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How the fall of the Berlin Wall changed the world, in one chart

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was on Sunday, an event largely understood to mark the beginning of the end of the Cold War. But the wall's fall also marks another extraordinary event in world history — the rapid spread of democracy throughout the world.

The amazing chart, courtesy of Max Roser, shows just how important a year 1989 was for global freedom. Using data from Polity IV, the widely accepted academic standard for measuring democracy, Roser charted the number of democratic countries worldwide since 1799. The jump between 1988 and 1992 is where you see the really striking shift:

polity democracy chart 2009

(Max Roser/Our World in Data)

In 1988, there were 45 democracies worldwide. Over just four years, that number went up to 74 — a remarkable 66 percent increase. That owes a lot to the fall of Iron Curtain. The fall of the Berlin Wall was the death knell for East Germany's Communist government — and, shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union itself. In 1989, revolutions in a number of eastern bloc states such as Poland and Czechoslovakia toppled Communist dictatorships, replacing them with democratic governments.

The Soviet Union's demise wasn't the only the cause of democracy's rise globally, but it was a major one. The post-1989 democratic boom was part of what political scientist Samuel Huntington calls the "Third Wave" of democratic change, which began in 1974 (you can see this pattern in Roser's chart).

The collapse of the Warsaw Pact, and subsequently the Soviet Union itself, played a huge part in accelerating this trend. The Soviet Union had violently repressed democratic movements in Warsaw Pact countries; meaning that, as Huntington puts it, "the withdrawal of Soviet power made possible democratization in Eastern Europe" and post-Soviet republics.

democracy conquest gif

Twenty-five years later, it's easy to forget how amazing a transformation this was. Before the transition, the world was marked by the threat of nuclear war between democratic and authoritarian governments. After, it became defined by the transition to shared democracy.

That's spread more than just democracy — it's spread peace and prosperity as well. Democratic governments are less likely to go to war with each other, more likely to promote sustained economic growth, and way less likely to slaughter their own citizens. The spread of democracy is a major reason why the post-Cold War era is, on the objective metrics, the greatest time in human history.

And, contrary to popular belief, democracy isn't in decline. According to the most updated Polity data, the average global score in 2013, the last recorded year, was the highest it's ever been. As Stanford democracy scholar Larry Diamond put it in January, "the fear that democracy may now be in global retreat is not simply overblown, it is wrong."

1989's legacy, then, is reasonably safe — and worth celebrating.

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