Who Brought Down the Berlin Wall?

Reagan? Economics? The CIA? Why the usual suspects get too much credit. Part of an FP series, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Throughout the 40 years of the Cold War, popular uprisings against governments established by the Soviet Union in east-central Europe took place over and over again — in East Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Poland almost too many times to count — but repeatedly failed.

In the fall of 1989, they succeeded. No one saw revolution on the way, and certainly no one could have predicted that it would take place as peacefully as it did. (The exception, of course, was the violent revolution in Romania, but even there the casualty figures were not large.) These were complex events, and the details differed substantially from country to country. Most historians would probably agree that the outcome was the result of a mix of factors. Yet simplified views still abound — and the 20th anniversary of the wall’s fall will offer plenty of opportunity to rehearse some of them yet again. Here’s a reality check on the most persistent myths:

No. 1: It was Ronald Reagan.

In this version of history, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s resolute hawkishness and emancipatory eloquence saved the day for the free world.

On June 12, 1987, in front of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Reagan issued a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to make good on his promises of liberalization. "Come here, to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Reagan’s supporters claim that this speech played a key role in sparking the events of 1989, but there’s little evidence to back this up.

In fact, Reagan’s words left little obvious imprint on the thinking of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. The opposition movements in East Germany and Czechoslovakia were more peacenik than Grand Old Party; in Poland, Solidarity activists already had their own pope as a moral beacon. Neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times even ran Reagan’s speech on the front page. Some Reaganites tended to regard the speech as a grand bit of political theater, intended mainly for consumption back home, with limited real-world repercussions. Reagan’s own national security advisor, Frank Carlucci, later recalled thinking, "It’s a great speech line. But it will never happen."

And in West Berlin itself — where the late-1980s population included a disproportionate number of Greens and counterculture refugees from West Germany’s draft — the applauders were outnumbered by the rioters, who chose to protest against Reagan’s conservative policies rather than applaud his chutzpah. If anything, it was Reagan’s willingness, throughout most of his second term, to meet Gorbachev halfway that helped the Soviet leader back away from the use of force — an achievement that led British journalist Victor Sebestyen to dub Reagan "America’s Leading Dove."

No. 2: It was inevitable.

Those who hold this view usually argue that history was on the side of the protesters because Communist Party leaders wouldn’t have dared to use force.

It certainly didn’t look that way at the time. The June 4 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square — and to some extent the violence used by pro-regime forces in Romania — vividly demonstrate that resorting to firepower remained an option. In China the use of force proved successful in defending the regime’s claim to power; in Romania it didn’t. But that failure might have been precisely because Romania’s uprising had already been preceded by peaceful revolts elsewhere in Central Europe, thereby fatally undermining the system’s defenders.

Had East Germany’s much more efficient communist leadership resorted to force to put down anti-government protests, the chilling effect could have swept across the entire region. It was an option that Erich Honecker and his cronies in the East German Politburo considered very seriously indeed. In September 1989, East German TV aired frequent paeans to the "resolute" approach of their Beijing comrades. One broadcast featured a member of the party’s paramilitary force vowing to "defend socialism with a gun in the hand."

On Oct. 9, 1989, the authorities handed live ammunition to security forces ahead of the scheduled "Monday Demonstration" in Leipzig and mobilized hospitals to prepare for the large numbers of casualties that would have resulted. (As it happened, some 50,000 people took to the streets that evening.) But a last-minute effort by local notables and party leaders to avert violence saved the day from bloodshed. The history of Europe would have looked far different if they hadn’t.


No. 3: It was the CIA.

According to this theory, U.S. spies, by aiding the enemies of their enemy, fatally weakened and ultimately brought down the Soviet Union.

It’s true that the U.S. spooks in Langley helped the Afghan mujahideen, who played a critical role in weakening Soviet power during the 1980s. They also made sure that funds and equipment flowed to Solidarity in Poland with the help of John Paul II’s Vatican.

But in most pivotal events of 1989, the CIA was decidedly behind the curve. In the second half of the 1980s it consistently failed to deduce Gorbachev’s true intentions. As late as September 1988 the CIA was still issuing memoranda that predicted the continued survival of the Eastern European regimes. When the Berlin Wall came down and the White House demanded information, the embarrassed U.S. spies had to admit that they had no agents in place in East Berlin or the Kremlin.

Milton Bearden, who was then in charge of CIA operations against the Soviet bloc, had spent that historic night watching CNN. "It was hard to confess that there were no Soviet spies worth a damn — they all had been rounded up and killed, and no one at the CIA knew why," wrote New York Times‘ Tim Weiner in his history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes. (The reason was the mole within the CIA, Aldrich Ames, who had already betrayed every U.S. asset in the Soviet Union he had identified.)

No. 4: It was the KGB.

Communism lost out in 1989, but many individual communists (and reborn communist parties) ended up doing quite well, giving rise to persistent KGB conspiracy theories.

As British journalist Edward Lucas recently wrote, "The dissidents, for the most part, proved hopeless politicians and while most Eastern European countries are now in the European Union and NATO, they are largely run by former members of the Communist Party." But that observation is not the same as alleging, as some conspiracy theorists do, that the events of 1989 were engineered by the KGB to allow certain Bolsheviks to continue enjoying the perks of power.

The theory is easily discounted in East Germany, where members of the secret police, the hated Stasi, were subject to harsh scrutiny and, in some cases, arrest.

As for the KGB itself, recently released archival documents reveal that the Soviet spooks were just as out of the loop as the U.S. spies. When the East German communist leadership decided to liberalize travel regulations, inadvertently inspiring its citizens to trek to the wall and demand passage through, the government neglected to inform the Soviets.

Perhaps most incredibly, aides to Gorbachev didn’t even bother to wake him up during the night that the wall was falling apart. The man who would later get the credit for freeing Eastern Europe actually slept through the main event.

No. 5: It was all about economics.

By this interpretation, those big public demonstrations in east-central Europe may have looked impressive, but what really drove change in 1989 was the economy.

This view is a vast oversimplification. Yes, the economic weakness of the Soviet system was already clear for the world to see. And yes, the governments in East Berlin, Warsaw, Bucharest, and elsewhere in the Warsaw Pact countries were staggering under huge loads of foreign debt that greatly constrained their ability to react to turmoil at home. (East Germany’s foreign debt, for example, reached $26.5 billion by 1989. Merely servicing that obligation cost $4.5 billion annually, nearly 60 percent of export earnings.)

Yet the experience of Cuba and North Korea — which were essentially bankrupt by 1989 as well, and which nearly collapsed when the ex-Soviet Union withdrew most of its support for them — have shown that communist regimes are perfectly capable of surviving beyond their economic due dates through sheer determination to keep the lid on.

Neither did the fact that Eastern European communists owed all their debt to Western bankers prove a great liability, as some have alleged. That might have been the case if the United States and its allies had been willing to exert financial leverage to specific policy ends. In fact, the story of 1989 is very much one of Western political caution. From Helmut Kohl to Margaret Thatcher to George H.W. Bush, Western leaders were reluctant to do anything that could be interpreted as "destabilizing" the region.

In reality it was the crowds on the streets in Berlin, Prague, and Bucharest that fused inchoate anger at the regimes into an immediate and urgent challenge to the apparatchiks’ power and legitimacy.

The sudden surge in popular discontent, coupled with such other factors as the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and his refusal to use Soviet troops to suppress protests; the moribund economies of the Warsaw Pact states; the gradual loss of belief in Marxist ideology among populations and functionaries alike; and a much greater flow of information about the West to the countries of the East all contributed to the events of 1989. Yet in their quest for a simple explanation, historians continue to look for The One.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola