On this day 28 years ago the Berlin Wall fell, marking the beginning of the end of the Soviet project, as on November 9, 1989 people started dismantling the iconic symbol of the Cold War.
The Soviet Union’s 1936 Constitution contains 146 Articles, each guaranteeing the various peoples of the Comintern permanent rights springing from the communist revolution. Article 17 promises that each of the countries that voluntarily join the Soviet Union will have the right to secede. Article 124 guarantees freedom of religion, while Article 125 promises the freedom to speak freely, write freely, and demonstrate freely in the streets. Article 127 unblinkingly guarantees the inviolability of all citizens without due process.
Yet, for the millions of people living under Soviet rule, these rights were all but nonexistent. Between 1934 and 1953, at least 1 million people were killed in the Soviet Union’s forced labor camps (though unofficial estimates go as high as 10 million). Hundreds of thousands more were locked away as political prisoners in the various Soviet states and territories outside Russia. The Soviet Constitution’s guarantee of a right to peaceably secede was ignored when Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
When the Berlin Wall was first erected in 1961, it cleaved the world into two great halves, separating the Soviet Empire from the free nations of the world. After the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four parts by the Allied powers: one part for France, one part for the UK, one part for the U.S., and one part for the USSR. The city of Berlin was designated as the capital of occupied Germany, though it lay in Soviet territory that Russia had painfully wrested from Nazi control. In an effort to promote comity between the victorious allies, the capital itself was split into two halves: a Western half governed by the free Federal Republic of Germany and an eastern half governed by the communist German Democratic Republic.
Though the city of Berlin was officially divided into two halves, there was relative free movement between the communist section and the free section in the immediate post-war period. Hundreds of thousands of East Germans took advantage of this, first by escaping into West Berlin and claiming residency, and then by exploiting various loopholes once the communist leadership began to crack down on travel.
By the early 1950s, however, the rate of emigration had gotten so severe that the mayor of East Berlin complained of an impending crisis. A significant portion of the émigrés that escaped East Germany for West Berlin was educated intelligentsia who could afford the high price of escape. Their mass exodus was a significant brain drain on the East German economy. The mayor believed that East Germany could only keep the hundreds of thousands of people escaping to the West each year by erecting a physical barrier.
Stalin agreed. In 1952, the Kremlin issued an order forbidding any movement between West Berlin and East Berlin. By 1961, the USSR began construction on a physical barrier. The Berlin Wall was constructed over four phases: first, as a wire fence and concrete wall in 1961, then with improved fencing in 1962, then with reinforced concrete in 1965, and finally with super-reinforced concrete in 1975. The last improvement was built to prevent East Germans from escaping by ramming cars into the Wall.
In the West, the Wall came to be seen as a physical representation of what Winston Churchill famously called the “Iron Curtain.” West Berliners regularly protested against the Wall and the totalitarian state that it sheltered. U.S. presidents lamented the oppressive shadow that it cast over millions of people and President Ronald Reagan famously called on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down in 1987. Yet for all their protests, the Wall stood. It was clear that destinies of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall were inextricably tied; as long as there was a Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, there would be a Berlin Wall.
Fortunately, the USSR was not permanent. By 1988, the Soviet economy had gotten too bogged down by corruption and military expenditures to last much longer. Mass protests in East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia had forced the communists’ hand. On November 9, 1988, East Germans gathered at the Wall and demanded that city open the gates to the West. The East Berlin government relented, and millions of Germans rushed to the wall to take down the wall piece by piece. Three years later, the Soviet Union dissolved peacefully, restoring freedom to the millions of people who lived under its rule.
Winston Churchill once called communism, “The philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.” Whether or not that is true of communism as whole is a matter of philosophical debate. For the millions of people that celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1988, however, it was clear that communism under the Soviet Union had been none of the things that it promised. The experience of the Soviet Union showed that without the culture and traditions to support them, constitutional rights are only as thick as the parchment they are written on.
Ugonna Eze is a Fellow for Constitutional Studies at the National Constitution Center.