Twenty Years After the Wall

BERLIN – Those who witnessed that night 20 years ago in Berlin, or elsewhere in Germany, will never forget what happened – the night the Wall came down.

History in the making is all too often tragic. Only rarely is it capable of irony. November 9, 1989, was one of those rare moments when irony reigned, because East Germany’s bureaucratic socialism died as it had lived – with a bureaucratic snafu.

The Speaker of the Politburo, Günter Schabowski, had simply misunderstood that body’s decision and, by releasing to the public incorrect information about the lifting of travel restrictions, triggered the fall of the Wall! Groucho Marx could not have bettered Schabowski that night. It was Germany’s happiest hour.

Twenty years later, many revolutionary consequences of that night lie behind us. The Soviet Union and its empire quietly disappeared, and with them the Cold War international order. Germany was reunited; Eastern Europe and the states on the Soviet periphery won their independence; South Africa’s apartheid regime fell apart, numerous civil wars in Asia, Africa, and Latin America ended; Israelis and Palestinians came closer to peace than at any time since; and a disintegrating Yugoslavia degenerated into war and ethnic cleansing. In Afghanistan, war continued under different circumstances, with serious ramifications for the region and, indeed, the world.