The Berlin Wall fell thirty years ago today, on November 9, 1989. (Several more years would pass before it would be systematically demolished.)
I won’t recount the entire history of the Wall’s fall here. (You can find that in various places throughout the Internet.) But I will provide a personal perspective.
I was twenty-one years old in November 1989, and a college student. Like most people at the time, I viewed the fall of the Wall with intense optimism.
And there was a lot to be optimistic about in late 1989: The USSR still existed, but a progressive-minded reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, was at the helm. And he was allowing the Berlin Wall, that symbol of Cold War Soviet tyranny, to come down.
US domestic politics were relatively calm. Not everyone loved George H.W. Bush, of course. But few saw his administration as seriously divisive. This was an era when you could simply ignore US domestic politics, if you wanted to. There wasn’t a lot of drama.
There were problems in the Muslim Middle East. (Aren’t there always?) But the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait was still just a gleam in Saddam Hussein’s eye. No one in the West had yet heard of Osama Bin Laden.
We believed, at that time, that the world was on the verge of a peaceful new era of free markets, international harmony, and peace.
Some scholar–Francis Fukuyama, I believe it was–described this moment as “the end of history”, meaning: the end of traditional historical conflicts.
But it didn’t work out that way, did it? Russia did not develop into another Sweden (as many predicted at the time), but became a paranoid, bellicose, neo-czarist state, in some ways worse than the USSR. The Muslim Middle East continued its long descent into fratricidal chaos. China became more aggressive.
And the West–well, let’s just say that both North America and Western Europe looked much better in 1989 than they do today.
Proof that things don’t always work out as you expect. The evidence can deceive you. Sometimes the future is better than you anticipate, but sometimes it’s far worse, too.