November 4, 2009

The fall of the Berlin Wall in the autumn of 1989 was an exceptional event in German and world history. As a German-speaking Swiss national living in Zurich at the time, I was deeply moved by the events.

Freedom in East Germany and German reunification were breathtaking developments, which we had always hoped for, but did not really expect to happen in our lifetime. The political division of the world into the Soviet Bloc and the West had been firmly established.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s “glasnost” and “perestroika” policies in the Soviet Union and the states it controlled, which actually set things in motion, came as a surprise to all of us. Gorbachev loosened the grip on the Soviet Bloc and that sealed the fate of the Honecker government. Mass protests against the government in East Germany, long considered too risky, initially called for political, economic and social reforms, but then for reunification. West Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl and East Germany’s new government, strongly supported above all by the U.S. Administration of President George H. W. Bush, showed great resolve and leadership. Reunification became reality with astonishing speed.

Fortunately, there was no outbreak of violence on November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall was actually opened. The following day, many of the residents of East Berlin and citizens of the former German Democratic Republic crossed to West Berlin and celebrated their new-found freedom. Less than a year later, Germany was reunified.

The significance of these events can hardly be overestimated. Along with Germany’s reunification and the economic reconstruction of the former East German states, the Soviet Union fell apart and Russia turned to embrace democracy and a market economy, with many countries in Eastern Europe following suit. European integration progressed rapidly, and the euro was launched. The European Union was enlarged to comprise 27 member states. With trade between East and West blossoming, investment flowed eastwards, while wealth and democracy progressed significantly in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. Some Eastern Europeans and East Germans moved westwards but, on balance, large-scale imbalances and risks were avoided. Since 1989, per capita income has substantially risen in all these countries, levels of prosperity have increased considerably, and most transition countries in Eastern Europe have become stable democracies. Germany is a different place today as well. East Germany has made substantial progress.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transition to democracy and market economics in most Eastern European countries have changed international affairs forever. The former confrontational stance of heavily armed superpowers is now a thing of the past, having been replaced by more nuanced international relations. The rise of China, India and other big emerging market countries has sustainably changed the global interrelations of economic and political power.

Undisputedly a historical watershed, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the start of a new era of globalization and geopolitics.

Dr. Josef Ackermann is Chairman of the Management Board and the Group Executive Committee of Deutsche Bank, and a member of the Atlantic Council International Advisory Board.

This piece is selected from Freedom's Challenge, an Atlantic Council publication commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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