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Fall of the Berlin Wall

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was breached after 28 years of seeming impregnability. The 44-year-old Cold War and its looming threat of Armageddon suddenly came to an end, peacefully. The omnipresent Soviet Army that had summarily crushed uprisings and revolts in East Berlin, Hungary, Prague and Poland, quietly withdrew.

The Allied nations of World War II, which had divided Germany to prevent a repeat of the militarism that led to wars in 1870, 1914, and 1939, now acceeded to a reunification that included membership in the European Union.

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

President Ronald Reagan made his famous admonition while visiting Berlin on June 12, 1987. Two years later, the wall came down. To some, it was a pivotal moment that brought the Cold War to an end. President Reagan stood firm against the Soviet Union and that resoluteness brought the evil empire to its knees.

"This is the spin we Americans put on it," writes Michael Meyer in The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

"In recent years, particularly among U.S. conservatives, the Berlin Wall speech has taken on the talismanic weight of an ideological icon, both the symbol and founding idea of a new post-Cold War weltanschauung. As president, Reagan did what no one else had done before him: he confronted the enemy -- and triumphed...

"There's only one problem -- that of disjuncture, a confusion of cause and effect. What if it didn't happen quite that way?"

Berlin Wall headline
Berlin Wall headline

President Reagan giving a speech at the Berlin Wall Brandenburg Gate
President Reagan giving a speech at the Berlin Wall Brandenburg Gate

As correspondent for Newsweek during the days before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Meyer has a uniquely first-hand perspective on the event, which he chronicles in detail in his book, effectively debunking the myths about Reagan's role and the influence of U.S. policies,

"It had little to do with American military might. It had far more to do with the rise of Gorbachev, coupled with the economic collapse of the Soviet system and the glaring contrast to the dynamism of Western Europe," he explains.

"The preparedness of East European leaders, with the exception of those of Romania, to accept peaceful change was critical... Above all, it had everything to do with people, individually and collectively, on the ground, deciding for themselves to tear down that Wall."

Unlike most revolutions, what occurred in 1989 did not lead to new tyrannies, but instead it brought freedom and democracy to hundreds of millions of Europeans who had lived a twilight existence under the Soviet regime.

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 The Year that Changed the World
The Year that Changed the World
The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall

by Michael Meyer

Scribner, 2009

As Newsweek's bureau chief in Germany, Michael Meyer was an eyewitness to the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the 20th anniversary of 1989, he pays tribute to the event in this memoir which documents the key players in the drama, from Czech president Vaclav Havel and the Hugarian despot Nicolae Ceasuşescu to Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

"Nothing has ever been so freighted with symbolism, ideology, and history. The Wall was World War II, the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, the high tide of totalitarianism and communist dictatorship, the frontier of democracy. You could feel it, smell it, run your hands over it, look across it. On the one side, us. On the other, them."

For those born too late to recall its significance, this book tells the story of the rise and fall of a Cold War icon. For the rest of us, its another opportunity to shake our heads in amazement. It really is gone, isn't it?

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