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When the Berlin Wall came down

Twenty years later, the rest of the world is a different place because of that event.

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"The areas lost to Russia, from the Baltics to the Crimea and on to the Caucasus had been [Russia's] for over 200 years in some cases," says Mr. Judt, author of "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945." "That's quite an imperial collapse."

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Rarely, though, does history come so neatly packaged. The truth is that the fall of the wall was only one moment in a series of events that shook Central and Eastern Europe and rattled the rest of the world. But it "is a wonderful symbol for the end of the cold war," says Melvyn Leffler, a University of Virginia historian and author of "For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War."

We can look back on it now without emotion. We can see the fall of the Berlin Wall for what it was, the culmination of decades of history, the final chapter of World War II and perhaps the 20th century itself.

Berlin needed to be conquered to extinguish Hitler's rule and end World War II in Europe. And Berlin needed to be defended in the long struggle between communism and capitalism.

It was a city scarred and divided by a wall first put up hastily in the early-morning hours of Aug. 13, 1961, barbed wire erected to stem the tide of people streaming west. The wall was fortified over the years, locking people in, keeping out the world.

Now, Berlin is simply a European capital like any other, filled with offices and bureaucrats. Its politics are mundane and its politicians charisma-free. There is a genteel elegance in the western side, a shabbier feel in the east which is a gathering place for journalists, politicians, hipsters, and other newcomers to the city.

"The fall of the Berlin Wall made my hometown disappear and gave birth to another Berlin," says Kira von Moers, an employment consultant. A native of West Berlin, Ms. Von Moers says that in the years after the fall of the wall, everything changed, from bus numbers to street names. "I like to live here, but it doesn't touch my heart anymore," she says. "Sometimes, I feel like a tourist."

The tourists are back in Berlin, have been for years. Next month, they'll have another reason to gather – 20th anniversary celebrations of the wall's fall.

Mercifully, though, there is no longer a "Berlin Crisis" to rivet the world. The world has moved on to other crises. Terrorism, not communism, now keeps world leaders awake at night.

"When the ice melts, all these things that have been sleeping under the house come out, including the likes of Osama bin Laden and several other characters," says British historian Frederick Taylor, author of "The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989."

"You had wonderful things that happened and much less desirable things that were permitted to occur," he says. "There were power vacuums, there was only one superpower [the US] which everyone could concentrate on disliking. Yes, it set things in motion, again."

IT'S OFTEN SAID IN GERMANY that the wall came down but the wall in people's heads went up, dividing those who grew up in the West from those who were raised in the East. The old state-supported industries of the East were scrapped. It may take decades for the eastern regions to catch up economically to the western ones.