1950 - 1989

The fall of the wall: revelation, not revolution

"There is more power in rock music, videos, blue jeans, fast food, news networks and TV satellites than in the entire Red Army."
Régis Debray/1986

Why did the Berlin Wall fall in November 1989?

The pictures on Western television imply that the breakdown of the Communist system in 1989 was a result of the peoples' longing for freedom and democracy. Some historians claim that it was the final victory of Western democracy over other political systems. But as time passes we come to realise that the events of 1989 represent more the collapse of a defunct system than the triumph of the West and the people's uprising for democracy.  

Celebration in Berlin
Revelation Not Revolution - Why Did the Berlin Wall Fall?
Party on the Berlin Wall: The answer to Ronald Reagan's battle cry "Tear down this wall!"

What was the historical significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall? Did we reach the End of History as Francis Fukuyama put it? 

It was without a doubt a turning point in history; signifying not only the end of the Cold War that had dominated Europe since 1945, but also the end of the communism system that had ruled Russia since 1917. 

Throughout Eastern Europe and Russia, regimes would begin to change as countries gained their independence from the Soviet Union. 

"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

Francis Fukuyama, from 'The End of History & The Last Man'
Fall Of The West? Advantage USSR
Tanzania Independence in 1961

As decolonisation ended European control in Africa and Asia, new countries emerged. The Soviets became beneficiaries of that process, supporting popular revolt against imperial rule. These countries often became battlegrounds for the Cold War, in South Vietnam for example, the Vietcong were supported by the Soviet Union.

US Marines during the Vietnam war, April 1968
The Vietcong were supported by the Soviet Union
Soviet Strengths & The Great Arms Race

"In the 1950s, it seemed as if the world was pretty much going the Soviet's way"

The Soviet Union became efficient and prolific at military and heavy industrial goods production; this led the CIA to overestimate the capabilities of the Soviet Union - it even projected that the GDP of the Soviet Union could be 3x that of the USA by the year 2000.  

The Soviet Union benefited from many scientific advancements, such as rockets and satellites. These advancements were often a result of knowledge acquired from WW2.
A collective farm in Kazakhstan is farmed using modern machinery
The Anniversary of Revolution Parade in Moscow in 1961

Yet Soviet Gross Domestic Product (GDP) did not grow as fast as US GDP, and the Soviet Union had to spend at least twice as much in relative terms to match the USA in missiles and land army. This sort of expenditure was not sustainable but was necessary for the Soviets to show their ability to compete with Western powers.

Soviet military prowess on show at the May Day Parade in 1960
Russian Army Officers on parade at the May Day celebrations in 1958

In addition, both super powers spent large amounts of money in an attempt to win the 'Space Race'. The USSR seemed to be ahead when the first satellite "Sputnik" (below) orbited space in 1957.

Communism Meets Consumerism - The Kitchen Debate
The refridgerator, a milestone of Western progress
Life in the Soviet Union was harder for workers and their families
The Kitchen Debate
Nikita Khrushchev and VP Richard Nixon at the American National Exhibition in 1959
The shift from an Arms Race to a new consumption competition was a battle the USA was confident it could win

Despite opposite claims by the USSR, living standards in the Soviet Union were far lower than in the USA and would have shocked even Americans of the 1920s.

Queues in front of grocery shops were normal in the Soviet Union
Soviet workers lived well below the standards of their counterparts in the West

Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, recognised that propaganda was all important. He made sure to emphasise that that the Soviet Union could produce anything the USA could, and was far ahead on innovation as well. 

The Soviet Union was certainly prolific in its production of heavy industrial goods
Blue Jeans & Consumerism

The difference in living standards was stark. Even teenagers in the Soviet Union began to understand the shift in fashion and lifestyle that happened in the West. Many of them wanted to follow the fashions of the West, but emulating the Blue Jeans lifestyle was nearly impossible. The Soviet Union never managed to produce jeans of their own, despite these being 'workers' clothing.

The life of a worker in the USSR was very different from the life in the USA
Manufacturing in the USA was modernising all the time
Kitchen gadgets for the modern American housewife
The Polaroid Camera was a revolutionary new device
Suburban life in the USA

Throughout the 20th century, the USA led the way with new innovations, from cameras to cars to jeans.  

Fundamental Flaw: The Planned Economy

The planned economy of the Soviet Union was fundamentally flawed: it could not react to shifts in consumer demand, shifts in relative prices or production. The planners would never have enough information to allocate resources in an optimal way. The system was already malfunctioning early on and maintaining it was a near impossible task.

Lines at the Moscow food market were common

When oil prices increased in the 1970s, the USSR discovered it had a revenue stream that it was able to use to keep its economy alive and to compete with the USA.

The planned economy of the Soviet Union was fundamentally flawed - were it not for high oil prices, the USSR would have collapsed sooner.

Oil wells in Baku, Azerbaijan
Oil wells in Romania
A refinery in Ufa.
1979: A Bigger Turning Point?

1979 was a year of upheaval, perhaps even more so than 1989. The Iranian Revolution, the beginning of economic reform in China, Margaret Thatcher coming to power in the United Kingdom and the USSR invading Afghanistan all signalled a changing world.

Reform & Revolution

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, he realised that the Soviet Union had to change. He initiated two programmes aimed at helping to make the USSR stronger: Perestroika and Glasnost.

Perestroika: Economic Restructuring, which however, was never successful. The economy began to retract and economic problems worsened.

Glasnost: A new transparency and a new openness for the people of the Soviet Union. However, in combination with a retraction in the economy, Glasnost unleashed protest, and a chain reaction over which the party had no control. This new found 'freedom' ultimately spilled over into what looked like a revolution across the Soviet Union. 

Perestroika was intended to turn the Soviet Economy around
Gorbachev in Bulgaria: Glasnost intended to tackle corruption in the state but instead created a chain reaction of protests and declarations of dissatisfaction with the state

The Sinatra Doctrine ("My Way") allowed the countries of Eastern Europe to pursue their "own way". This was a dramatic change from the occupation and suppression of government opposition of the past e.g. Soviet tanks through countries such as Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. 

Together with Glasnost, the Sinatra Doctrine led to more problems. Long before November 1989, the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the Baltic States, Hungary, Poland and even in Berlin was becoming more obvious. Gorbachev and his party were loosing control.

Soviet Disunion was becoming more apparent
Unlike the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the USSR no longer held the reins
90,000 people demonstrating against the East German government in Leipzig in October 1989

The Berlin Wall fell as a result of events that were unfolding in Eastern Europe throughout 1989; it was the logical conclusion of a defunct system that was vainly trying to reform itself. 

Checkpoint Charlie in 1989
East Berliners celebrate the end of the city's partition on 31 December 1989

The Fall of the Berlin Wall should not be viewed as the triumph of the West or the "End of History". Rather than a revolution it is a revelation: it revealed how badly the planned economies really functioned. Even more than democracy and freedom the people of Eastern Europe really wanted a comfortable lifestyle, one the planned economy could not offer.

The collapse of this system does, however, signal the end of a bipolar world that can easily be understood. Today, 23 years on, the world has become even more complex. A new super power on the horizon - China - and numerous other powers, including the Russian Federation, still exert a strong influence on the world.

Credits: Story

Curator — Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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