Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Jeremi Suri wrote, it was a great time to be young. The unification of Berlin meant the end of the Cold War was finally in sight, fizzling any immediate threat of war and sending markets the world over into a dizzying upward spiral. With their fears allayed and their prosperity apparently assured, American idealists were galvanized to make the world a better place.
Many more walls have fallen in the quarter century since. Democracy has spread across Eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East, and the United States in particular has made tremendous progress toward racial and gender equality. But today, idealism isn’t in vogue, and no longer is it easy being young. The global economy did not grow as exponentially as it was expected to after the Cold War, and youth unemployment has become a flashpoint across the entire world. When the fall of the Soviet Union did not spell the end of ideological conflict, the developed world took a dangerous turn toward restricting civil liberties in the name of security. And with each market crash or terrorist attack or failed revolution, the idealists of the recent past became more and more jaded.
It’s easy to see why. Today’s world is far more deeply interconnected than that of the late 1980s. Access to information has become more universal, and new and diverse perspectives are constantly rising to the forefront of public discourse. Americans have seen how tearing down oppressive systems led to anarchy and sectarianism in the Balkans and in Egypt and in Syria. Simply put, a lot of young people today are too informed and their futures too uncertain for directionless idealism.
That being said, 1989 still has value to us today — and not just in the form of a Taylor Swift album. While we should remember that not every barrier falls as smoothly as the Berlin Wall, the ensuing collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe demonstrates that peaceful protests with clear agendas provide the most conducive path toward societal change.
Most notably, today marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution, in which Czechoslovakia disassembled its communist government and dissolved into two sovereign states. The protests were multiethnic, inspired by high school students in the Slovak capital of Bratislava and catalyzed by Czech literary icon Vaclav Havel. Their demands were explicit and their methods civil. After just six weeks, the Czechoslovak government had planned its first election in half a century, and the country split peacefully in 1993.
Tearing down walls creates open spaces, both physically and culturally. Only when those open spaces become safe forums for tolerance and pluralism, as they did during the Velvet Revolution or the recent Tunisian Revolution, can protest beget progress and revolt breed responsibility. When they don’t, extremists rise up to fill the vacuum, often causing more harm than the repressive systems ever could.
Given how definitive the end of the Cold War must have felt for the idealistic activists of Suri’s generation, it makes sense that they thought that all could turn out well after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the ensuing two-and-a-half decades reminded the world that change is rarely so simple. We haven’t become afraid of tearing down walls. We’ve just realized that some are better left standing.
Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut.