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What If the Berlin Wall Had Not Fallen in 1989?

An artist's impression of an alternative history of Berlin, if the wall between East and West had never been brought down.
An artist's impression of an alternative history of Berlin, if the wall between East and West had never been brought down.
(Image: © Future)

On Nov. 9, 1989, the barrier between East and West Berlin — and the real concrete structure symbolising the "Iron Curtain" of the Cold War — was brought crashing down. The fall of the Berlin Wall came to symbolize the collapse of the Soviet Union, signaling the end of a tense and often perilous period in world history that had existed since the end of the Second World War. 

But what if the wall had never fallen? Author and historian Frederick Taylor is an expert in modern German history and has written a history of how the wall was constructed, extended and how the border was enforced for nearly 30 years. Here he shares his thoughts on what might have transpired if the wall had remained standing.

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Q: What would have happened if the Berlin Wall had never collapsed?

Frederick Taylor

(Image credit: Frederick Taylor)

After graduating from Oxford University with a History scholarship, Frederick pursued postgraduate studies at the University of Sussex, researching a thesis on the German far-right before 1918. He edited and translated "The Goebbels Diaries 1939-1941" (Sphere, 1983) and his books include "The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961-9 November 1989" (Bloomsbury, 2012) and "Exorcising Hitler" (Bloomsbury, 2012).

Basically, you would have had something not dissimilar to North Korea. The only way it would have worked is through massive repression. I think for the wall not to have fallen, it would have, first of all, meant that we would have experienced a different Eastern Bloc than the one we had in the 1980s. They would have had to stop the reforms, Gorbachev particularly, and if that had taken place it would mean that the Cold War would have continued.

Q: Can you envision a scenario where the Berlin Wall is still standing and East Germany still exists as a separate country?

It is very difficult to imagine this but, theoretically, I suppose they could have cracked down on dissent. There are a few reasons behind the fall of the Berlin Wall. The first, and most simple, is that the East German economy simply did not work. They had very few natural resources and terrible problems with inefficiency. Then, moving into the 1970s and 1980s, the Russians had stopped selling the East Germans cheap oil. This caused more economic problems.

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There are pictures of East German shops from the 1960s and 1970s, and then the 1980s; they tried to make it look as if everything was wonderful, but there was not much to buy except a few turnips. 

Another thing that needs to be established is that by the 1970s they were also being loaned a lot of money from the West Germans, which they became very dependent on. Then, of course, there is the Helsinki Accords, which the East cynically signed up to — but they could not really offer the freedoms that they had just promised. 

Photograph of President Reagan giving a speech at the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, Federal Republic of Germany. (Image credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Nevertheless, they wanted the kudos of seeming forward thinking and freedom loving, albeit without paying any of the costs for that. Inevitably, though, over time, there were some brave people in East Germany who demanded the freedoms of the Helsinki Accords and, unless the authorities started to crack down on them, returning them to a Stalinist regime, it is difficult to see how the communists could have stayed in power.

Q: If they did announce a state of emergency, how would the wall have evolved?

Well it is interesting because the East Germans were actually quite good at basic electronics. They were skilled at putting together cheaper versions of Western electronics and they had a plan to build a high-tech Berlin Wall. Moving into the 1990s and the millennium, it would have all kinds of alarms so that you wouldn’t need armed guards. You would basically have an electronic surveillance system. However, while that was the goal, I don’t think they had the financial or logistical ability to achieve that. 

Q: If this high-tech version of the Berlin Wall had come into practice, for how much longer would East Germany have lasted?

No more than a few years after 1989. The huge sums they would need to spend in order to keep their new high-tech wall going would, I think, lead to the end in about 1995.

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Conference of the 'Big Three' at Yalta — making final plans for the defeat of Germany. Pictured are Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Premier Josef Stalin. February 1945. (Image credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration )

Q: How would West Germany have benefited, if at all, from the continuation of East Germany?

In some ways it might have benefited West Germany to keep the East in business, because it would result in more cheap labour. East Germany, from the 1960s onwards, was a place where Western manufacturers had their work done cheap. In West Germany, back when I lived there, you could get 24-hour film development done straight from your camera back in the days when you delivered it to a chemist. But they would actually ship it over the border to East Germany and ship it back again. That was true of textiles and other businesses. 

So, if I can imagine an East Germany, with this high-tech Berlin Wall still intact, I think it would be one that had basically become an economic colony of West Germany. It would have reestablished a Stalinist regime to keep everybody quiet. The selling of political prisoners to the West was also an enormously profitable trade for the East, so that would probably have continued. In fact, there were rumours that they were arresting people just so they could make some income from selling them back. 

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Following Germany's reunification, a couple reads grave markers of East Germans who died in an effort to escape over the Berlin Wall to the West. (Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense)

Q: Let’s say the Berlin Wall falls, as it did in 1989, but the majority of East Germans want to remain part of a separate state. Is this imaginable?

A few idealists at the time did actually want to try a third way — a liberal socialist state of sorts. But honestly, the only reason that East Germany could have, and perhaps should have, survived for a few more years was for the economy. When unification did happen, it was a bit of an economic car crash. 

All of these totally uncompetitive East German businesses were faced with the full force of competition from the West, as well as these carpet-bagging yuppies that went straight into East Berlin, in particular, and looked for profit. 

So, I think a few years of adjustment, with some economic advantages and privileges and a loose political confederation, before total reunification, would have been a softer landing for most people. It was pretty bad for a lot of East Germans when the wall came down. East Germany was horribly uncompetitive. But the West Germans were already bailing them out before the border fell, and I suppose when you are paying somebody else’s bills you demand power over them. 

So reunification, in light of that, had to come from the most practical economic solution. But had there been some way to have a two-tier system, so that the East could adjust to the new economics, I think it would certainly have helped.

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This article was originally published in All About History .