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When the Berlin Wall came down

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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."

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.

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