East German Citizens Clamber Over The Berlin Wall
East German citizens climb the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate after the opening of the border between the two Germanys was announced Nov. 10, 1989. Reuters

Europe will celebrate Sunday the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a structure that came to embody the reality of the human suffering during the Cold War. Its gray, stark walls bore witness to some of the greatest pro-democracy speeches in the 20th century. U.S. President John F. Kennedy declared in 1963, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and President Ronald Reagan roared in 1987, “Tear down this wall.”

Yet, in what has been described as one of the most beautiful moments in history by a Reuters writer, the citizens of East Berlin saw tyranny crumble when, after a press conference in which a Communist official announced the borders were open, people took it to mean the wall was coming down. Hundreds of thousands gathered and crossed the wall, without a drop of blood being spilled or a shot being fired. Within 48 hours, 2 million people crossed the border to sample another world, which had once only been accessible to very few in the party elite -- or to those who risked their lives attempting to jump the wall.

Twenty-five years on, world leaders, academics and experts -- along with an American actor with German roots, David Hasselhoff, whose moment on the fallen wall lives on YouTube -- reflect on one of history’s great moments.

Lee Edwards, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and a leading historian of the conservative movement, crossed into Soviet-satellite East Germany just a month after the wall was built, in 1961, under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. “It was like night and day,” he said in an interview. “Because I went from this all-gray city in East Berlin to West Berlin where everything was lights, where people were happy, smiling and carrying on. For me, it was very emotional in those early years, and I felt that emotion return all those years later when I watched the wall fall.”

Thirty years later, Edwards returned to a now-unified Germany in the early 1990s and found himself in an unusual position. “I debated with Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev’s son,” he said. “We were debating the Berlin Wall in a small room of a museum just near checkpoint Charlie. Even after the wall had fallen, he was still selling Soviet propaganda. I think I won.”

As fate would have it, the anniversary this weekend has come at a particularly poignant time for East-West relations. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, its alleged support for separatists in eastern Ukraine throughout 2014 and its newly strained relations with Europe and the U.S. have raised questions of whether a new Cold War is in the offing.

But the old one may never actually have ended, some have contended.

“Many thought we were entering into a time of peace and freedom,” said Olga Oliker, senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corp., a Washington-based think tank. “"which led us to understand that things weren’t going to [be] so peaceful and now, 25 years later, people are wondering if we're seeing a continuation of something we thought was over: the Cold War"

Russian-born Oliker, who relocated with her family to the U.S. at the age of six, recalled that she visited Germany with her father in 1985, but “chickened out” of crossing the border from West to East.

“It’s clear from that [Cold War] and from what’s happening in Ukraine now that the fall of the Berlin Wall did not mean a completely changed historical environment,” Oliker said. “That’s perhaps the lesson of 2014: History is not in fact over, it continues on.”

Many attribute the Wall’s fall to pressure from the West, but the truth is that the fall of the wall was never planned. Even going into 1989, East Germany was, “inescapable,” Mary Elise Sarotte, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, wrote in the New York Times this week. “This misreading of the actual fall of the wall is, at best, incomplete; at worst, it’s dangerous, contributing to the belief that American leaders can go ‘from Berlin to Baghdad,’ shaping world events while ignoring the complex realities of the locals.”

The wall was eventually opened after four years of perestroika, the reform policy inaugurated in 1985 by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that resulted in a series of social and political reforms across Eastern Europe. The hard-line Communist regime in East Germany felt that it had to make concessions, too. After people began to demonstrate in the streets in November 1989, the East German party announced changes in the travel ban on citizens.

The changes were announced Nov. 9 during an international press conference. After a bumbling speech, party official Gunter Schabowski said travel would be “possible for every citizen,” beginning “right away.” While guards remained on the wall and Communist rule was expected to remain, the collective will and self-assurance of the East German people began to shift. One year later, the country was unified.

The following quotations are by people who have commented recently during the lead-up to the 25th anniversary:

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. diplomat, during a CFR debate Oct. 27: “I would argue that we are witnessing the end of one era of world history and the dawn of another. It has been 25 years since the Berlin Wall was dismantled, bringing the 40-year Cold War to an end. What followed was an era of American pre-eminence, increased prosperity for many, the emergence of a large number of relatively open societies and political systems, and widespread peace, including considerable cooperation among the major powers.”

Timothy Garton Ash, Oxford professor of history and eyewitness to the fall of the wall, writing in the Guardian Nov. 6: “The Wall’s fall was the day of liberation, for those behind the Wall, not the day of unification for those in front of it. The fall of the Wall has become a kind of master metaphor (or meta-metaphor) of our age, used especially by Western politicians, not just to represent, but to predict, the forward march of freedom.”

George H.W. Bush, the U.S. president in office when the wall fell, speaking to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle Nov. 6: “To see a united Germany tackle the tough challenges associated with unification and go on to play a leading and constructive role on a host of regional and global issues has been truly wonderful to witness.”

James A. Baker III, Bush’s secretary of state, writing for CNN Nov. 4: “[Twenty-five] years later, on Nov. 9, 2014, we should all enjoy a celebratory jig to commemorate what happened on that fateful day. That magical moment is a reminder to all people everywhere in the world -- those alive then, today and well into the future. Tyranny cannot suppress the will of those yearning for freedom and desiring a better life for themselves and for their children.”

Klaus Wowereit, outgoing mayor of Berlin, speaking to the Global Post Nov. 6: “No other European capital and no other country has experienced so deep a transformation, in substance and in form.” In charge since 2001 and stepping down in December, Wowereit has presided over the transformation of the city into an international avatar of cool.

Vitaly Churkin, permanent representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, speaking at the CFR Nov. 4: “Sometimes I think that the Cold War is not really dead. It’s sort of comatose, but from time to time it would come back and give a few kicks, and then will go into this comatose state again. So, I think we need to make sure that that’s definitively dead.”

David Hasselhoff, the German-American actor who sang “Looking for Freedom” atop the wall, speaking to CNN Nov. 6: “I knew that night that I sang, other than the birth of my children, would be the highlight of my life. ... I just happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right song.”