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It is rare that a historical era can be defined with precision, but the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago this week is just such a rarity. The breaching of that monstrosity marked the end of the Soviet empire and ushered in a era of both hope and considerable confusion. There is no mistaking the extraordinary significance of Nov. 9, 1989, but that vista is also a testimony to human failure. The world has been unable to construct a new vision and a new order. It is damning, indeed, that we continue to inhabit “the post-Cold War world.”

The Berlin Wall appeared without warning Aug. 13, 1961. It was built by a communist government that ruled East Germany with violence, paranoia and repression. The wall was designed to halt the flow of migrants from East to West, a surge of humanity that sought to flee the Iron Curtain via a bolt hole hundreds of kilometers from the West. Eventually, the wall stretched nearly 150 km around the entire city of West Berlin, a concrete monstrosity dotted with barbed wire, 302 armed-guard towers, and numerous other means to keep East Berliners inside. While West Berlin became a symbol of freedom and hope, the wall, by contrast, was an equally powerful symbol of evil and fear, a symbol that was periodically bathed in blood: It is estimated that some 5,000 people tried to cross the wall; at least 136 people were killed in the effort.

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