On Saturday night in Berlin, the capital of chic modernity in Europe and of its largest economy, throngs celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the most menacing and divisive symbol of the Cold War.
On November 9 1989, Berlin was ground zero of the four-decade battle between the liberal market free countries of the West, and the “iron curtain”, per Winston Churchill’s famous phrase for the ring of steel that surrounded Eastern and Central Europe and kept it under Soviet control.
Like much else which the so-called “velvet revolution” of 1989, which saw hordes of East Germans and other Europeans pour across into West Berlin, there was a great deal of ambivalence in the celebrations. Just as in the events in Europe and the wider world since the fall of communism – of which November 9 1989 was the single most important herald – and the unification of Germany and the restoration of democracy across Europe.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel led a sombre ceremony at a memorial ceremony at Bernauer Strasse, one of the few sites in the united city which still showcases the wall that divided it for 28 years. Together with the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, she placed a candle at a memorial there to commemorate those who were killed or imprisoned for trying to escape from communist rule in the East to the relative freedom and prosperity in the West.
While a grim toll of dozens of escapees from east to west were shot dead by border guards, or managed to break free through inventive devices from hot-air balloons to underground tunnels, it is worth noting that no one from the West was interdicted from escaping to the East, and probably no one did so. It is a little like repressive socialist Venezuela today from which about four million citizens have fled. No one has been recorded illegally entering the country from Colombia, for example.
But if Merkel’s moment at the wall was solemn, the rest of the city enjoyed a huge thrash on Saturday. In front of the Brandenburg Gate, still the most famous symbol in the city, tens of thousands of people braved the rain, and partied with concerts and dazzling fireworks.
The great irony – one of many – was that two years before the Wall fell, the man who had made it his political mission to end the Soviets’ grip over Europe and to end the Cold War had made a famous speech near the same site.
Speaking in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, which was kept closed at the time to seal off West from East Berlin, US President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, called on the Communist Party secretary general in the Soviet Union, Mikahail Gorbachev, to “Tear down this wall”.
Reagan’s decision to outspend the Soviets massively in armaments and the tottering state of Russia and its Eastern European satellite economies obviously played a huge role. It was no less than Gorbachev himself who signalled, in 1989, that he would not countenance the use of force to repress pro-democracy protests which soon swept across the Soviet bloc countries.
But in fact it was more the cock-up theory of history which actually prevailed on that evening of November 9 1989, rather than a carefully calibrated, or consequential of some US-masterminded conspiracy.
In addition to all the preceding conditions, Gorbachev, Reagan and the ineradicable craving for human freedom with which South Africans can so identify, the actual fall of the wall “owed more to CNN than to the CIA”, in the words of one analyst.
This in turn was due to what the Financial Times terms “a slip of the tongue”. The extraordinary events of 30 years ago were triggered by a misstatement shortly in the early evening of November 9 1989. Politburo member of the increasingly beleaguered East Germany (GDR), Gunter Schabowski unveiled new travel rules allowing them to apply for visas to leave the country. Given the levels of bureaucratic inertia which prevailed this would not have been an electrifying statement except for his slip of the tongue.
Asked by a reporter when the new visa regime would come into effect he mistakenly replied: “Immediately, without delay.” Minutes later, according to the report, Associated Press flashed the headline “GDR Opens its Borders”.
And as the hordes massed against the wall to enter the West that night, the one deliberate act and arguably the saving grace of the soon-to-be-extinguished GDR regime was that not a single shot was fired. And the wall, once assumed to be the most dangerous divider of the country which credibly was reckoned to be the likely site of a nuclear clash between East and West, fell with no loss of life.
Of course, in the 30 years since we now have a US president, Donald Trump, who notionally is a Reagan Republican who talks of “building a beautiful wall” sealing off America from southern and Mexican migrants, the very sort of economic opportunity seekers who fled three decades ago from Eastern Europe to the West.
And in unified Europe itself: it is perfectly true that there are no longer 350,000 Soviet troops sealing its borders and fronting a cold war, which at many scary moments threatened to go hot or even nuclear. But there are now about 800km of fencing and walls and barriers erected across Europe, after the 2015 refugee crisis and due to the revanchist claims of Russia and the disputes that fracture half a dozen other states.
And in a brace of states freed from communist oppression three decades back, from Poland to Hungary, the elected democratic governments today embrace what Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban (once a young fighter for freedom under communism) proudly calls “illiberal democracy”. This toxic brew is replete with xenophobic nationalist siren calls and a rejection of basic democratic norms and freedoms.
History also records that no leader at the time – not George HW Bush in the White House, Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street, Helmut Kohl in Bonn, nor Gorbachev in the Kremlin – saw the wall being breached when it was and with such rapid political earthquake results.
Even here in isolated SA, then in the first months of the presidency of FW de Klerk, there was little appreciation for what was about to happen. And what a following wind it would soon blow into the isolated apartheid republic.
From a much humbler vantage point as a newly elected MP to the SA parliament, I found myself in West Berlin in mid-October 1989. I was just 32 years old and a guest of the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, the name given to the western section of the divided country.
Arriving in West Berlin on a gloomy Friday led to a meeting with a local parliamentarian who suggested we visit the GDR the next day. I was interested but doubtful: my SA passport of the time contained a list of countries, all under communist rule, for which my travel document excluded a visit. “No problem,” he assured me. “The government of the GDR is desperate for foreign currency and any person can, on payment of West German marks, obtain a one-day visa to enter.”
The next morning we travelled from West to East Berlin from the Friedrichstrasse U-Bahn (underground rail) and indeed a bored GDR border guard accepted my hard currency and barely glanced at the apartheid SA passport I proffered.
East Berlin was austere in the extreme: in place of the vibrant and consumerist street culture of the western half, in which there was little military presence except along the border, the Eastern section was unrelentingly grim. Goose-stepping soldiers, mausoleum-style monuments and vast buildings in the socialist style of concrete bruteness. There were, however, to offset this the majestic buildings of old Germany still preserved in the area around Unter dem Linden, a reminder of the country’s once royal past.
The most illuminating aspect of the whole day was a visit to the premier shopping centre in Alexanderplatz near its iconic TV tower. Inside the Sentrum, a sort of version of the OK Bazaars in SA back then, were throngs of shoppers from all over Eastern Europe. But in truth there was very little of value to buy and the merchandise, including a vast pile of plastic shoes of dubious quality, was deeply unappealing.
My West Berlin friend intoned in words which still reverberate today: “So this is the showcase capital of the showcase country of the entire Soviet bloc and look how grim it is.”
What no one could foretell on that day was that within three weeks East Berliners would vote en masse with their feet and cross to the West, and the wall would be finally and forever breached.
Of course it was precisely the televised imaging which East Berliners received from the West, showcasing glitzy consumerism and endless choices, that helped fuel the hunger for change.
And once the wall fell, West Germany moved swiftly to unite the country and pump more than €2-trillion into its reconstruction. And while the Ossis (Easterners) are materially far better off today than three decades ago, there is among many a fond nostalgia for the past: a country which certainly had a repressive and eavesdropping state and where choices were restrictive, but where everyone had work and the excesses of capitalist competition were unknown.
This in turn has led to the rise of support for extreme alternatives such as the AfD right-wing party which polls its highest numbers in states of the former GDR. It offers the alluring slogan, “The East rises up”. And the demographic fact is that many of the young, the skilled and the motivated have moved to the western half of the country, leaving behind an older and more resentful population, some of whom crave the certainties of the past more than the uncertainty of the future.
Still, united, economically powerful and democratically centred Germany remains in the second decade of our century, despite its challenges, one of the great and under-remarked achievements of our age, given the grim chapters in blood and aggression it wrote in the last century.
And he cited the fall of the wall as one of the strongest push factors in that epoch-changing decision.
In SA, in Europe and across the world, that “single slip of the tongue” by one obscure official was, in the words of Cold War scholar John Lewis Gaddis, “the single grain of sand which moved a sand pile which was ready to slide”.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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