It’s easy to be pessimistic about the future of liberty. Yet sometimes freedom advances with extraordinary speed. Like 25 years ago in Europe.
As 1989 dawned communism had ruled what was the Russian Empire reborn for seven decades. The system failed to fulfill its promise of human liberation, but survived with the backing of secret police, gulags, and the Red Army.
Then in an instant it all was swept away. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was open. One of the most dramatic symbols of human tyranny was gone.
Tens of thousands of East Germans were imprisoned for “Republikflucht,” or attempting to flee the East German paradise. Some 1000 people died trying to escape East Germany, about 200 from Berlin.
As 1989 dawned there was obvious unrest in what Ronald Reagan had called the Evil Empire. Hope was rising, but no one could forget that previous popular demands for freedom always had been crushed by Soviet tanks.
In 1989 Hungary led the way. Plans were made for multiparty elections. The Communist Party dissolved. When the new leadership tore down Hungary’s wall with the West the Iron Curtain had a huge hole.
Poland’s communist regime made a deal with a revived Solidarity Union and held free elections. The liberal tide rose in Czechoslovakia, sweeping away the hardline leadership installed to squelch the Prague Spring of 1968.
The East German regime remained tough. Frustrated East Germans began escaping through Hungary, with its open border.
Protests spread, causing the communist leadership to temporize. On November 4 a million people gathered in East Berlin.
On November 9 visibly struggling Politburo member Guenter Schabowski declared that East Germans would be free to travel to the West “immediately.” Border guards desperately sought guidance as tens of thousands of people gathered demanding to be let through. Just before midnight the security forces stood aside.