WASHINGTON—It’s been 30 years since the world watched in awe and tears as thousands helped bring down the Berlin Wall with hammers and axes.
The physical wall—a 97-mile-long guarded concrete barrier that divided Berlin—came down quickly, as did the Iron Curtain, the symbol of ideological division between the East and the West.
Many were optimistic, believing that communism had become a relic of the past. But today, 1 in 5 people in the world still live under a communist dictatorship. In addition, communism is gaining ground globally and forming a threat to Western democracies.
Nov. 9 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which paved the way for the reunification of Germany. The historic event triggered sweeping changes in the world, including the defeat of communist regimes in Europe, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the peaceful conclusion of the half-century-long Cold War.
Speaking at the “30 Years Later: Lessons from the Fall of the Berlin Wall,” hosted by the Atlantic Council on Nov. 6, former Secretary of State James Baker said U.S. presidents from Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush played an important role in defeating communism.
“Every American president since Truman played an indispensable role, but above all else, it was the enduring spirit of the citizens of the captive nations that finally kept the sails turned toward freedom,” he said.
Over the course of a century, communism established massive dictatorships in the Soviet Union and China, and more than 100 million people died at the hands of the ideology. Today, China, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba still have a single-party communist dictatorship.
Last month, China surpassed the Soviet Union as history’s longest surviving communist regime.
Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, “we are still reeling and grappling” with the growth of an “anti-democratic, totalitarian regime” in Beijing, said Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
According to Smith, one of the key lessons learned from the collapse of the wall is that people everywhere desire to live free and the same triumph of liberty can occur for people in the way it did for Germans and Europeans 30 years ago.
However, simply having a desire for freedom and democracy won’t be enough, he said.
“We have to be very clear-eyed about the fact that the Chinese communist party—and we see this throughout mainland China—is still willing to kill their own people to stay in power,” he said, referring to the events in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
A few months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Chinese protesters, mostly students, called for democracy in Tiananmen Square, but were crushed in a major military crackdown. And hence the results of pro-democracy movements throughout China and throughout the Eastern bloc in 1989 didn’t turn out the same way, Smith said.
Smith also criticized a U.S. foreign policy toward China in the 1980s that empowered Beijing.
“The United States in the ’80s accepted a kind of agreement that our main adversary was the Soviet Union and our friend and necessity was the People’s Republic of China,” he said, calling that unfortunate.
“It’s a shame that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, we didn’t take a fresh look at our relationship with the People’s Republic of China.”
Recent polls show that communism is soaring in popularity in the United States. More than 1 in 3 millennials view communism favorably and perceive capitalism and communism as being equally violent.
Support for communism among younger generations grew by nearly 10 percentage points over the past year.
“I think it’s an educational problem,” Smith said. “Certainly one of the most important roles of a good education is to learn some of those horrific and hard-won lessons of the last century that the flawed ideas, the violent ideologies of fascism and Marxism have failed.”
Pieces of the Wall
A growing number of people in the United States believe socialism and communism are glorious but have probably never gone to those countries that have practiced them, said Art Harman, who witnessed the collapse of the wall in Berlin in 1989.
Inspired by the live TV coverage of the events in Berlin on Nov. 9, 1989, Harman and two of his friends decided to fly to Germany from Washington and join the crowds in Berlin. In a celebratory mood, they helped chip off pieces of wall with hammers and chisels.
“It was like magical music. The music of freedom,” he wrote later in his blog.
He brought thousands of pieces of the wall back to the United States and sold them to people from all around the world, including Germans, he said in an interview.
While there, Harman was very touched by the swift change in the moods of East German border guards, who had the “biggest smiles on their faces.”
“Their job before was just to sit there with their finger on the trigger,” he said. “For the first time, they didn’t have to do that. And I think for them, that was so liberating and spiritually elevating.”
According to Harman, there are lessons to be learned from the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
“No matter how repressive your government is today, that can change in a heartbeat,” he said.
“A couple of years before the wall opened, the Soviet Union looked as strong as iron,” he added, implying that the Soviet regime was at its peak of military power.
To see that “crumble bloodlessly” was “so miraculous,” he noted, adding that the same could happen in China, Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran today.