The Germans call it the Mauerfall—the "fall of the wall." On November 9th, 1989, thirty years ago today, the collapse of the Berlin Wall marked the start of a new era in international affairs. The Cold War was over, the division of Europe between communism and democracy came to an end, and a new world order suddenly arrived.
It was—and still is—a stirring moment. No one who remembers those days should have any mistaken nostalgia for the Soviet Union or for the satellite states it ruled in Eastern Europe. The visual images from Berlin still move us: throngs dismantling an ugly Wall dividing a great city, human beings smashing tyranny, laughing, shouting, and singing as they went. If you ever doubt the power of the human spirit, those images from Berlin will always be there to lift you up.
Freedom-loving people everywhere should remember Berlin 1989, but it's especially important if you're a scholar, student, or aficionado of World War II. We like to think of the conflict as a "good war," fought for the right reasons, directed against a seriously deranged tyrant named Adolf Hitler. And yet that was only partially true. In order to beat Hitler, an alliance with Josef Stalin's Soviet Union was necessary. Let's state it flat out: Allied victory would have been impossible without the Red Army.
The Soviet role makes it difficult, however, to claim that World War II was any sort of crusade for democracy or human rights. In fact, half of Europe—the eastern half—emerged from World War II unfree. Soviet troops occupied Eastern Europe, breaking Stalin's solemn promise of free elections. Communist regimes were established. Winston Churchill famously declared that an "Iron Curtain" had fallen on the continent from "Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic," and his vivid metaphor soon became part of the standard vocabulary of the Cold War. In one of the postwar era's greatest ironies, Poland, whose invasion by the Germans in September 1939 began the war, lay on the wrong side of the curtain.
Two worlds faced one another, in other words, one free and one groaning under oppression. We called it the "Cold War," but it threatened to go hot at any moment, too hot, given all those missiles we had aimed at one another. It's easy to laugh today at those "duck and cover" drills in grade school or "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoons on television (where our heroes faced a nefarious Soviet spy named Boris Badenov and his moll, Natasha). But my mother remembered to the end of her days going to church during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it looked like the world might be coming to an end. It was scary business if you were living through it.
But now, in 1989, that was all over. Those revelers in Berlin were celebrating more than the reunification of their city. They were wiping away the final scar from a long-ago war. The "liberation of Europe," the reason we fought World War II in the first place, was a reality.
For Europe, World War II was finally over.