Want to know exactly how ideology and economics shape society? Split a nation in half. Twenty-five years later, what we’re still learning

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago this fall, a crowd of thousands gathered along the east side of the Berlin Wall and demanded, with the urgency of people who had spent decades under an authoritarian communist regime, that the border guards let them pass to the other side. That night, the gates swung open and the sledgehammers came out. Soon, the wall was all but destroyed, and the two countries it had kept apart for almost 30 years were finally joined back together.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall, which Germany will commemorate next month with an illuminated display of white balloons where the concrete barrier once stood, was one of the most extraordinary events of the 20th century. Not only was it a crucial factor in the eventual shriveling of communism in Europe, it was also a demonstration of what peaceful protest could accomplish in the face of an oppressive government.

But before it fell, the wall did something that most people never think of: It created a massive laboratory for studying human society.

Imagine this: If you were a researcher trying to determine how a political system affects people’s values, beliefs, and behavior, you would ideally want to take two identical populations, separate them for a generation or two, and subject them each to two totally different kinds of government. Then you’d want to measure the results, the same way a medical researcher might give two sets of patients two different pills and then track their progress.

Ethically, such a study would be unthinkable even to propose. But when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, it created what London School of Economics associate professor Daniel Sturm calls a “perfect experiment.” While people in West Germany voted in free elections, read independent newspapers, and protested if they felt dissatisfied with their government, their Eastern counterparts lived inside a surveillance state ruled by a zealously doctrinaire communist party. Where “Ossis”—an unofficial term for those who lived in East Germany—drove famously shoddy Trabant cars, wore drab clothing, and drank off-brand soda, their “Wessi” counterparts enjoyed Pepsi and regularly saw BMWs in the street. The two halves of the country were like a pair of identical twins separated at birth and raised by two very different sets of parents…….

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Silence on a Train: