The social factors in the fall of the Berlin Wall are a major aspect of the historiography of the event since 1989. Haftendorn writes that the ‘The Cold War and the division of Germany were closely related’ and that ‘the Berlin Wall was its starkest symbol.’ Without it, the Cold War ceased to exist in physical terms. The wall divided every level of German social society. The wall had stood as a physical, tangible symbol of the suppression of human rights and the Cold War, and thus its downfall was equally significant in political and sociological impact. Hope Harrison has reinforced this symbolic significant of the hall as an important social artefact of German history. It was a victory for capitalism, democracy and freedom. Mueller notes that such was the significance of the fall of the wall that many scholars and the press thought the Cold War ended in the spring of 1989, even if reunification was still uncertain. The New York Times, for instance, declared the Cold War over on April 2nd, before the wall fell.Immediately after the fall of the wall, short-term western historical judgments were largely triumphalist. Democracy-inspired ‘people power’ had been seen to defeat authoritarianism, as was the conventional understanding. However, some historians have sought to challenge this. Michael Meyer, for example, overturns three myths in particular: that this ‘people power’ was the true catalyst, that the implosion of authoritarian regimes like East Germany was inevitable and that the United States won the Cold War outright, rather than contributing to its end.Similarly, Stephen Kotkin challenges the conventional historical narrative more clearly, dismissing the importance of ‘people power’ or the great-man theory of history. He argues that enormous debt was a more significant factor than this social and symbolic aspect, commenting that the ‘twin crises of economic malperformance and political illegitimacy’ eventually ‘magnified each other’. He asserts that the fall of the wall did not happen because of any ‘broad freedom drive’, but instead, it was ‘unexpected, precipitated by Gorbachev’s unilateral removal of the Soviet backstop, a move that had been intended to goad socialist-bloc countries to reform themselves’.Moreover, Constantine Pleshakov explains that the ‘conventional wisdom’ of 1989 as a year in which a people rose up ‘in the name of freedom and the free market, to throw off the yoke of Moscow’, was ‘not exactly what happened’. Rather, the revolution was unique, with elements of class conflict. He argues that Westerners overemphasise the degree to which the Soviet Union imposed communism on Eastern Europeans, while neglecting ‘actual support for native communism in Eastern Europe’. He instead proposes that the maintenance and eventual end of communism in Germany may be attributed to ‘the social contracts between the rulers and the ruled’. Not simply on the basis of terror, intimidation and secret policing, but also ‘free health care, free housing, and free education’. Pleshakov’s rich and detailed examination treats the GDR and the fall of the wall itself as very much a domestic and social matter, rather than ‘in the grand geopolitical terms that have come to define the conventional account’.As one recent social history has claimed, the GDR operated as a ‘participatory dictatorship’, and it would be wrong to ascribe the German people a totally passive role. For over a third of its existence, East Germany had to live with an open border. Later scholarship would recognise that the Berlin Wall removed a significant destabilising factor from the Cold War, preventing possibly a second refugee crisis that could become the pretext for a third world war. These are facts are exemplary of the contributions which lead to revisionism within the social historiography of the fall of the Berlin Wall.Andrew Port observes this scholarly shift away from this ‘triumphalist approach’ to the fall of the wall in the 1990s, as scholars began to broaden their scope and turn to East German society itself as a serious subject of inquiry. This newer wave of scholarship ‘posed the types of questions typically associated with traditional social history, looking at social/policies and social developments, as well as at the experiences of social groups such as industrial workers and middle-class professionals, women and youths, writers and artists’. This approach produced ‘substantive results that provided a more nuanced understanding’, merging with a ‘third wave’ of studies that relied on ‘anthropology and linguistic theory’. Here, the scholarship of the fall of the wall was focussed on ‘the subjective experiences of “ordinary” East Germans’ from a distinctively domestic and social perspective. The social historiography of the fall of the Berlin Wall was in particular dressed by North American and British Scholars. Historiographically, Port notes that general trend has ‘been a move away from an almost exclusive focus on high-level “politics” and repression toward one that looks at sociocultural developments at the grassroots level’, or as he terms it, ‘everyday history’. Port concludes that ‘the historiography of the GDR over the past twenty years has mirrored at breakneck speed the trajectory of postwar historiography more generally’, which saw a gradual move away from the “political” to the social and cultural.Sources
Sources on this social aspect are most commonly informal, being diaries and other contemporary personal accounts that tell of the meaningful social impact that the fall of the Berlin Wall had. Literature and art is also significant to social historians as it reflects the evolution of cultures and socio-political institutions. Since 1989, there has been a great deal of work reflecting on the social meaning of the Wall culturally and the lasting impact of European totalitarian regimes on the lives of individuals and societies. In the euphoric days after the fall of the Wall, many sources underestimated the material and spiritual difficulties of unification, giving an unrealistic illustration to historians. Equally problematic for the traditional historical narrative has been the fact that some sources from 1989 onwards have been particularly favourable to the GDR. Not unlike parts of the American south after the Civil War, there was evident nostalgia and a sense of loss among some sources after 1989 regarding the fall of the Wall. A more lasting implication in political terms is the ‘Left Party’, an alliance of Western German left wing Social Democrats and the former East German Party of Democratic Socialism. From the 1990s, scholars have tended to eschew written documents produced by the regime in favour of a variety of sociocultural artefacts.