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If you grew up during the Cold War, watching the Berlin Wall come down was as earth-shaking an event as the moon landing or 9-11.
It had stood for almost 30 years, surrounding West Berlin, a symbol of the standoff between the Western NATO alliance and the Soviet communist Warsaw Pact, which dominated geopolitics for decades after the Second World War.
Any East German trying to cross the wall to escape the bleak conditions of the Soviet bloc risked everything. Nearly 80 people were killed over the years trying to elude barbed wire and machine-gun posts to reach the West.
It was the focus of hundreds of spy novels and suspense thrillers. If you wanted to dramatize the divide between the East and West in the 1970s, you put your star-crossed lovers on either side of the Wall. Add a touch of espionage, a trained killer or two and you had yourself a James Bond movie.
But in November 1989, 30 years ago tomorrow, East German authorities began to dismantle the concrete barriers between the Western and Eastern sectors of the city.
It was breathtaking, a head-shaking event that raised hopes in the West for the future. At the same time, though, it was clear that upheaval was in the offing in the Soviet bloc, which could easily have spiraled into violence. In fact, it was hard to believe the Cold War could ever end without horrifying bloodshed, perhaps even a nuclear exchange that might have ended civilization itself.
East Germany was not the only country in the Warsaw Pact that had been agitating for freedom. Poland was a hotbed of dissent, the Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were poking the Russian bear and thousands of East Germans were heading for Hungary, which had opened its border with Austria.
The Soviets had sent tanks into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush dissent. This time, Westerners kept expecting them to repeat the pattern, but they never did. Within two years, all the Soviet bloc countries had overthrown their communist leaders and the Soviet Union itself collapsed.
Before the late 1980s, news rarely crossed the divide. There was no satellite cable and no internet. The Eastern Bloc was a closed society in every way totalitarian governments could manage it.
These days, all those countries are open to visitors and it’s possible to connect with people almost anywhere in the world via the Web. The beauty of St. Petersburg and the architecture of Prague are there for anyone to visit. We take that openness and freedom for granted.
We shouldn’t. There was a time in living memory when you couldn’t go there and people who lived there couldn’t leave. Some of those countries are rolling back hard-won freedoms and devolving into authoritarian rule.
It’s another reminder that all democracy, including ours, is fragile. We have to work for it and defend it every day.