Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

November 9, 2019, marked the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On that day, Edwin J. Feulner was in Budapest, Hungary, giving a speech at a conference at the Danube Institute. This essay is adapted from Feulner’s remarks.

We have gathered today to remember an event that took place thirty years ago, in 1989—that “year of miracles” when the Warsaw Pact crumbled and when the Berlin Wall, which had been standing for twenty-eight years, was finally breached and torn down.

It was a keen personal moment for me. I had met freedom fighters from inside the Soviet Union and from the countries of Central Europe, yearning for the freedom we in the Western democracies enjoyed. These were heady days that tested the will, and the integrity, of men and women on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

As a college student in 1961, I had been traveling in West Germany with a group of my college classmates (and a Jesuit chaperone!). We were in Munich for my twentieth birthday—August 12, 1961. The next afternoon we planned to drive our VW minibuses on the Corridor through the DDR to West Berlin. Watching local television in a Munich beer hall that evening, we learned that East German and Soviet troops were massing in East Berlin. This gave us pause—that night the first barbed-wire Berlin Wall was erected. We didn’t make the trip to Berlin that day. And, of course, the reinforced wall stood for twenty-eight years as a grim reminder of its primary goal—to keep its people in.

That wall was a physical expression of the evils of totalitarianism, of the attempt to obliterate the will that lives in all of us to be free.

Another personal recollection: By the mid-1960s, after flitting from university to university in Denver, Philadelphia, London, Edinburgh, and Salzburg, I had found a niche at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, where the person occupying the nice windowed office in front of my modest desk was the legendary retired State Department desk officer for Berlin, Eleanor Lansing Dulles. Eleanor was the sister of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles. I helped Eleanor with research for her classic volume published in 1967, Berlin: The Wall Is Not Forever.[1]

I have been asked to provide an American perspective on this historic moment, and I want to do this by describing what the view of communism was from afar, the after-effects of the wall’s collapse on the American political landscape, and why the legacy of the Berlin Wall is still relevant to the United States today.

Simply stated: In my opinion, the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the most significant events of the twentieth century.

As an American who took part in public-policy battles in Washington, but who was nonetheless watching from afar, seeing the wall come down was immensely satisfying and movingly emotional.

The wall symbolized what we already knew: that communism was a system built on a fragile foundation, one that would not last. Communism everywhere and all the time must rely on coercion. That means that its leaders can never ease up on repression. The moment they do, the people tear down the barriers that keep them down.

Since the Berlin Airlift of 1948–49, we had watched as the people of East Germany suffered under the iron grip of communism. While the rest of the world moved forward, the strongholds of communism remained stagnant, weighed down in the muck and mire of a failing ideology. Communism produced failure and decay even in Germany, among some of the most industrious and hardworking people anywhere.

The Failure of the Socialist System

The reason for this failure, from a technical standpoint, was economic in nature. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev became secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, the Soviet Union could no longer afford the cost of maintaining its empire. Its demise seemed to be inevitable to many of us.

Several sensible economists, led by Professor G. Warren Nutter, with whom I served in Melvin Laird’s Pentagon in the late 1960s, described in detail the weakness of the Soviet economic system and the falsified data concerning it that so many had relied on and endorsed.[2] It is important to note, however, that even as late as the 1980s the Soviet Union still had fans among such American intellectuals as John Kenneth Galbraith. They were wrong and we were right, and finally, the Iron Curtain began to be dismantled, and the Berlin Wall came down.

For this we must thank, first and foremost, the people of Eastern and Central Europe.

And we must thank specifically the leaders of Poland’s Solidarity Movement, Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia (as it then was), and other heroes and heroines of the Captive Nations.

But the communist system had failed on a level far deeper than the economic. Like many before them, the Soviets failed to take into account one immutable fact: human nature.

Permit me to quote a person not often cited by Americans, but a real hero in the war against the totalitarian adversary of communism. I speak here of a man I first met in 1965 in the Bavarian town of Pocking, Otto von Habsburg. I had traveled from my temporary base in Salzburg, where I was studying the German language, to meet a man whom I had heard of and whom I admired from afar. In that first meeting, I boldly asked him to write an article—a “think piece”—about the future of communism for a new journal where I, as a graduate student, was a deputy editor, the Intercollegiate Review. He agreed, and a year later that article appeared in our journal.[3]

Dr. Habsburg concluded in this article:

This [the revolt of writers in the Eastern European states] reveals the decisive defeat the system has suffered—a defeat which is no longer directly related to economic success or crises, to foreign policy, or to the strategy of domestic politics. The cause of this defeat, rather, must be looked for in the human psyche which, in the long run, will not tolerate shackles.

Or, as an American political leader, Ronald Reagan, said it in less elevated language some years later:

Socialists ignore the side of man that is the spirit. They can provide you shelter, fill your belly with bacon and beans, treat you when you’re ill, all the things guaranteed to a prisoner or a slave. They don’t understand that we also dream.

In short, it is not obedience or deference to the state that motivates people. Nor is it the accumulation of material wealth that gives us purpose. Rather, it is the prospect to dream, to dare, and to improve our lot in life.

Communism ignored that individual freedom is the key to a prosperous and flourishing people and hence a prosperous and flourishing nation.

Communism in this sense is the heir to the traditions of Kant and Hegel, who argued that freedom can be realized only through the state. We Americans, and many of you here, are heirs to the Anglo-Scots Enlightenment, which saw government as being able only to protect liberties we received from God or nature.

In the Berlin Wall, we saw the physical manifestation of the tenets of communism: a structure built to hold a people hostage to tyranny—yet built on such a poor foundation that it would not, and could not, last. Communism, by nature, builds its house on the sands of repression.

The fall of the wall proved to the world that, despite what proponents of Marxism would have us believe, communism’s one and only function is to be the mechanism of the power-hungry, consigning the people under its rule to lives of poverty and spiritual misery, of obedience to the state, and a yearning to return to lives of freedom and opportunity once again.

For the period 1982–93, under three American presidents of both political parties, I served, with U.S. Information Agency director Charles Wick, a longtime friend of President Reagan, as the part-time chairman of the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Our bipartisan group traveled to more than forty countries on every continent, visited with governmental leaders and senior American representatives in all the world’s flashpoints. We worked with a bipartisan group in our Congress to increase funding for the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, the Fulbright Program to promote academic exchanges, and programs around the world. Our theme was to focus U.S. governmental efforts to “tell America’s story around the world.”

Simultaneously, inside the White House, Ronald Reagan was being tested by Moscow. Reagan’s initial test came in the first month of his first term (January–February 1981). The Polish communist government declared martial law in order to clamp down on Solidarity. The new American president wanted to respond vigorously. As he said in his own memoirs, if Solidarity presented such a real challenge to the Polish government, and to Moscow, then “this is what we have been waiting for.” He realized that “what was happening in Poland might spread like a contagion throughout Eastern Europe.”[4] In several National Security Council meetings, the president met resistance from Secretary of State Alexander Haig and Vice President George H. W. Bush. But with strong support from CIA Director Bill Casey, Counselor Edwin Meese, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and National Security Adviser Bill Clark, he followed a Casey plan for clandestine help to Solidarity in subsequent months and years. That transfusion of millions of dollars helped keep Solidarity alive.

Fast-forward two years, to March 13, 1983: Ronald Reagan announces his Strategic Defense Initiative, to replace the long-standing policy of Mutual Assured Destruction. In his speech he called on America’s scientists, who had created nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents to give us the “means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”[5]

Henry Kissinger, no particular friend of Reagan, said it well retrospectively: “These last words, ‘impotent and obsolete,’ must have had a chilling effect on the Kremlin. . . . Now with a single technological stroke, Reagan was proposing to erase everything that the Soviet Union had propelled itself into bankruptcy trying to accomplish.”[6]

I dwell on these early developments because they probably would not have occurred under another president, of either political party—certainly not Jimmy Carter (remember American hostages in Iran?), nor George H. W. Bush, for whom I have a great deal of respect, but who said, on several occasions, “I don’t do the ‘vision thing.’” And the “vision thing” was what Ronald Reagan advocated so ably.

1989: The Year of Miracles

Yes, 1989 was the “year of miracles,” and it started before November.

On June 20, 1989, Otto von Habsburg, a member of the European Parliament, addressed an audience at Hungary’s University of Debrecen with his vision of a Europe without borders and the prospective role of the European Parliament elections’ impact on Central Europe. On that occasion, his Hungarian hosts suggested a summer picnic near the border with Austria.

The historic Pan-European Movement’s picnic on the Bratislava Road at Sopron, Hungary, occurred in August 1989. Otto von Habsburg chaired the event at this small town, which had been a border crossing to Austria for almost a century.

And then the Hungarian government opened that border to Austria, permitting several hundred East German citizens to reach Austria. That was really the first break in the wall.

Demand for movement from thousands of visiting East Germans increased, and the Hungarian government completely opened its border with Austria on September 11, to enable thousands of Central Europeans to cross to the West from the formerly impenetrable Iron Curtain countries.

East Germany’s Erich Honecker said: “Habsburg distributed pamphlets right up to the Polish border, inviting East German holiday-makers to picnic. When they came to the picnic, they were given presents, food, and Deutsche Marks, before being persuaded to go over to the West.”[7]

On November 9, the Berlin Wall fell after standing for twenty-eight years.

The Iron Curtain came down.

The Warsaw Pact disintegrated, and the Cold War was over.

“We have won!” so many proclaimed.

The wall came down on President George H. W. Bush’s watch, thanks to the efforts so many citizens of Central Europe and a host of unheralded leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

But it came down most of all, as John O’Sullivan said, because of the extraordinary leadership of and collaboration among Pope John Paul II, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and especially President Ronald Reagan.[8]

American Reaction

Meanwhile, in the United States, euphoria was rampant at the Bush White House, even if our deliveries were not as great as they might (and should) have been.

In these heady months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, my Heritage Foundation colleagues and I made a dozen trips to Moscow, where we worked with reform members of the Duma, eventually including President Boris Yeltsin. Under the guidance of Ambassador Bill Middendorf, a Heritage Foundation trustee, we actually drafted a new constitution for the emerging Russian Republic. We hosted dinners and conferences to promote a new legal system and a privatized free economy. These efforts came to very little as the Russian system went through continual stress and strains. We tried hard, and even operated a Heritage Foundation full-time Moscow office for more than four years, before governmental regulations forced us to close.

The ripple effect of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall was felt strongly in America. It gave us the opportunity for a new start. According to our president, George H. W. Bush, we would enjoy a “peace dividend.”

The fall of the wall did usher in an era of openness toward a small-government, conservative policy that hadn’t been seen since the Second World War.

And yet, in hindsight, did we achieve all that we might have? Certainly not. Democracies don’t work that way. They are messy. Conflicting aims divided people and created obstacles to achieving shared values.

I believe that the United States should have cooperated with the leaders of the emerging governments to ensure that the debt inheritance from the communist predecessors did not hinder real economic growth in these emerging democracies of Central Europe. After what the United States had done with the Marshall Plan at the end of World War II, we should have done better in 1989. But we didn’t.

The United States moved from Bush to Bill Clinton in 1993. We went from focus on the fall of the wall to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and that internal civil war that would preoccupy Europe and us. President Clinton’s challenges shifted from integrating most of Central Europe into a whole Europe, into coping with Serb-Croat animosity, Rwanda genocide, and other crises around the world.

Politicians and executive branch officials moved on to other, “new and more exciting challenges.” Politicians, as a reflection of the people (the voters), tend to lose the longer-term perspective. Everything is decided in the context of the next election rather than the next generation. As I remind many friends who lament Washington’s short attention span, all often in Washington the urgent overwhelms the important.

And some of the work that had been done was undercut by bureaucrats and academics who didn’t comprehend the challenge we continued to face in communicating the message of freedom with people around the world.

An intellectual, not a bad one, even wrote a book proclaiming “The End of History.”[9] Imagine that.

I always reminded my colleagues at Heritage the opposite—that in Washington there are no permanent victories or permanent defeats, and we must remain ever watchful as we engage in what is permanent: the permanent battle for freedom. So, no, history did not end, and we are still struggling with freedom in the world.

Cold War Today

This brings us to the present. A fundamental reminder to all of America’s friends here and elsewhere:

9/11/01 changed everything.

Our slow and unsteady progress in working with our Central European friends was pushed aside—as were all other foreign (and most domestic) policy considerations while we came face-to-face with a new enemy.

Remember, in the United States, by the accident of history or geography we are not accustomed to lengthy wars, such as the seventeenth-century Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe. Even today we are still dealing with the after-effects of 9/11, some eighteen years later, with American and allied troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is not an excuse, but rather it is an explanation for what some might call the less than robust response from the United States.

This was reinforced with contradictory decisions by successive U.S. administrations. For example, the Bush administration worked with the Czech and Hungarian governments to deploy U.S. facilities for the Strategic Defense Initiative on their soil. These governments met unfavorable public responses to their proposed cooperation, but they decided to cooperate with the United States. Then Barack Obama was elected president, and he revoked these agreements, to the distress of our host governments in Central Europe.

Then President Obama was succeeded by Donald Trump in 2017. Trump advocated a new form of “America First Nationalism,” which is bringing new challenges to America’s relationship with our friends in Central Europe. As Trump focuses on questions like burden sharing within NATO, he also encourages our allies to cooperate in shared endeavors such as the Middle East.

We watched the twentieth-century version of communism crumble and fall, but the fight against Marxist ideas is far from over.

Santayana’s dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” comes to mind as we ponder the current state of political and philosophical debate in the United States.

We now find ourselves in the midst of another Cold War, similar, in many ways, to the conflict of years past. Only this time, the struggle is internal, and all the more fierce for it.

Instead of a physical takeover by communist-Soviet government forces, we are experiencing what Antonio Gramsci forecast: a “long march through the institutions,” a systematic takeover of the commanding heights of academia, of the entertainment industry, and of the media. This takeover of all of our culture-making institutions is promoting an alien, totalitarian system.

Instead of East and West, we are divided into socialism versus capitalism, government control versus individual freedom. We have seen the rise in popularity of left-wing politicians who speak in terms of class inequality and warfare and who express their support for growth of government power to rectify their concerns.

But perhaps more disturbing than the rhetoric of politicians is the brainwashing of the youth by our education systems into supporting this socialist rhetoric.

Students on college campuses have been indoctrinated into the Marxist cult, causing an alarming surge of support for big government among young people, who now look more favorably on socialist, collectivist policies and who support politicians who aggressively promote these ideas.

The younger American generation has largely forgotten—or never learned—the basics of the free society as outlined by academic leaders such as Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Hungary’s own Peter Bauer.

Fortunately, a new generation of true academic leaders, such as Stanford professor and Mont Pelerin Society president John Taylor, is teaching thousands of young people the basics of the free society. Taylor lists those principles as the rule of law, predictable policies from the government, reliance on market attention to incentives, and limitations on the size and scope of government.[10]

We find ourselves asking: How could the new generations want to live under a communist/socialist/Marxist regime?

The answer is: They don’t.

The problem is that the history of communism has been erased for this generation. New generations are being born and are being taught only the attractive points of the socialist ideology without learning about its inherent structural defects.

Something that our generation did not count on was that the new generations would not remember the Cold War. What to us is lived history is to them inconsequential, irrelevant, and unknown.

It is no wonder that they don’t see socialism as a threat to freedom. They didn’t live the history, they have not been taught it, and to top it all off, they are being educated on the wonders of Marxism from early primary school all the way through universities. They are being taught that socialism is a compassionate, moral system and that capitalism is the enemy.

Hope for the Future

I am one of Washington’s congenital optimists. Therefore, I do not believe that this is a hopeless cause. There are actions we can take to rectify this challenge, and it has much to do with messaging.

As conservative leaders, we must learn to communicate the message of the free market in terms of morality and transcendent standards. It is not enough to say that capitalism works. While we have been speaking in terms of efficiency, the left has been speaking in terms of morality. People are being taught that capitalism is immoral and corrupt, and that socialism is the more righteous system.

We can speak this language, too. And when we speak about it, we speak with real legitimacy. We should have never ceded this ground, and we must now reclaim it. We must emphasize not only why the free market is the most successful system but also why it is the most free and moral system.

People don’t just want to know that the system they benefit from is efficient; they also want to know that it is good.

If we can continue to explain to people that the free-market system allows for the most creativity, the most personal freedom, and the most opportunity for all people, and that it allows the individual and his family to enjoy nonmaterialist, spiritual rewards, then I believe we can stem the tide of socialist resurgence.

We must also continue to foster in our society an understanding of the principles and foundations of freedom and the histories that go along with them. Today’s young people must know about Venezuela, about North Korea, about Cuba, about China’s Great Leap Forward and their current repression of the Uyghurs in their own country, about the totalitarian history of the Soviet Union, and about the Berlin Wall.

And people need to know about the heroes of the struggle under communism—about Karol Wojtyła, about Vaclav Havel, about József Cardinal Mindszenty, and about so many others. We cannot allow these histories to be erased.

The fight for individual freedoms is a never-ending, eternal struggle. We all know this. It is what I and so many of us here have dedicated our lives to preserving and to advancing. It requires determination and steadfast optimism, but I’m hopeful for the future.

If we can keep history alive and begin to address modern-day socialism in moral terms, as Reagan did, then personal freedom will prove itself to be the most effective and moral way of living.

If we have learned anything from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the communist regime thirty years ago, let it be this: there is hope for us today. If history has shown us anything, it is that tyranny has no place in a free society. It cannot stand under the will of a people unified and determined to be free.


Edwin J. Feulner is founder and former president of the Heritage Foundation. He has served on the Board of Trustees for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute for many years.


Image by Masami Ishikawa via Wikimedia Commons.



[1] Eleanor Lansing Dulles, Berlin: The Wall Is Not Forever (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967).

[2] G. Warren Nutter, The Growth of Industrial Production in the Soviet Union (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962).

[3] Otto von Habsburg, “The Effects of Communism on Cultural and Psychological Politics in Eastern Europe,” Intercollegiate Review 3, no. 1 (September–October 1966),

[4] Ronald Reagan, An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 301.

[5] Henry A. Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 778.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Pan-European Picnic,” Wikipedia, accessed October 23, 2019.

[8] John O’Sullivan, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2006).

[9] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992), based on his essay “The End of History,” 1989.

[10] John B. Taylor, First Principles: Five Keys to Restoring America’s Prosperity (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012).

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