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The Fall of the Wall and Its Legacy

A new book 1989 by Professor Mary Elise Sarotte explores the fall of the Berlin Wall and uses the language of architecture to describe the model of order constructed in Germany in the wake of the Cold War.

Mary Sarotte, professor of international relations in USC College, spoke about her new book, <em>1989: The Struggle to Create Post-War Europe</em>, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. in October. Photo courtesy of the Wilson Center.
Mary Sarotte, professor of international relations in USC College, spoke about her new book, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-War Europe, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. in October. Photo courtesy of the Wilson Center.

Released on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, USC College's Mary Sarotte's new book examines a year that forever transformed international relations -- 1989.

In 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton University Press, 2009), the professor of international relations investigates how then-West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl played a pivotal role in striking while the iron was hot and unifying Germany. She looks at how NATO was expanded and Russia was left in the periphery of the new Europe.

“When a known order clearly ceases to exist, what does the day after look like?” Sarotte asked. “How do you reconstruct political order out of chaos?”


1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton University Press, 2009) by Mary Sarotte.

In the book, Kohl emerges as a key figure over Soviet leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mikhail Gorbachev, who called for a “common European home,” and proposed a variety of unspecific plans that kept changing.

“One reviewer said I made Helmut Kohl sound like Otto von Bismarck,” Sarotte said, referring to the 19th-century Prussian German statesman who oversaw the unification of Germany.

“I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not,” Sarotte said with a laugh.

Sarotte spent nearly five years researching in Moscow, Berlin, Bonn, Paris, London and Washington, D.C. She reviewed vital documents and interviewed more than 30 major figures including James Baker, Douglas Hurd, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Dennis Ross, Horst Teltschik and Brent Scowcroft. Scowcroft participated in an October discussion of Sarotte’s book at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Currently conducting research at the American Academy in Berlin, Sarotte traveled from Germany to speak at the event. During the discussion, Scowcroft praised her book.

“This is an awesome piece of research and I commend it,” said Scowcroft, the national security advisor under former President George H.W. Bush. “Having lived through most of these things, I’m impressed with the depth of research Mary has done.”

Sarotte’s book begins with the wall’s collapse — an event that will forever symbolize the Cold War’s end. The November 9, 1989 opening of the border separating Western from Eastern Germany turned out peacefully. But a nonviolent outcome was not obvious at the time.

“Remember, months earlier there were similar protests in Tian’anmen Square, where you saw the Goddess of Democracy staring down the face of [Communist leader] Mao Zedong,” Sarotte said.

“That story did not have a happy ending, of course,” she said, referring to the weeks-long protests and military deployment that left thousands dead.

Although East Germans were protesting in the streets en masse, demanding reforms, there were no clear signs authorities intended to open the wall on Nov. 9, Sarotte said. It happened accidentally during a rambling, hour-long news conference when Guenter Schabowski, a member of the East German Politburo and spokesman, used the phrases “exit via border crossings” and “possible for every citizen.” Responding to his words, journalists in the room hammered Schabowski with questions about when the new policy would go into effect and what would happen to the Berlin Wall.

Nervously flipping through pages of his prepared statement, Schabowski blurted, “Immediately, right away.” He tried to backpedal, but it was too late. By 7:03 p.m., the wires had reported the Berlin Wall was open. Shortly thereafter, crowds appeared on both sides of the wall. Traffic barriers were eventually lifted and the Cold War was effectively over.

After the wall came down, German unification was not a given. There were many competing models of order. When Sarotte examined documents by Kohl, Gorbachev, Baker, Margaret Thatcher, Bush, François Mitterrand and others, she noted an emerging theme.

“Policymakers in many languages, in many countries used the same phrases to describe what was happening at the time,” Sarotte said. “They used the language of architecture.”

Americans talked about “transatlantic security architecture,” Germans spoke of “a Germany under a European roof,” Gorbachev argued for a “common European home.”

“There were lots of phrases about ‘blueprints’ and ‘construction,’ ” Sarotte said. “So I decided to follow the lead of the historical actors and adopt the language of architecture as the organizing concept for the book.”

Sarotte compares the possible new models of order in 1989 to an architectural competition.

“There were alternative futures,” she said. “I’m not saying they were all equally likely, but there were credible alternatives out there. Looking at them helps us to understand the alternative that won.”

The four proposed models with the most significant backing were, as classified by Sarotte: restoration, revivalism, heroism and prefab.

As an architectural term, restoration means to build something exactly like it looked before, Sarotte said. This model had support from the Soviet Union, Britain and France, but East and West Germany were horrified.

Kohl responded with revivalism, which means to take an older architectural style and update it for a new purpose. He wanted to build two Germanys that would each maintain its independence, but eventually would become reunified.

Gorbachev responded to that idea with heroism. In architecture, the term describes a plan for huge skyscrapers that would destroy well-established neighborhoods. It implies an ambitious but potentially foolhardy design. Under his plan, a variety of new institutions would create a common European home. Neither Bush nor Kohl wanted to indulge in creating vast new institutions.

So Bush and Kohl worked closely on the solution: the use of pre-existing, pre-fabricated Western institutions, the plan that ultimately prevailed.

“By saying what happened is prefab, I don’t in any way mean to say that it was cheap,” Sarotte said. “In fact, prefab is very in vogue right now in architecture as a way of looking for a sustainable design.”

The idea was that tried and true institutions in the West such as NATO or the Grundgesetz (the basic law in West Germany) — were installed in the East.

“It was clear prefab had won,” she said. “Then you had the phase afterwards to actually start building.”