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What if the Berlin Wall hadn’t come down?

I have always been interested in the What If? question that consists of asking how the world would have been different had the Berlin Wall not fallen and had the USSR just blundered onwards indefinitely, still being the USSR.

That’s a question that has long intrigued me, ever since the Wall in question actually did fall. As you can tell from how I phrase the question, I am damn near certain that the world would have been a far grimmer place than it now is, had that horrible structure not been trashed or turned into souvenir fragments. But, beyond noting with approval the way that various eastern European former Soviet possessions have become much freer and less poor, I have never taken the time to think through the details of this feeling. How might western public opinion have developed, had the Wall remained? How would the world as a whole have been different?

So, I was very interested to learn yesterday about an IEA event, which I have already signed up to attend, to be held at the end of this month:

This month sees the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, ushering in dramatic change across East and West Germany. But even now, East Germany still lags behind the West and the legacy of socialism has been hard to overcome.

So what would have happened if the wall hadn’t come down?

On Thursday 28th November, the IEA is delighted to host an intriguing discussion on that very premise. Professor Syed Kamall will chair the conversation with our own Head of Political Economy Dr. Kristian Niemietz, and historians Roger Moorhouse and Giles Udy.

Rather than just bang on with more guess-answers, I will keep this posting brief and await comments from others.

In particular, are there any ways in which the fall of the Berlin Wall has made the world worse? I’m not talking about how it has embarrassed Communists and (a tribe I particularly despise) anti-anti-Communists … like that’s a bad thing. Those are just two of many features. I’m talking about how life for regular people around the world, and perhaps also in Russia itself, may actually, in some weird knock-on effect ways, have been made worse. I can’t think of any obvious ways that anything like that has happened, but maybe someone else can.

33 comments to What if the Berlin Wall hadn’t come down?

  • Tim the Coder

    By removing a clear example of what socialism delivers?
    Venezuela is too small and far away. The whole of Eastern Europe was in yer face, and hard to ignore, despite Corbyn (etc) trying.

    Hardly justification for retaining the wall, but you did ask for ANY upside.

  • Matthew

    There would a great many more Ladis and Trabants running around. Europe would be a great deal smokier. Poverty would still be a thing in Eastern Europe.

    The wall came down because East Germany could no longer hold out because it was increasingly isolated. That means for the wall to stand, all of the Warsaw Pact would have to remain totalitarian states. So the stupid and evil policies of the Communist regimes would continue. Therefore, the amount of suffering in the world would be much greater.

    Further, since the communist European economies were almost terminal, things would be far worse than they were as the oligarchs would have to become even more oppressive to remain in power.

  • John B

    The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would not have happened, nor the subsequent West’s destabilisation of Libya and Syria, so no ISIS, 9/11 or 7/7. It was threat from USSR military which kept the West focused on protecting Europe, plus Russia would not have allowed the West to run riot in the Middle East.

    Expansion of the EEC/EU would not have happened, since the Eastern Countries would still be part of the ComEcon. Probably no Single Currency or riot of EU regulation, for fear of damaging EU economies purely for political gain, particularly with a still divided, less confident Germany.

    The climate change nonsense would not have happened because the West would not want to weaken its economic superiority.

    The Snowflake generation and its love of Socialism would not have happened as young people would have the real life Socialist experiment to observe and be too preoccupied with possible Soviet agression to worry about gender pronouns.

  • Runcie Balspune

    I’d say nuclear war would have become a real possibility.

    Without the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact countries, Gorbachev’s position as a western-friendly leader would probably have become untenable, and rather than be replaced along with the dissolution of the USSR, he would have been replaced with a more hard line communist who might have preferred conflict to the embarrassment of admitting the whole socialist program was wrong, something that previous leaders had maintained, and with the rapid crumbling of the USSR economy and the looming redundancy of the USSR nuclear missile armory (through Ronnie’s Star Wars program), it might have been just enough to tip a cracked up politburo hero into hitting the big red button just for kicks.

    no ISIS, 9/11 or 7/7

    I doubt the continued presence of the USSR would have prevented this, it was just pure coincidence the fall of communism came about with the rise of Islamism, the Iranian revolution was before any cracks in the Soviet bloc started to appear.

  • Kevin B

    WWIII?

    The tensions would have to be released in some way and as the communist economies tanked, a more ruthless Soviet leader might have provoked war with the west in order to shore up support at home.

  • CaptDMO

    Sounds like some real good PoliSci speculative fan fiction.
    Just add a splash of Economic speculative fan fiction and the punch bowl will
    be ready for Award Winning experts to launch the turds into it from across the room.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Sounds like some real good PoliSci speculative fan fiction.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comrade_Dad

  • Jacob

    “The wall came down because East Germany could no longer hold out because it was increasingly isolated.”

    The wall coming down has nothing to do with East Germany. It was installed and sustained by the USSR and by Soviet tanks. East Germany and the rest of East Europe were puppet states, were a fiction, not real states, a fiction maintained by Soviet tanks only.
    The wall came down when Gorbachev decided he was no longer interested in sustaining the burden of policing (and supporting) those puppet states.

    Maybe he also thought it would be more humane to free those states, we cannot know his inner rationale. Maybe (I think so) he didn’t really understand what he was doing. But he got the most deserved Nobel Peace prize in the whole history of that ridiculous prize. Because – dismantling Communism without blood shed was a HUGE achievement, even if not fully planned or intended.

  • In a way, in some places, it never came down so we have a working example. In Eastern Europe, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the countries mostly drew upon their past experience with less socialist forms of government and began undoing the damage of 40 years of communism. In Russia, there was nothing to draw upon for the last 80 years, so we have Putin as a kinder, gentler (?) Czar. Without the fall of the wall, we would most likely be seeing some form of crony capitalism with a Red veneer laid over it, mostly honored in the breech. Maybe something more like China. Communism with richer, more economically well-off peasants.

  • Paul Marks

    The comment of John B. is not good, although it has some truth in it at some points, – the West did not create the opposition in Syria, where the Assad family has faced revolts against its tyrannical rule for many years (not that those who revolt are automatically any better than what they revolt against). Nor is the West to blame for the Taliban in Afghanistan (they were NOT the forces the United States supported against the Soviet Union), or the Iraqi dictatorship (the socialist regime there was overwhelmingly armed by the Eastern Block – and it broke the 1991 Ceasefire agreement repeatedly).

    The Soviet Union still being in existence would not have meant that the United States could tolerate the invasion of Kuwait – indeed it would have made it more important to reverse the Iraqi aggression. And had Saddam not learned his lesson (I admit that Soviet control might have kept him in order – or it might not) and had carried on with his activities (propaganda, support for anti Western groups, and so on) he would have had to be dealt with – sooner or later. Although I would have preferred an internal coup (with a new ruler) rather than invasion – the CIA seems to be utterly useless at organising coups these days. The war went wrong not in the overthrow of Saddam (a mass murdering tyrant who was successfully over throne), but in its horribly misconceived plan in what to do after Saddam was overturned – YES it might well have been the better course not to have a formal invasion in 2003 at all (but Saddam would still have to be dealt with in some other way – he just would-not-stop his behaviour around the Middle East). Again the failure to organise a coup or indeed to have any alternative ruler in mind is obvious.

    In short the war at the start of the 1990s was unavoidable – but the war of 2003 could and should have been avoided (if the CIA and so on not proved totally unable, or unwilling, to organise a coup in Iraq).

    The Taliban sheltered AQ which was responsible for the 9/11 attacks – indeed they murdered the leader of the forces the West had supported against the Soviets – on about the same day as the attacks in New York (“the lion” was murdered by a suicide bomber pretending to be a journalist). The idea that the West is somehow in the wrong for the war of 2001 is just wrong.

    As for blaming the West for the mad socialist Colonel who had terrorised Libya since 1969 and had supported terrorism around the world – well that is an interesting point of view. Interesting – but false.

    But this all brings us back to the Berlin Wall – for where does all this anti American propaganda and disinformation come from? It comes from Mr Putin’s “RT”. I am NOT saying that John B. gets his opinions straight from RT (although in implying that having Eastern Europe under the Soviet Union would be better than most of these countries being members of the European Union…. well that comes close), but sadly some “libertarian” and “conservative” outlets pass on (perhaps without knowing it) RT propaganda (sometimes word for word). I noticed this with the Ron Paul campaign as long ago as 2008. He did not get it from RT directly – he got it from Lew Rockwell who got it from Murray Rothbard (dead by 2008 – but who had followed the Kremlin line for many years, indeed the late Murray Rothbard sided with ANYONE who opposed the West, even supporting the neo Nazi propaganda line of Harry Elmer Barnes).

    This is how the Berlin Wall could have stayed (or might not have stayed) – like the People’s Republic of China, Mr Putin has accepted elements of “capitalism” whilst maintaining his dictatorship.

    It is possible that the various Marxist regimes in Eastern Europe could have done the same – accepting some limited capitalism (to stave off economic collapse) whilst maintaining their dictatorship – perhaps whether the Berlin Wall had fallen or not.

  • Paul Marks

    That bit on Eastern Europe – Soviet rule and membership of the European Union.

    No one opposes the E.U. more than I do – and I would love to see Estonia, Poland, Hungary (and so on) free of it. But it is vastly better than the rule of the Soviet Union.

    I am sure, totally sure, that John B. agrees – his comment was just a bit rushed. He will explain his true opinion better than I can – but I am sure (quite sure) that he celebrates the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Eastern Europe.

  • neonsnake

    Sounds like some real good PoliSci speculative fan fiction

    So, everything written by Gibson, Sterling, Shirley, Cardigan, Lewis and Rucker in the 80s, then?

  • bob sykes

    If you live in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Balkans, or Ukraine, your world would be decidedly a better place. The depredations of the US/EU in those places approach those of Nazi Germany in Europe.

  • Mr Ed

    John B

    The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would not have happened,

    The war in Afghanistan more or less started with the Soviet invasion (and the prior coup they instigated), the rest followed from that chaos. I don’t see how Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 is any less likely with the Wall remaining. Perhaps an intact Warsaw Pact would have deterred Western forces from leaving Europe?

    For me, would Yugoslavia, that little baby Soviet Union, have disintegrated (at all or less bloodily) is one of the great counterfactuals.

    I suspect that in the UK, Major and/or Kinnock would have suggested a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Warsaw Pact, to maintain ‘stability’, and a second term GHW Bush would have agreed, as the ‘accursed, groaning slave Empire*’ staggered on.

    *The late Auberon Waugh.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Ed – agreed.

  • Behind Enemy Lines

    Oddly enough, I think the Cold War (in which the Soviets featured as an enemy) tended to keep our communist and fellow-traveller fifth column a bit more in check. Of course, they were quite as obnoxious then as they are today, and traitors to boot. But the external Soviet menace inspired meaningful conservative opposition within our respective political classes. That ended after the smoke cleared in 1991. We could have solved the left for generations at that point, but chose the weak and easy option instead.

    The left has had a free run since then, and we’re much much worse off for it.

    Which is no argument against 1989. We just need to take a lesson, in case we get a similar opportunity in the future.

  • Alsadius

    If you’re specifically looking for downsides, the adjustment costs are the obvious one. West Germany was probably substantially poorer in the 1990s because of the cost of bringing the East Germans back up to speed. Similarly, Russia in the 90s was such a basket case that it may have actually been better off under Gorbachev than Yeltsin.

    I’m gasping at straws, though. It was like 99% awesome.

  • The wall falling may have delayed for some two decades the advance of the woke – and implanted in now-older generations more reasons to resist them. It was a marked discredit of the left, from which they took time to bounce back. (That they did is the best possible justification for the warning never to appease the woke because they will never be satisfied.)

    Talking about the consequences of the wall not falling requires having an alternative history of why it did not fall. Did it not fall because Andropov did not die but instead started a new crack-down – or a new foreign war? I’d guess that was very possible. Did it not fall because Gorby managed the Chinese post-Mao path – economic reforms without political ones (beyond easing off the oppression a bit). That seems unlikely because of the nationality tensions – I think China’s path was not easily available even to Russia, still less its eastern-European empire. China (unfortunately for the rest of us) does have a long history of a being a single nation.

  • JohnB

    The world was very different in the 1970s.

    The changes towards the end of the 70s led to the Wall coming down.

    In Britain, after it’s dark days of seeming imminent Marxist take over, the later 70s saw a complete reversal, something I doubt can happen again.

    Margaret Thatcher and her team happened in the UK.
    Ronald Reagan was elected in the US, Lech Waleasa was active in Poland, Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.
    John Gouriet and the National Association for Freedom broke several strikes and turned a tide.
    Libertarianism happened.

    The resurgence of the anti-freedom mentality, since about the late 1990s, but especially since the turn of the century, has been incremental and gradual.

    I guess most most people have never realised what was achieved, and how it has been stealthily reversed.

  • Jacob

    Paul: “It is possible that the various Marxist regimes in Eastern Europe could have done the same – accepting some limited capitalism (to stave off economic collapse) whilst maintaining their dictatorship – perhaps whether the Berlin Wall had fallen or not.”

    As I said, the Marxist regimes of Eastern Europe were not independent entities. They were a fiction, a prop, created and supported by Soviet tanks. When the Soviet tanks quit, the regimes disappeared. Which was also the cause of the fall of the Berlin wall.

  • Mr Ed

    Jacob,

    You are quite right about the Eastern European Marxist regimes, even in legal theory, the Armed Forces of the Warsaw Pact members were legally subordinate to a Soviet Deputy Defence Minister. As Viktor Suvorov put it ‘There is sovereignty for you‘. EU members take note when the EU Armed Forces are developed.

    For those interested in a commentary on day-to-day Soviet life in the later USSR, there is an interesting YT channel called The Ushanka Show, with a host of topics on life in the USSR, from the OBHSS fraud squad to the KGB, to the quirks of daily life and jokes about the system. The videos are the work of a Ukrainian born in 1971, now living in the USA.

  • Albion's Blue Front Door

    There is an argument that had the Berlin wall not fallen and, say, the west had begun its drive to open its borders to anyone who may or may not have the best interest of the west at heart then East Germany would be watching all that happens with mass immigration and smiling to itself. Indeed, it could be said some people who dislike what is happening in the new, improved West Germany might think of jumping the border the other way. The east may have appeal if it was deemed to be able to maintain ‘Ein Volk’ longer.

    All pure speculation, of course, but it was invited in.

  • Klaus Chavanne

    First, I am entirely happy that the Wall did come down and that Soviet communism was relegated to the ash heap of history.

    That being out of the way, there are things that have not been improved by its fall and that arguably have been made worse, at least in the West. Most blatant, I think, is the behavior of our self-proclaimed “elites,” the upper caste that arrogates to itself the power to rule over the citizenry.

    I say “rule,” because the consent of the governed is a quaint concept that is no more than a fiction at this point. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, governments in the developed countries of the West broadly did try to improve the lives of their citizens. Not always successfully, but at least they tried, if only to ensure that the population would remain quiescent and not get rid of the governing structures to replace them with communism. In effect, the existence of communism on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and the fear that any communist revolution would necessarily work out like 1917 in the USSR (or 1949 in China, 1959 in Cuba, 1975 in Vietnam, etc.), provided an incentive to Western governments, politicians, and bureaucrats to retain some legitimacy in order to fend off their own demise at the hands of angry mobs.

    That is now gone.

    Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western ruling class has shown itself to be corrupt, incompetent, and entirely self-serving. There are undoubtedly many other reasons, such as globalization, the information revolution, etc., but it is not entirely a coincidence that economic inequality has increased in the West over the past 30 years and that it increasingly seems that government has completely abandoned the desire to improve people’s lives, but has instead become an organization fully devoted to making people’s lives more difficult.

    Examples? Well, green pretty much anything: no straws, no mylar balloons, low-flush toilets, electric cars, dishwashers and detergents and laundry machines that hardly clean anything, etc. Traffic congestion that is increasingly worse, and often by design – as in New York City, where the mayor has decided to eliminate significant street acreage by dedicating it to bike lanes – this in a city in which there are no bicyclists for 6 months out of the year due to the weather and in which there are hardly enough to justify rejigging the transportation sector to begin with. And at the same time the government can’t keep the lights on – witness California, and soon, New York City as well, which is already subject to occasional brownouts or blackouts, and one can only imagine how that’s going to work once the Indian Point nuclear power plant is decommissioned. In 2021.

    Now, it is true that all this might have happened anyway – bureaucrats being hateful individuals – but I don’t think so. Competition improves outcomes, and now that there is none for the western governing structures (Fukuyama, the end of history, and all that) we see the results: a sclerotic political class that acts in many ways like the Ancien Régime in the run-up to 1789.

    May the tumbrels start rolling.

  • Jacob

    Besides the fact of the formal subordination of Warsaw Pact armies to a Soviet commander is the fact that whenever some kind of mutiny happened, it was Soviet tanks that suppressed it (in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia). The Soviet Union could not rely on the local communist army to keep the communist regimes in power. The local communist puppet regime sometimes deviated or tried to deviate from Soviet Dogma and rule (from being a puppet). So Soviet tanks (stationed permanently in those countries) were called upon to remove the deviant leaders.

    It all came down very fast the moment Gorbachev ordered Soviet tanks to not interfere.

  • Rich Rostrom

    For the Berlin Wall to persist, the USSR has to persist. But could it?

    The USSR had two serious disorders. First, the damage caused by the inevitable failures of central planning. Second, the corruption resulting from dictatorial rule, which became endemic in the Brezhnev era.

    Gorbachev saw that the corruption endangered the functioning of the state and economy. He instituted glasnost to expose the corruption, and generate support for perestroika to remove the men who practiced it.

    But in doing so, he triggered an “information cascade”, which swept away the entire credibility of the regime.

    Were there alternatives? Andropov (former head of the KGB) allegedly busted many high-ranking Brezhnevite apparatchiks for corruption and incompetence.

    Behind the High Kremlin Walls, by former Party insiders Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Kelpikova, claims that Andropov died after being shot and seriously wounded by a woman whose husband and son had been purged. (She lived in the same elite apartment block, and ambushed him on the stairs.)

    Suppose she missed, or the wound was minor. Andropov might then have led a second “Great Purge” of “wreckers” and “saboteurs”, now defined as grafters, nepotists, incompetents, and alcoholics, thereby extending the survival of the Soviet regime.

    Would such a purge even be possible? The Brezhnev years saw the rise of Mafia-like crime syndicates that even the KGB could not suppress. The gangs were as ruthless as the KGB itself. I recall a (possibly fictional) remark by a frustrated Chekist: “There’s someone they fear even more than us.”

    Another factor: some of the Brezhnev era corruption was the formation of “black” processes to alleviate the damage from rigid Gosplan edicts. The crackdown could suppress those processes, aggravating that problem; the regime might collapse from that before now.

    I recently saw a claim that Mao broke socialism in China with the Great Leap Forward. The disruption was so severe that to survive, the Chinese people formed an entire “black” market economy. This later became the basis of the overt market economy formed under Deng.

    Another possibility would be a de facto transit to a market economy while retaining the nominal Communist front. This was achieved in China and (remarkably) Vietnam, but AFAIK both countries have abandoned emigration controls. So the Wall would come down. (Unless it was preserved to save regime face while the fences elsewhere were removed.)

    It should be noticed that some Communist states not propped up by the USSR also fell. Albania, for instance.

    Only two Communist states have survived: North Korea and Cuba. I don’t think the circumstances of either could be applied to the USSR.

  • Jacob

    The communist countries suffer from the same problem that kingdoms or authoritarian regimes suffered always: the problem of succession. There is a strong ruler who establishes the regime (or dynasty, or empire); after he dies it’s a matter of luck: his heirs can carry on for a generation or two or three, then some weakling heir (an idiot King) comes along and the empire disintegrates, after many years of decline.

    That is why the Soviet Union (empire) disintegrated – the weakling heir – Gorbachev. If it had been luckier and have had some stronger heirs it could have carried on for another generation or two. But, nothing lasts forever. The timing of the disintegration is purely random.

  • Jacob

    It was claimed that democratic regimes solved the problem of succession. This is not entirely correct: see current events in the US, Britain, Spain or Israel.

  • Rich Rostrom (November 20, 2019 at 11:16 pm), I agree that Andropov surviving seems the likeliest wall-does-not-fall scenario.

    Your two should be three: China is still troubling the world.

  • The Pedant-General

    Jacob,

    “It was claimed that democratic regimes solved the problem of succession. This is not entirely correct: see current events in the US, Britain, Spain or Israel.”

    I’m not so sure. The current unsettling political climate is, in possibly all of those cases, due to an actual shift in popular opinion. I shall now make a bold statement that I hope I can justify 🙂

    [BOLD STATEMENT]
    ALL governments – of whatever stripe, from the nastiest dictatorship through absolute if not entirely benevolent monarchies and onwards to the sunlit uplands of democracies in their myriad forms – must, eventually, have to contend with popular approval.
    [/BOLD STATEMENT]

    [shaky justification]
    It’s just that democracies must do so on a much much shorter timescale.
    [/shaky justification]

    It’s not therefore an issue of succession directly: it’s just that the nastier your government is, the more important that succession is to ensure that you don’t have to face the music of popular (dis)approval.

    What’s happening in the US, UK, Spain and Israel is that the democratic structure hasn’t yet caught up with the shift, so the outcomes aren’t keeping people happy. Democracies are, [bold statement] uniquely [/bold statement] able to deal with this on a shorter timescale, thereby avoiding revolution and bloodshed.

    By contrast, if your state relies on suppression of dissent, you will be lacking those natural processes of error correction.

  • Mr Ed

    Just remember Stalin’s ditty, shamelessly purloined by me:

    Roses are red,
    Violets are red,
    If you’re not red,
    You’ll be shot in the head
    ‘”.

    Coming to the UK 13th December 2019?

  • Jacob

    I forgot Chile – whenever there is an elected right-wing President – the left hordes take to the street in violent protests aimed at toppling him. And the leftist press applauds “they protest against inequality”.

    The presumption was that under democracy you accept an elected administration, which you have the chance to remove at the next election.

    That is not so anymore.

  • The Pedant-General

    Jacob,

    Actually, that’s true. I stand corrected. The issue there is that the more bonkers left wing government that gets elected, the less democratic it ends up being.

    As the saying goes, you can vote yourself into socialism, but you have to shoot your way out.

  • Paul Marks

    Just in case anyone is confused – John B and JohnB are two separate people.

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