The Berlin Wall and Brandenburg Gate as viewed from West Berlin, November 1989
Stringer / Reuters

Thirty years ago this month, the opening of the Berlin Wall ushered in the last great diplomatic struggle of the Cold War. As cheering crowds danced atop what was left of the Iron Curtain, the fate of Germany hung in the balance. In retrospect, it is easy to see that triumphal moment as part of an inevitable march toward German reunification. At the time, however, the future felt anything but certain. 

Germany was the most important strategic prize in Europe. Debates over its reunification and geopolitical alignment had nearly sparked a war on several occasions in the 1950s and 1960s. And as late as October 1989, U.S. officials warned that if Soviet influence in East Germany were threatened, the Soviet Union would “use force to prevent the collapse of a Communist East German State.” When the wall opened just one month later, no one knew how the Kremlin would interpret

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  • JOSHUA SHIFRINSON is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Boston University. He is the author of Rising Titans, Falling Giants: How Great Powers Exploit Power Shifts.
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