Monday, November 9, 2009

The fall of the Wall

The Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago today - on 9 November 1989 - at least metaphorically, if not physically. A day later, Gorbachev’s Foreign Policy Assistant Anatoly Chernyaev wrote in his diary: ‘This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over’. Two days later, Andreas Ramos would drive to Berlin from Aarhus, Denmark, and write about the playing of alpine horns and ‘flags and flags and flags’. But it would be ten more days before I myself mentioned the historic event in my own diary, and then I wrote about ‘the rush of events in Berlin’ being ‘fabulous’.

The Berlin Wall - thanks to Wikipedia for this and the next two paragraphs - was a concrete barrier erected by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that completely encircled the city of West Berlin, separating it from East Germany, including East Berlin. The Wall included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, which circumscribed a wide area that contained anti-vehicle trenches and other defenses. The separate and much longer inner German Border demarcated the border between East and West Germany. Both borders came to symbolise the Iron Curtain between Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc.

Prior to the Wall’s erection, three and a half million East Germans had avoided Eastern Bloc emigration restrictions and escaped into West Germany, many over the border between East and West Berlin. During its existence from 1961 to 1989, the Wall stopped almost all such emigration and separated the GDR from West Berlin for more than a quarter of a century. After its erection, around 5,000 people attempted to escape over the wall, with estimates of the resulting death toll varying between around 100 and 200.

During a revolutionary wave sweeping across the Eastern Bloc, which included several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government announced on 9 November 1989 - 20 years ago today - that all GDR citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans climbed onto and crossed the wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, parts of the wall were chipped away by a jubilant public and by souvenir hunters; industrial equipment was later used to remove almost all of the rest. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, which was formally concluded on 3 October 1990.

To mark the anniversary - for 9 November 1989 is considered the day the wall fell even though technically it remained guarded for some time - here are three very different texts.

The first is a diary entry made by Anatoly Chernyaev, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Foreign Policy Assistant, on 10 November. This is available at The Cold War Files website (part of the Wilson Center). This extraordinary diary entry, the website says, from inside the Kremlin, the day after the Wall fell, documents in the form of a ‘snapshot’ reaction the revolutionary mood of one of the closest and most loyal of Gorbachev’s assistants. Chernyaev realized that this event meant ‘the end of Yalta’ and of ‘the Stalinist legacy’ in Europe, and in a striking statement, he welcomed this change, saying the key was Gorbachev’s decision not to stand in the way.

10 November 1989
‘The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over. . . Today we received messages about the ‘retirement’ of Deng Xiaopeng and [Bulgarian leader Todor] Zhivkov. Only our ‘best friends’ Castro, Ceaucescu, [and] Kim Il Sung are still around - people who hate our guts. But the main thing is the GDR, the Berlin Wall. For it has to do not only with ‘socialism’, but with the shift in the world balance of forces. This is the end of Yalta . . . the Stalinist legacy and ‘the defeat of Hitlerite Germany’. That is what Gorbachev has done. And he has indeed turned out to be a great leader. He has sensed the pace of history and helped history to find a natural channel.’

I would have liked to reproduce here a bonafide diary account about being in Berlin for the fall of the Wall, but I cannot find one on the internet - although there are lots of accounts by people writing retrospectively about the day(s). Here, though, is one paragraph from an account by Andreas Ramos which reads much like a diary, written at the time or very soon after. On hearing the news about the Wall, he and some friends drove from Aarhus in Denmark to Berlin, and this is what Ramos saw:

11-12 December 1989
‘Everything was out of control. Police on horses watched. There was nothing they could do. The crowd had swollen. People were blowing long alpine horns which made a huge noise. There were fireworks, kites, flags and flags and flags, dogs, children. The wall was finally breaking. The cranes lifted slabs aside. East and West German police had traded caps. To get a better view, hundreds of people were climbing onto a shop on the West German side. We scampered up a nine foot wall. People helped each other; some lifted, others pulled. All along the building, people poured up the wall. At the Berlin Wall itself, which is 3 meters high, people had climbed up and were sitting astride. The final slab was moved away. A stream of East Germans began to pour through. People applauded and slapped their backs.’

And, finally, here is what I wrote - a long way from the action in London - about 10 days after the event, not that there’s anything special about this diary entry, other than it’s mine and it’s about the fall of the Wall.

19 November 1989
‘There appears to be no stopping the unfolding of extraordinary events on the other side of the iron curtain. Poland and Hungary are already being embraced by the West, having overhauled their political systems in the space of a very short period; they are being garlanded with loans and aid and pretty speeches from capitalist world leaders. Now East Germany has joined the throng. Almost overnight the leader fell, the government fell, and the Berlin Wall was, metaphorically speaking, knocked down.

The rush of events in Berlin were so fabulous, that almost every serious mainline radio and TV news programme decamped to that divided city. Freeing the border and allowing unfettered movement from East to West and back again, allowed literally millions of people to explore what they had only ever seen on television, allowed them to visit relatives and friends. Every interview on the subject included questions about the re-unification of Germany, even though the possibility must be many years down the road.

More than Poland and more than Hungary, East Germany’s status is that most likely to affect the emotions of those in the West. The terrible war left not only a divided nation but a divided city as a loud vivid actual symbol of the resulting Cold War. The possibility of greater integration between East and West again exists most seriously through the border of the Germanys: they speak the same language; until just a few decades ago shared the same culture; they are the same people.’

Postscript
The BBC has posted a video of Douglas Hurd, the UK Foreign Secretary in November 1989, reading from his diary.

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