Her parents were officials in the Communist regime. She is a daycare supervisor earning basic wages, and, like many members of the first postreunification generation, she says she feels unable to find her way in the economic and social world of greater Germany. "People treat me like a foreigner," she says, "and in many ways, I am one."

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What was born in 1989 was a new idea: that autocratic regimes could be relegated to history simply by having large numbers of their citizens gather in public places and demand their replacement. The Poles were first, then the Hungarians. The Chinese tried it that June, and the resulting slaughter showed that this was not a surefire formula. The brave East Germans who took to the streets knew that theirs could be another Tiananmen Square. Their peaceful success led to similar victories in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and then Russia.

The past five years have seen citizens of more autocracies attempt this trick: Tunisia (quite successfully), Libya (violently), Egypt (ambiguously), Burma (tentatively) and now Hong Kong.

Democracy protesters in those places tend to look upon the dramatic events of November, 1989 as their model – and not so much at the much more difficult 25 years that followed. Forcing the big men off the balconies is just the beginning.

The first decade was a disappointment for all these countries: High inflation, deep recessions, chronic unemployment, unpredictable currencies and, in many cases, falling living standards. The past decade has generally gone better – at least for the ones that joined the European Union in 2004.

Some, such as Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, initiated early-1990s "shock therapy" reforms in which the state-run command economy was replaced overnight (typically in less than two years) with a conventional liberal market economy. Others, such as Hungary, Ukraine and Romania, chose a more gradual approach. Russia tried to do both. At first, the shock-therapy countries experienced widespread misery as millions were thrown out of work, currencies were devalued and the necessities of life became prohibitively expensive. But the longer-term results suggest that they were luckier: A new study of post-transition economies by the International Monetary Fund concludes that the people in the quick-transition states are now faring much better than those in the gradualist countries. Poles and Czechs are living the European dream; Hungarians, Romanians and Ukrainians, less so. Many Russians are wishing none of it had ever happened.

You would think, then, that the former East Germany would be a great success. But a new study of the posttransition experience by Germany's Halle Institute for Economic Research suggests otherwise.

In the past 25 years, Eastern Germany's population has plummeted by 1.9 million and its labour force has shrunk by 2.5 million, mainly because people fled westward for better opportunities, but also because of one of Europe's lowest fertility rates. Of Germany's 500 leading companies, only 34 are located in the eastern half. Productivity and average incomes remain 20 to 30 per cent lower than in the west.

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This is despite the fact that Germany has spent $2.2-trillion rebuilding the East German economy, and is still spending: All 80 million Germans are charged a 5.5 per cent "solidarity surcharge" on their income tax, which began in 1991 and won't end until 2019.

So there, as people like Ms. Engel will tell you, is one important lesson in postauthoritarian transition: Don't let your former autocracy get gobbled up by a wealthier pre-existing economy (a potential lesson for countries on China's perimeter). And, as Poles and Czechs know, don't let your old command economy linger on – or, as Russians may soon learn, don't bring it back.

And, finally: Once the victory party is over, remember that building a better life after the dictators are gone is going to take a lot more than a quarter of a century.

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