Berlin Wall Fall: 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago today, I was leading a rocket artillery platoon in live fire exercises at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Eastern Bavaria.  Some 400 kilometers to the north, the Berlin Wall was coming down.   Back in my teaching days, I jokingly used this coincidence to illustrate the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

I don’t have much in the way of unique insights to offer beyond pointing to Stephen Green‘s observation that, “The Berlin Wall didn’t just fall down. It was torn down. It was torn down by the very people it was built to cage.”

Berlin Wall Freedom

Over at New Atlanticist, we’ve been running a series of essays from people who played a slightly larger role than I did in these events: President George H.W. BushMargaret ThatcherZbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Condoleeza Rice,  and Douglas Hurd. Hillary Clinton, Jim Jones, Josef Ackermann, and Frederick Forsyth offer some interesting observations as well.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. G.A.Phillips says:

    Don’t forget “The Hoff”

  2. Recently unearthed Stasi documents quote Honecker as saying, “Mein Gott, zey have Joyner mit der rockets! All is lost!”

    This is one of those events, like the moon landing, a black president and the iPhone, that I’m really glad I lived to see.

  3. Boyd says:

    I had just arrived at Naval Station Rota, Spain, after having driven there for my PCS from Hellenikon Air Base in Athens, Greece. I had no idea it was even going on that day. Or for several days thereafter. I had, at the time, more important things going on in my life.

    Odd, that.

  4. DC Loser says:

    I was in Berlin in the spring and summer of 1988, a scant 14 months before those events, and went across Checkpoint Charlie as a member of the Occpation Forces to plunder the East German stores on Alexanderplatz and Unter den Linden with my cheap Ostmarks I got in the West. That trip was definitely one of the high points of my adult life.

  5. the Q says:

    I was on my couch in Westwood watching the incipient news reports from the Wall.

    As I had studied at length the “cold war” in college earlier in the decade (remember KAL 007 in 83 and the hardening of attitudes?), I could not believe what I was witnessing.

    I immediately called Lufthansa and booked a flight to Berlin for the next day. (I remember thinking about it for a moment when the airfare was quoted as $1,800…a months salary back then.)I hesitated for about 10 seconds then realized that within 24 hours I would be on the wall partying and celebrating literally the end of the cold war. A once in a lifetime opportunity which could not be missed, my American Express bill be damned!

    If I would have written a thesis 6 years earlier opining that the Berlin Wall would be freed by a bunch of chisel wielding, champagne sipping peaceniks and neither neutron bombs or Pershing intermediate missiles or NATO forces would be involved, I would have been dismissed from the poli sci dept. for too much ingestion of mind altering substances. (Remember – Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famously incorrect theory that left wing communist dictatorships were incapable of democracy – was the rallying cry of Reagan’s early foreign policy.)

    I made the flight the next day and 15 hours later I was at the wall, a bottle of Dom in one hand and a hammer in the other, deliriously celebrating the miracle of our generation, thinking that this was the closest to VE or VJ day that our grandparents experienced.

    The indelible impression was what the GIs must have felt on liberating Paris, I was loved and mobbed whenever I told people I was from LA – America here to celebrate with them.

    The sheer look of joy and happiness on their faces (and gratitude for American sacrifice)is something I will never forget.

    Thanks W. for fu$king that up almost irreparably.

  6. yetanotherjohn says:

    Actually, there is a connection between your conducting live fire exercises in Germany and the wall coming down. If the US had pulled out of Germany in 1945, would the wall have been built or come down? If the US didn’t have the will or the resources to conduct the Berlin airlift would the wall have been build or come down?

    If the US did commit blood (e.g. Major Nicholson) and resources (e.g. James Joyner) to defending West Germany, would the wall have come down?

    By being part of the forces that said “This far and no further”, you did help bring down the wall. Admittedly your role wasn’t as big as say Ronald Reagan, but you did play a part. Of course your individual role was neither necessary nor sufficient, so don’t get to big a head on this.

    p.s. Q, Not sure how you went from happy Berliners tearing down the wall to W. being the bad guy, but for an alternative view of the fall of the wall, try this.

  7. An Interested Party says:

    As for that alternative view…

    So my new President will not be there with you, like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were there for you.

    That’s because he’s a Kenyan Socialist…didn’t you know?

    He has other priorities.

    Yes, much like Dick Cheney…

    I really wish I could be there to celebrate with you. Unfortunately, with the passing of time, I have five children, our economy is bad, and I too, have other priorities.

    Awww…maybe you could hit up Andrew Breitbart for a loan…I mean, if it really is that important to be there…

    So I am sorry that my President, the American face to the World will not be there for you.

    Well hell, he should be impeached for this transgression alone…

    I feel just a little better knowing that you asked America to give him to you. I hope you like him.

    Oh but they do, far more than you ever will…

    What a sad, pathetic bunch of whining that “apology” is…

  8. Tlaloc says:

    a nice symbol certainly, but in terms of actual meaning taking down the wall is pretty trivial. It was the collapse of the USSR, not the dismantling of what was a single small border around its satellites, that really changed things.

  9. the Q says:


    Here’s a little more on how I went from happy berliners to my W remark. And I did read the link you posted. Thanks for yet another Obama hates america screed and how reagan single handedly won the cold war (forget about Mr. X, the Truman Doctrine, Ike, the 4 decades of containment policy, Korea/Vietnam/NATO, the Helsinki accords, the Pope, Lech Walesa, Solidarity, the Beatles, Gorbachev etc.)

    Now as to Reagan “bankrupting” the Soviet Union, why didn’t the Russians capitulate when we were spending near 50% of GDP on defense in the 50s and 60s as opposed to the 23% – 28% under Carter/Reagan?

    The Soviets gagged on their own internal contradictions and were doomed to failure from the inherent weaknesses of their flimsy empire held together by force – similar to China today.

    So, in retrospect, Carter’s slight decrease in defense spending and Reagan’s increase in spending had little to do with the fall of the empire.

    Sorry revisionist Reagan hagiographers.

    Now, my main point about W.

    I remember very well in 1984 sitting in the Hofbrauhaus in Munich with a group of very well educated Germans who spoke fluent English.

    Of course they hated Reagan etc. I listened politely and said, “ok, ok, enough…I agree with you alot about Reagan and how bad the U.S. is…in fact, I say many of the same things when I am at home in the U.S., but can you give the old U.S. a little bit of credit? I know we are a young, bumbling country at times, but lets take Europe here. Somehow, through our dumb ways, we have kept you Europeans from slaughtering each other for the past 40 years and ushered in an unprecedented peace and prosperity.

    “And as for the Russians not being the threat we are, I ask you how many Russians are in this bar?.

    “Can they even leave their own country without permission? Or the East Germans?

    “And if I choose to go to the U.S. Embassy in Bonn and stick my middle finger in the air and say fuc# Reagan, will I go to the Gulag? Do I even worry about that? Of course not.

    “So, if there is only one difference between America and Russia, perhaps this one tiny difference may be it, but isn’t that what we are discussing the freedom to travel and to speak out without big brother’s response?”

    Now, because of Bush/Cheney/fear and the insane right wing, I can no longer make that claim…wiretapped phones, no search warrants, Patriot Act. etc.

    You are damn right that I would’ve thought twice about going to a protest and giving the finger to Bush without any hesitation as to big brother watching me.

    And this probably overblown, slight paranoia on my part is why I detest conservative blow hards who would sacrifice liberty for security ala the old soviet system.

  10. Here’s the way it worked: the USSR was doing great because communism works. And then Reagan came along and the USSR fall down go boom.

    No, wait, that can’t be right. Let me think about this. . . Um . . .

    Okay, here’s how it was: communism totally sucked, so it was doomed to fail and then Reagan came along and the USSR fall down and go boom.

    Except that doesn’t quite elevate Reagan to sainthood. Because in that view he’s the guy who just happened to be standing around when the fatally-wounded bad dude finally keeled over. Hmmm.

    We need the USSR to have been strong and functional and scary and ready to charge boldly into the future . . . and yet fall down go boom as soon as they see Reagan’s pompadour.

    Okay, once more. Let’s try it with bullet points.

    * Communism sucked and was doomed to fail because it’s a retarded economic system.

    * Communism was strong and scary and was going to live forever! Boogada boogada!

    * Reagan didn’t make that first kind of communism fall down go boom, he made the second type of communism fall down go boom.

    * Reagan is a saint.

  11. davod says:

    Bil Bennett in The Gates Test includes the comments of Chancellors Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkal.

    “Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But even that phrase doesn’t do the story justice: The wall did not fall — it was pushed…

    …Two years prior, President Reagan had gone to Berlin and described it as “a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers.” Perhaps the most famous words of Reagan’s presidency were those he uttered that summer day in 1987: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And now, within hours of the granting of travel by the East German government, the German citizens were, themselves, taking pickaxes to the scar.

    I give you the words of two German Chancellors: Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel. When the wall came down, Helmut Kohl told President George H. W. Bush: “Without the U.S., this day would not have been possible. Tell your people that.” And last week, Angela Merkel said this:

    I think of John F. Kennedy, who won the hearts of the Berliners, when, during his visit in 1961, after the wall had been built, he reached out to the desperate citizens of Berlin by saying, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” I think of Ronald Reagan, who, far earlier than most, clearly saw the sign of the times and, standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, already in 1987, called out, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” This appeal shall remain forever in my heart.

    I thank George Herbert Walker Bush for the trust he placed in Germany and then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, offering something of immeasurable value to us Germans already in May 1989: partnership in leadership. What a generous offer 40 years after the end of the Second World War.”

  12. G.A.Phillips says:

    Harry, if you know this about history, why in the great donkeypoop stained hell are you an Obama worshiper?

    And this probably overblown, slight paranoia on my part is why I detest conservative blow hards who would sacrifice liberty for security ala the old soviet system.

    Q, Ya you think, lol…..

    Dude, you need to watch you some Beck:)

  13. davod says:


    As I recall. Gorbachev had no intention of moving away from Communism. It as just that events, and the desires of the people, moved to quickly for the Communists to be able to maintain control.