What brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago?
Some argue that it was the Cold War and the escalation of military spending that was just too costly for the Soviet empire to maintain.
If that was the case, that should be a cautionary tale for the United States as we struggle to maintain a nuclear arsenal, support over 700 military bases around the world, develop expensive new weapons systems, and, of course, fight two wars - including one in a country where the USSR, also, met its match.
But military over-spending was only part of the reason the people of East Germany were able to bring down the wall, according to an article in Forbes by Konrad H. Jarausch, professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "Ultimately it was the spread of detente, helped by his personal rapport with the U.S. president that allowed [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev to ... set the satellites free," he says.
Another factor was just as important. The wall couldn't have come down without a nonviolent people power uprising.
A recent account from the Geneva-based Ecumenical News International (ENI) tells of the church-based protests exactly a month before the Berlin Wall's opening, that followed earlier days of protests:
"After the 9 October services in Leipzig, an estimated 70,000 people poured into the city centre, connecting in a full circle on a ring road around the downtown area. 'There were too many of us that night to arrest, the prisons were already full,' Jochen Lassig, a Leipzig reporter, told ENI."
According to the article, there had been warnings in the communist-run media that force would be used to suppress demonstrations. "Local doctors and nurses reported that hospitals were building up blood reserves and being put on alert to deal with bullet wounds."
"Pastor Christian Fuhrer of Leipzig's St Nicholas' Church gave this account:
'More than 2,000 people leaving the church were welcomed by tens of thousands waiting outside with candles in their hands—an unforgettable moment. Two hands are necessary to carry a candle and to protect it from extinguishing so that you can not carry stones or clubs at the same time.'
In front of the Leipzig headquarters of the Stasi—the East German secret police—demonstrators gathered, laid candles on the steps, and sang songs. What few knew at the time was that inside the darkened building, most Stasi members were present and armed with live ammunition. They had orders to defend a strategic building. They had sandbags under the windows, still displayed today as it is now a museum.
Irmtraut Hollitzer, once curator of the museum, said: 'One stone through the window would have been enough to set off a bloodbath.'"
Professor Jarausch concurs that it was people power that made the difference:
"It took a transnational grass roots movement of courageous Polish workers, Hungarian activists, German refugees and Czech dissidents braving considerable risks in order to revive civil society and regain space for public protest. ... The fall of the Wall was magical because it signaled the peaceful triumph of people's power over a regime that commanded enormous repressive force."
The combination of a leader who understood the need for change—President Gorbachev—with a popular uprising allowed change to proceed without violence, and much more quickly than anyone could have imagined.
So the question this anniversary raises for me: Can we build such a people power movement today, strong enough to overcome the power of global corporations and wise enough to collaborate across our many differences? Because that's what it will take to get on with the urgent business of stopping climate catastrophe, building sustainable economies, reorienting our societies away from violence and militarism and towards a world that works for all.
We have a forward-thinking president, but he—and we—can't get much done without powerful people's movements creating real change.