The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. Today that event of more than thirty years ago is not only history, for more and more people it feels like ancient history.

But not for me. I was born during the Cold War. Born in the Sixties, witnessed the Seventies, came of age in the Eighties. For me and almost everyone else at that time, the Cold War felt permanent. Imposed before the lifetimes of everyone born after 1945, the Cold War literally structured the world and it became the only world we knew.

Still, that was decades ago. So does the fall of the Berlin Wall even matter anymore? I believe it does. Not only because many millions of Germans now enjoy freedoms they couldn’t otherwise. Not only because the fall of the Wall marked the beginning of the end of that historical epoch we call the Cold War. It matters because of what the Berlin Wall, and the causes behind its fall, reveal about us as human beings — as nationalities, as governments, as individuals, even if you were born after the fall of the Wall.

This essay is the first in a series about the Berlin Wall, how it came about, how it came down, as well as a few personal thoughts. In the late Eighties, I was an intelligence analyst on one side of the Cold War divide, a fact which made me a keen observer. Yet, more recently, as I prepared to write this series by reviewing events that I thought I knew, I discovered some things I didn’t know at the time but which are now essential to the story. (Journalists warn us that newspapers offer only the “first draft” of history. That might apply to memories, too.) So instead of attempting a definitive history, some of these essays are somewhat autobiographical as I’ve tried to capture some of the emotions I felt. This first essay offers some context about how I perceived the Cold War, up until the fall of the Wall.

Mention the Cold War today and a flash of images may come to mind: the Berlin Wall, nuclear weapons, military parades in Red Square. Yet, at its core, the Cold War was a war fought over ideas, albeit fought with all the deadly seriousness that humans are capable of. At stake were simple questions whose answers are not so simple: Who should rule? How should society and its economy be organized? What beliefs and values should people hold? To what extent does the individual matter?

We in the twenty-first century are still arguing over political philosophies that dominated the twentieth: Socialism, National Socialism, Fascism, Liberalism, Classical Liberalism, Capitalism, Communism. By adding some twenty-first century coloring, the arguments somehow feel fresh. But perhaps the past is not irrelevant after all.

If individual freedom represents an ideal, its opposite is totalitarianism. Nazi Germany, with its intertwined ideologies of dictatorial Fascism and racist National Socialism, is totalitarianism’s most infamous manifestation, but there are others. Fighting against Nazi Germany in World War II, the Western democracies allied themselves with the totalitarian Soviet Union and its Communist ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Marx was an economic theorist. Lenin began as a militant revolutionary who ultimately became a dictator and created a police state which became the model for Communist dictatorships ever since. Sometimes the extent of oppression might differ, per time and per country, but the basic system of oppression was always there.

Wars can produce strange alliances.

“If this war is about anything at all, it is a war in favor of freedom of thought.” So said an Englishman named Eric Blair. He meant it, though he had no illusions about Communism. Blair was a Socialist who despised Communism; today we would call him a Social Democrat. Communists frequently call themselves Socialists, but not all Socialists are Communists. Not every Socialist is a Marxist, and not every Marxist is a Leninist. People who join a Communist Party tend to be Marxist-Leninists.

Before the Second World War was over, Blair wrote a novel which used the satire of talking animals to mimic what the Communists had wrought in Russia, renamed the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The story begins with a loud few speaking to the many, pointing out the oppression and injustices they all suffer. The few promise to enact wonderful things if and when the oppressors are overthrown — and soon the oppressors are, by a mass revolution. The few are now in power; but while they claim to be benevolent, increasingly they manipulate the many by manipulating language itself. Common perceptions of reality, the few distort with loaded words and emotional labels. Minor criticisms and complaints from the many, the few portray as outright opposition and deem it subversive. Gradually, steadily, the few re-write the rules, they re-write history, forget promises made, and tighten their grip through mass surveillance, attack dogs, and show trials. The book ends with the many seeing the few as oppressors, the surface differences between the old ones and the new ones almost indistinguishable.

In the months following World War II, free peoples increasingly realized that the threat once posed by Fascism now came from Communism — and Blair’s novel soared in popularity. The novel is entitled Animal Farm, published by Blair under his pen-name, George Orwell. Its most famous line is “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

The threat Blair cast in personal terms of individual freedom denied, Winston Churchill cast in geopolitical terms and of freedoms denied to others. On March 5th 1946, when my parents were still children, Churchill delivered one of the most important speeches in history. He began by recalling warnings he made a decade earlier about the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany, culminating in a world war which he asserted was preventable — if only the Western democracies had stood firm against Hitler’s demands instead of attempting appeasement. “Last time,” he said, “I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my own fellow-countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention.”

Now the former British Prime Minister saw a threat to the European Continent orchestrated not from Berlin, but from Moscow. At that time Communism was literally on the march, imposed by the Soviet Union’s Red Army throughout Eastern Europe as Nazi Germany’s forces had retreated. These words of Churchill’s have become immortal:

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe: Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia. All these famous cities, and the populations around them, lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere… The Communist parties, which were very small in all these eastern states of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control.”

For the next four decades — four decades — those words would remain largely, even ruthlessly accurate. Only Vienna was freed, in 1955, as part of an arrangement that made Austria a neutral country. But that case was unique. In 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected, becoming the most obvious manifestation of the Iron Curtain and symbol of totalitarian control. Most people expected the Iron Curtain dividing Europe to last forever.

Blair as Orwell published another novel: Nineteen Eighty-Four. It depicts a totalitarian dictatorship that is pervasive, all-seeing and all-intrusive, embodied in the character of “Big Brother” — someone nobody meets but whose presence is felt everywhere, literally everywhere, as surveillance cameras, hidden microphones, and ubiquitous television screens (“telescreens”) that watch you even more than you watch them. Yet, ruling this totalitarian state is not “Big Brother” but the Party, its ideology that of keeping and relishing the sheer power to oppress. Any idealism that once existed is now empty propaganda. The Party controls language itself, called Newspeak, deliberately shrinking its vocabulary to remove or re-define words whose original meanings are deemed subversive, such as freedom. Remove the word and the idea disappears, the Party believes, like the Nazis who burned books. The terrifying extent of this is epitomized by the absurdity of the Party’s most publicized phrase: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” Even personal thoughts and memories are deemed potentially subversive (“thought-crime”) and therefore subject to Party control. History is not only re-written, it is re-written frequently, almost continuously. “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”

Blair wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four not to predict the future but to prevent it, by alerting readers to the consequences of political apathy and inaction. “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: ‘Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.’”

I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four in the late Seventies when I was in high school. My school treated the book as a required reading. Most everyone I knew had either read the book or at least knew something of the basic story — and the basic story was scary enough. Later, having lived through the actual year of 1984, I am relieved to note that no totalitarian dictatorship has yet achieved the Orwellian standard set forth in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But some Communist dictatorships have come close, for example East Germany. Also North Korea. Others, lacking the electronic instruments of surveillance, have emphasized the snitch: neighbor snitching on neighbor, colleague on colleague, children on parents, lovers on lovers. In the Soviet Union under Stalin, China under Mao, and Cambodia under Pol Pot, the murdered victims number in the millions.

A corollary lesson of Blair’s work is that when a word acquires some emotional value, especially as a label, propagandists can exploit the word even while violating its real meaning. The word equal doesn’t mean “privileged” — but that is the propagandist’s ploy in “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This trick works only when ordinary people neglect to consider, nor ask, what the word really means. Nor consider who benefits from how the word is being used, or misused.

It matters what people say. It also matters what people mean, and how they behave. The Communists labeled the Berlin Wall the “Anti-Fascist Protective Barrier.” Yet, the Wall’s physical design was clearly meant to keep East Germans in, not to keep West Germans and other supposed “Fascists” out. Anyone trying to escape over the “Protective Barrier” by going westward, not eastward, the East German guards shot on sight. East Germany’s official name was the “German Democratic Republic.” Should we stop using the words democratic and republic because some propagandist wants to steal those words’ value? I say no. We should remind ourselves what those words really mean. What they have always meant.

In the early Eighties, I attended college at the American University in Washington, D.C., and if you had told me — indeed, if you had told anybody — that in ten years’ time the Soviet Union would not even exist, you would not be believed. Or worse, you would be believed — with the assumption that the end would come with a nuclear war. No other possibility seemed even remotely plausible.

Most of my college professors had lived through another of the Cold War’s manifestations: the Vietnam War. Some had participated in it, others protested it. In the early Eighties the United States was still accepting refugees from what was once South Vietnam, and likewise from Cuba. Meanwhile, in Communist-ruled Poland, martial law had been declared to suppress a newly independent, nationwide trade union called Solidarity. Communists claimed they always pursued the best interests of a nation’s workers, but Poland’s workers disagreed. So did Poland’s ambassador to Washington, who defected after martial law was imposed. From Poland also emerged a Roman Catholic priest who became the first non-Italian Pontiff in centuries. Whatever one’s religious beliefs, the charisma of Pope John Paul II electrified the world. Yet, the world also faced the constant — not merely occasional, but constant — threat of thermonuclear war. Fears of a nuclear holocaust generated anti-nuclear protests, sometimes massive ones, in America, Europe and elsewhere.

One evening I attended a university event billed as a discussion about a terrible war then-ravaging the Central American country of El Salvador, fought between Communist-supported guerrillas on one side and a U.S.-supported government on the other. The attendees included the Salvadoran ambassador, plus a very conservative Republican Congressman named Larry McDonald. The event quickly descended into a noisy combustion of emotions as a group of young Latinos began chanting “Revolutionary” Marxist-Leninist slogans while holding up giant banners, predominantly Red in both color and ideology. If they were not Communists, I don’t know what they were. Here, in a university auditorium, the Cold War was playing out right in front of me.

A year later, in 1983, a South Korean airliner inadvertently strayed into the Soviet Union’s airspace — and a Soviet fighter jet shot it down. Maybe the Soviets assumed the airliner was a spy plane, but it wasn’t. Everyone on board was killed. The passengers included Congressman McDonald.

However long ago, the Cold War was not confined to headlines and history books. It was real, and it felt real, for in a multitude of ways it could impact you all too personally. Including from the sky as an incoming nuclear warhead.

In 1985, as a new college graduate, I joined the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and became an intelligence analyst. (Soon thereafter, the Central Intelligence Agency offered me a job; but because my new DIA colleagues were so nice, I turned it down, a decision which surprised even myself.) 1985 was also the year when Mikhail Gorbachev, a relative liberal, came to power in the Soviet Union. Soon Gorbachev was shaking up the Communist system, trying to reform what only a true believer believed could be reformed. Gorbachev tried to open it up, an effort called glasnost in Russian, and to restructure it, called perestroika. I got to observe Gorbachev’s efforts from an unusual vantage point because my job was to analyze the East-West military balance in northern Europe. In the East were Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact forces; in the West, the U.S.-led NATO alliance. It was a remarkable few years.

So when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, it was more than an historical event. It was personally exciting.

I cannot claim that I foresaw when and how the Berlin Wall would fall. Nobody could. I doubt whether even Gorbachev himself fully understood the social and political earthquake his attempts at reform would unleash. But the changes he sought in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe reflected a general direction, a rough trend, and if you watched closely, as many of us did, you came to realize that the future would be very different indeed. Not a straightforward continuation of the past. Not more of the same, newly labeled. No, you had to throw off any smug certainties and preconceptions and get ready to be surprised. For the future would be unprecedented.

— John G. Heidenrich