The Real Story of the Night the Berlin Wall Fell

By Maxwell Ratner '21 | November 14, 2019

Jeffrey Engel at NHIOP

On November 7, the New Hampshire Institute of Politics (NHIOP) welcomed Jeffrey A. Engel, Director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, for a discussion titled, “Good thing you didn’t Know: The Real Story of the Night the Berlin Wall Fell.”

Engel is an award-winning scholar and teacher, and an expert on the U.S. presidency and American diplomatic history. Engel is a Senior Fellow of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and of the John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies and he studied at Cornell University, Oxford University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, from which he received his Ph.D. in American History in 2001. 

Engel discussed the fall of the Soviet Union, and why its collapse was so unique, unlikely, and rather lucky. He described the Cold War as, “an event that could have ended all of existence,” and asked listeners to keep that in mind throughout the discussion. He argued that the Cold War did not end because of decisions made in Washington, D.C. and western Europe, but rather decisions made in East Berlin and Moscow.

He talked about how protests around the world affected the protests in East Berlin. Until the late 1980s, the way that people handled their dissatisfaction with the government in East Berlin was to leave the city. However, around 1988, this began to change. The people of East Berlin began to protest, at first in small numbers, but these numbers grew. Engel described this as the government in East Berlin’s biggest fear. He said that East Berlin could always rely on removing people who disliked or threatened the government, but that began to change. According to Engel, this is what began the road to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War.

He then tells the story of how these protests almost ended with violence by the East Berlin government. The political elite in East Berlin had ordered the military to fire on the protesters, however, the commander who was on the ground, commanding the troops, called his superiors right before he ordered the attack, and they did not answer. Engel says this is because the political elite in East Berlin did not want to be held directly responsible for the attack. This whole event illustrates how close the protesters were to being massacred, and how lucky the world is that the commander decided to call off the attack. 

He completed his discussion by again discussing how lucky the world really was that the Berlin Wall fell without terrible violence, and without leading to WWIII. He described President George H.W. Bush’s efforts to not sound too excited that the Berlin Wall fell in his press conference after it happened. President Bush did this because he did not want to motivate some of Mikhail Gorbachev’s political enemies to form a coup in response to the Soviet Union’s apparent loss in the Cold War, after the Berlin Wall fell.

He concluded by restating the importance of the brave protesters in East Berlin, who for the vast majority of the protests, remained peaceful. By not turning to violent protests, Engel argued, the protesters, along with some luck, were able to see the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War without any major violence.