The Berlin Wall: 20 Years Later

The Legacy of 1989 Is Still Up for Debate

BERLIN-WALL-hugeNew York Times/Steven Erlanger—The historical legacy of 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the cold war thawed, is as political as the upheavals of that decisive year.

The events of 1989 spurred a striking transformation of Europe, which is now whole and free, and a reunified Germany, milestones that are being observed with celebrations all over the continent, including a French-German extravaganza Monday evening on the Place de la Concorde.

But 1989 also created new divisions and fierce nationalisms that hobble the European Union today, between East and West, France and Germany, Europe and Russia.

From left, Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger and former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher next to a piece of the Berlin Wall.

From left, Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger and former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher next to a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Some of the intensity of those divisions is evident in the tug of war, in both Europe and the United States, over the achievements of 1989 — whether they owe more to the resolute anti-Communism of Ronald Reagan or its inverse, the white-glove embrace of the East by many in Western Europe.

And while many in the West saw the wheel of history spinning inevitably, causing the rise of democracy and banishing serious rivals to American power, China forestalled its own revolution in 1989 and catapulted itself to prominence through an authoritarian capitalism that the leaders of Russia are now studying.

The Chinese ended up with a Leninist capitalism, which none of us imagined in 1989, and which is now the main ideological competitor to Western liberal democracy,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a chronicler of 1989 in his book “The Magic Lantern.”

It is a tribute to 1989, not unlike the French Revolution 200 years before it, that its meaning is hotly contested. Different groups in different countries see the anniversary differently, usually from their own ideological points of view.

A group of Russian tourists gathered in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Friday.

A group of Russian tourists gathered in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Friday.

In general, said James M. Goldgeier of George Washington University, a historian of the period, “the big question out there for 20 years is who gets the credit.”

For many in the United States, he said, most of the credit now goes to President Ronald Reagan and his aggressive military spending and antagonism toward Communism. That view has largely eclipsed another American perspective, which was that globalization and democratization were so powerful that a Mikhail Gorbachev was inevitable, and that the cold war ended through “soft power” — propaganda, diplomacy and the Helsinki accords.

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Filed under Culture, Europe, History, Politics, Uncategorized, United Nations

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