Commentary: History was supposed to end after the Berlin Wall fell – 30 years on, it hasnt

CAMBRIDGE: 30 years ago, the Berlin Wall was forced open by excited East Berliners taking advantage of a mistaken order given by Socialist Unity Party official Günter Schabowski.

The wall, which had stood as a symbol of the Cold War and had physically divided Berlin since 1961, could no longer hold back the forces of change that had been spreading across the Eastern Bloc and the wider world in the 1980s.



The political demands of the hundreds of thousands of East Germans who had been demonstrating for weeks across the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were now met by an under-pressure Schabowski. At a press conference, he declared:

We have decided today to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic to leave East Germany through any of the border crossings.

He announced that this new rule would begin immediately, although officially the order stipulated that it would start at 4am the next day. As the news spread, thousands headed to checkpoints to test the new regulation.

READ: 'Everyone started running': Berliner remembers crossing the Wall



By the end of the night, some East Berliners were in the western half of the city, crowds were dancing on the Berlin Wall and communism in Eastern Europe took another step closer to its demise.

The GDR was following Hungarys lead after it had opened its borders with Austria in June, and Poland, which had elected its first non-communist prime minister since 1946 that August.

After the wall opened, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia saw playwright and human rights campaigner Václav Havel become president, Bulgaria and Romania join the democratic wave, and Lech Wałęsa become the first democratically elected president of Poland.


All of this seemed to confirm the thoughts of political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who, in an article in The National Interest in the summer of 1989, had pronounced that history had ended.

He wrote that the “flow of events over the past decade or so” had made it difficult to “avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history”. This was:

Not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankinds ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Liberalism was victorious “in the realm of ideas” and 1989 saw “the triumph of the West” and “the Western idea”. There had been the “total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism” and there would now be “the ineluctable spread of consumerist Western culture” across the globe.

East and West German police struggled to contain the crowds of East Berliners flowing through an opening made in the Berlin wall at Potsdamer Square AFP/Patrick HERTZOG

Fukuyamas argument had a certain relevance at the time. Organised labour was in retreat in countries such as Britain after the miners strike, socialism was being rejected by half of Europe and democratic socialist parties were undergoing great changes as they embraced the free market in various ways.

And the particular forces of history that pushed the wall over confirmed their strength when globalisation arrived in Moscow with the opening of a McDonalds restaurant in January 1990. Later that year, the GDR ceased to exist when Germany was reunified, and Mikhail Gorbachev brought the Soviet Union to a quiet end in December 1991.

READ: Sombre mood as Germany marks 30 years of Berlin Wall fall

Even some of the Wests Cold War friends embraced the new era and moved towards liberal democracy. Chile removed dictator Augusto Pinochet from power in 1988 and a year later Patricio Aylwin of the Concert of Parties for Democracy was elected president. And in South Africa, Nelson Mandela walked free from prison, apartheid ended and he became president in 1994.

All in all, it looked like Fukuyamas assertion that ideological differences were over. Capitalism had won the centurys economic argument, liberal democracy claimed the political prize and by the end of the 1990s there were nearly as many democratic states as there were non-democracies across the world.

Yet despite the triumphalism of Fukuyamas argument, there was to be no “golden age” of liberal democracy.


But the 1990s certainly had a liberal democratic mood. Communism had given way to consumerism and East European countries voted in democratic elections for the first time in decades.

In the West, Bill Clintons New Democrats won two elections, Tony Blairs New Labour won the first of three victories, Paul Keatings Labour Party governed until 1996 in Australia and in Germany Gerhard Schröders SPD formed an alliance with the Greens.

There was, as my colleague Richard Carr argued, a march of the moderates in this decade, as Blair and Clinton searched for a “third way” between the free-market capitalism of Reagan and Thatcher, and the state-led ideal of the USSR.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1985, cementing their 'special relationship' AFP/MIKE SARGENT

Although the third way was not an ideology, it was based on a specific set of ideas and ideals, formulated by thinkers like the sociologist Anthony Giddens, who advocated introducing a “different framework” that avoided “the bureaucratic, top-down government favoured by the old left and the aspiration of the right to dismantle government altogether”. This was a short-lived hiatus between the march of neoliberalism that characterised the 1980s and the 2000s, but it showed that ideas still mattered as moderate politicians sought to theorise their pragmatism.

READ: Commentary: Almost 30 years since fall of Berlin Wall, Germany remains divide

Despite this, the global victory of liberal democracy assumed by Fukuyama did not happen. He suggested that in China, “the pull of the liberal idea continues to be very strong as economic power devolves and the economy becomes more open to the outside world”. But the Chinese Communist Party continued to refuse the democratic demand. This was despite Fukuyamas belief that:

The student demonstrations in Beijing that broke out first in December 1986 and recurred recently … were only the beginning of what will inevitably be mounting pressure for change in the political system as well.

China has continued with its market-based reforms and 850 million people have been lifted out of poverty. But there has been nothing to suggest that it will move towards a system of democracy.

READ: Commentary: The ghost of Tiananmen Square hovers over a 'fragile superpower' even after 30 years

And in Russia, Boris Yeltsin – Gorbachevs successor – was more concerned with establishing the free market than democracy.

There was a belief in the 1990s that Russias transition to a free-market liberal democracy would be smooth, but the bombing of parliament in 1993, the terrible consequence of economic shock therapy, and the reliance on oligarchs to keep Yeltsin in power, undermined any claim that Russia could move towards anything but a managed democracy.


Fukuyamas conclusion – that the end of the “worldwide ideological struggle” would be “replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer goods” – was proving to be wrong.

Anti-globalisers challenged the new world order in the late 1990s and anarchists, socialists, anti-poverty campaigners and religious groups came together to reject the emerging global order that put profit before people.

From Birmingham in Britain to Seattle in the US, the WTO-vision of the world inspired protest and new thinking. Even though no coherent idea emerged to unite the various groups, the post-1989 environment helped bring people together to discuss shaping the world along different socio-economic and political lines.

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