The Collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union

From the Lecture Series: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, P.h.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Several years after the erection of the Berlin Wall, people started to lose confidence in the ideals of Communism, leading to a general mood of malaise. In 1985, a Communist leader became the general secretary of the Soviet Union. He was an ardent Leninist who wanted to make reforms and create a renewed confidence in the system. His name was Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.

The photo shows a part of the Berlin Wall.
The Communist leaders in East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall because they wanted to stop the people from crossing the eastern zone. (Image: Heiko Kueverling/Shutterstock)

Stalin’s death resulted in changes in the Soviet Union, something the Communists had never dreamt of. The combination of fear and ideological fervor that had propelled communism was increasingly replaced by a kind of dull conformity, a loss of momentum, and less resort to mass violence. The very existence of party elites—with special privileges, and access to goods or travel abroad for themselves and their families that weren’t allowed to ordinary people—really made a mockery of the ideological promise of equality.

Ordinary people stood in long lines to buy scarce and often shoddy goods; they could not dream of travel abroad; and often were reduced to making an art of speaking one way in public, and inside thinking something different. Gradually, people lost their confidence in the government. It was during this tumultuous phase that Mikhail Gorbachev found his footing in Russian politics and launched a slew of reforms.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev

Gorbachev in 1985 at a summit in Geneva, Switzerland.
After coming to power, Mikhail Gorbachev launched many reforms, but they had opposite results. (Image: White House Photo Office/Public domain)

Gorbachev introduced many reforms, including freedom of public expression, to create constructive criticism. This openness gave rise to criticism of the ruling system. Soon, these reforms got out of Gorbachev’s control.

Gorbachev allowed the satellite states to go their own way to decrease the costs of the Cold War and the commitments of the Soviet Union to these states. Public demonstrations demanding free elections led to the creation of non-communist governments in Poland and Hungary.

East Germany grew more isolated in the Eastern Bloc as those countries liberalized. Ordinary people increasingly lost their fear, leading to peaceful demonstrations in Leipzig. Hungary opened its borders to Austria to allow free travel. Many East Germans went to the west through Hungary. They went hundreds of miles to get to West Berlin, which was some blocks away from their starting point.

These developments further diminished the authority of the East German ruling regime. In response, The East German elites of the communist party promised more reforms and got rid of the leader who was going to exert more violence against protestors. Of course, they just wanted to buy more time.

Learn more about Gorbachev’s hello and the Soviet goodbye.

The Berlin Wall Fell

Eventually, a bureaucratic mistake and a pure accident changed everything. The East German regime was passing new rules that made travel to other countries easier. They planned to enact the rules sometime in the future. The draft of the law was not complete yet.

On the night of November 9, 1989, there was a press conference by a member of the Politburo. In that disorganized press conference, he read the press release to reporters. In a hurried and agitated response to a reporter who asked, “When does this come into effect?” he said, “immediately.”

The citizens of East Berlin were watching the conference on TV. They went out to the border to see if the plan was real. The guards, who had watched the conference, were confused. So, they stood aside and let people move past the wall and go to West Berlin. Soon people were going up the wall, hitting it with hammers and other things. On October 3, 1990, Germany became united again.

Learn more about total revolution in Russia.

The Dissolution of the Soviet Union

A domino effect created waves of peaceful protests in other Eastern European communist regimes and the Soviet Union. The Baltic States proclaimed independence from the Soviet Union, leading other states to do so, including Russia. In early 1991, Gorbachev resorted to violence. In Lithuania, Soviet Special Forces killed protestors with their tanks, but it could not stop those chain reactions.

Finally, in August of 1991, some associates of Gorbachev launched a coup to take power. At the press conference that the plotters held, some of them appeared with shaking hands. Others appeared to be drunk. The coup soon folded, and by the end of the year, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.

As independent republics emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, another stage of that longer process of world decolonization had been achieved, with the end of the ideological empire that Stalin had built up.

Among the marvels of this process unleashed in 1989, the greatest was the restraint of the protestors, who did not turn to violence when they easily might have. Since then, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have worked hard to build democracies on the basis of the sovereignty that earlier had been denied to them in an empire. They are working to reintegrate themselves into a Europe that they had earlier been split off from for decades.

Common Questions about the Collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union

Q: What were Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms?

Gorbachev introduced many reforms, including freedom of public expression, to create constructive criticism. He allowed the satellite states to go their own way to decrease the costs of the Cold War and the commitments of the Soviet Union to these states.

Q: Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

The Soviet Union collapsed as a result of the chain reactions after the liberalization of satellite states in Eastern Europe. Peaceful protests in many countries led to their independence from the Soviet Union.

Q: When was Germany reunited?

On October 3, 1990, Germany became united again after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Keep Reading
The Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia
Communist Civilization After the Death of Lenin
Marx, Engels, and the Rise of Communism