The Berlin Wall fell in a moment of serendipity. On Nov. 9, 1989, a flustered East German official commented on eased travel restrictions and thus triggered a massing at the wall's crossing points to West Berlin.
But it took decades of persistent pushing – by governments and individuals – to weaken the wall and its faulty foundation of communism. That persistence paid off in the remarkably bloodless overturning of communism in East Germany, followed by other largely peaceful democratic revolutions in eastern Europe and finally the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.
The West's patient determination and its unified economic, military, and political cold war strategy bear remembering now as NATO countries tire of – or doubt – the mission in Afghanistan; and as the economy far outranks jihadist terrorism as a public concern.
The multidecade push against communism was not always successful or harmonious. Britain and France, for instance, resisted German unification and it took American arm twisting to bring them around. Still, looking back, pressure was steadily applied on many fronts from the beginning of a divided Europe.
The US Marshall Plan for postwar West Germany recognized the importance of an economically healthy and democratic ally. An export powerhouse emerged from the rubble. Envious East Germans watched the progress next door – the BMWs, the home appliances, the colorful fashions – every night on television (West German TV reached most areas in East Germany).
NATO kept up military pressure as did an arms race that the Soviets could not afford. Thus began détente between East and West, including a game-changing agreement on human rights signed by Western states, the Soviet Union, and Soviet allies in 1975.
Known as the Helsinki Accords, this brilliant example of Western diplomacy played to Soviet interest by guaranteeing frontiers and nonintervention in internal affairs. Yet the inclusion of fundamental freedoms – of thought, conscience, and religion – gave a powerful tool to dissidents such as Poland's Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia's Václav Havel (both jailed). They had the cover they needed to demand that their governments honor the accords.
Felling communism in Europe required the moral courage of these individuals and countless others – including brave East German demonstrators in the city of Leipzig who marched despite warnings that they would be killed. Not everyone who stood up for human or political rights in the Soviet zone lived to see the fruits of their labor, but their very stand inspired others to do so.
Violent Islamic jihad differs significantly from communism. But like communism, it is based on the falsehood of control without consent. Such a society cannot flourish.
An enlightened Mikhail Gorbachev recognized this, though he didn't anticipate the full extent of its implications. Will a successor to Osama bin Laden someday realize the same? Jihadist violence and oppression are already losing popular support. Will that lost support translate into the kind of home-spun people power that pulled down the iron curtain?
Democracy-minded nations and persons, in the Muslim world and outside it, must commit for the long haul. Eventually, the mental wall of jihadist ideology will crack. Then fall.