Few historical structures served as such striking and emotional symbols as the Berlin Wall. Its 1961 construction served as a blunt embodiment of what Winston Churchill called the “iron curtain that has descended across the continent.” Likewise, its fall in 1989 was a powerful image of the defeat, mixed with self-destruction, of Soviet domination.
The wall was also the subject of two of the most memorable presidential addresses in modern times: Kennedy’s 1962 address to the people of Berlin, comforting citizens of the divided city, with his statement that “today in the world of freedom the proudest boast is ich bin ein Berliner,” and Reagan’s 1987 address on the same spot: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Within a few short years of its fall, the world order, steady since the close of the Second World War, had been totally rearranged, as the polarized world that had tensely but neatly existed for nearly a half century scrambled to redefine itself. Map sales boomed as the world population suddenly needed maps that included Latvia, Slovakia, Croatia and around 20 other new nations.
One thing was certainly clear: Communism, in the totalitarian form that the Soviet leaders had molded it, had failed. An attempt to create a utopia had gone the way of all such attempts and become a bizarre and dreadful distortion of itself.
What seems less clear is whether democracy won.
Many former Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic have become successful pictures of open markets and democratic government. However, many others, most notably Russia itself, are hardly open societies, albeit without pretentions of socialism.
Recent upheavals have ushered in even fewer democratic nations. Egypt’s student-lead overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, within a year, landed the country with a fresh military led regime. The “Arab Spring” became more of a victory for jihadists than for liberal thinkers. Most westerners might quietly agree that, at this point, they would prefer a Middle East dominated by stable dictatorships than the uncertainly of popular rule.
The causes of this are up for debate. Is democracy not ideal for every nation? Does a society need a certain “maturity” before democracy could be healthy for it?
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a cause for euphoria — not only for Berliners, but for millions trapped behind the Iron Curtain. However, the wall, and the Cold War in general, allowed the West to point and say; “The bad guys are over there.”
Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we celebrate the fall of an oppressive and self-serving regime, but also try to answer questions that it forces us to ask.
Symbols help define not only historical events that we live through, but also how we define the sides. Twenty-five years from now, what symbol will define us?