THE BLOG
11/07/2014 06:12 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

When the Wall Fell

I was a wide-eyed freshman in college sitting in an evening class in November 1989 when we heard the incredible news. The Berlin Wall had been breached! We sat glued to the TV for the rest of night, watching as jubilant Germans clambered up the wall and stood astride it, their euphoria infectious.

As the wall fell, so did our notions of the existing world order. My generation had grown up with the Cold War. It had shaped our world view and our understanding of global politics and power. If the wall could fall, anything was possible.

Were we impossibly naïve? Twenty-five years later, that sense of hope and optimism for Europe is threatened by divisions from within Europe and dangers from without. Having just weathered an economic crisis, Europe now faces a serious political crisis as Russia tries to reassert its influence in Eastern Europe.

A year before the wall fell, I had visited Berlin and -- like all visitors to that divided city -- had been struck by the stark contrast between bright and vibrant West Berlin and gray and subdued East Berlin. We took the subway through ghostly abandoned stations on the east side, passed through the famous Checkpoint Charlie, and stood at the imposing Brandenburg Gate under the suspicious eye of East German guards.

The wall that sliced through the city seemed surreal, yet it was a fact of life for the city's residents.

A little more than a month after the penetration of the wall, I was back in Berlin, where my father was reporting as a foreign correspondent, and we marveled at the crowds that had gathered to celebrate by the wall. We chipped away at the concrete, collecting pieces as keepsakes, and we reached our arms through a hole to shake the hand of a grinning East German soldier. On New Year's Eve we danced and sang by the wall with thousands of exuberant Germans.

Back at college, my friends and I breathlessly debated the future and watched as the Communist bloc shattered and the Soviet Union eventually dissolved. The collapse was messy as new nations struggled with their transitions, but the hope and promise remained -- liberty, self-determination and dignity for people who had suffered under communism.

That promise is now endangered as Ukraine is riven by separatists supported by Moscow. Like Germany before it, Ukraine deserves to be whole and united and its citizens deserve to chart their own future.

The opening of the wall in 1989 occurred after weeks of demonstrations and pressure. Twenty-five years later, the recent Maidan demonstrators in Kiev are the spiritual heirs to those in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere who demanded the right to be part of Europe.

The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall reminds us all of the courage and sacrifice of those behind the Iron Curtain who acted to effect change. In barely a generation, the transformation in Europe has been truly remarkable -- but the promise of a Europe whole and free has yet to be achieved.

On this anniversary, let us remember that optimism, persistence and audacity hold their own power. People changed the course of history in 1989 by challenging the status quo. The Maidan showed us that the power of the people still holds promise.