Just as with any famous monument, tourists were queuing up in front of the Brandenburg Gate to take selfies when I was in Berlin last week. Their photos won’t be perfect because of the scaffolding and temporary stands in the background that were being erected in advance of the celebrations tomorrow to mark the fall of the wall 30 years ago. From a purist’s point of view, every day sees history being made. But it was obvious at the time that the events that took place on November 9, 1989, were of profound significance.
Led by a messianic, incompetent and out-of-touch gang of grey men, the hallmarks of the so-called German Democratic Republic were repression, intimidation and the operation of a vast network of informants who funnelled information about their fellow citizens to the dreaded Stasi. The former headquarters is now a museum, filled with exhibits like devices to open letters, cameras hidden in logs and training booklets that explain how to harass people, damage their reputations and undermine their self-confidence.
I remember watching the news in November 1989, as huge crowds swarmed to the wall and to the border crossings, with a combination of disbelief and euphoria, but also fear. While things moved fast, pressure had been building for months — triggered first by the opening of the frontier between Hungary and Austria in April. For watchers of eastern Europe, that meant that the authorities had had time to think about their response to a crisis that might bubble up.
How the sclerotic leadership would react was anyone’s guess. But the way the mass protests in Tiananmen Square were broken up a few months earlier provided a terrifying parallel of what might happen in East Germany.
The year 1989 was all about freedom and hope — with the smash-hit song of the summer in Germany sung by the unlikely figure of David Hasselhoff: “I’ve been looking for freedom, I’ve been looking for freedom for so long,” run the lyrics, “still the search goes on.” The words, as well as the music, struck a chord.
Some could sense the wind of change. In September 1989, Margaret Thatcher spoke to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow — asking for the tape recorders to be turned off so she could deliver a private message (later written up by Anatoly Chernyaev). Britain and western Europe, she said, “are not interested in the unification of Germany”. Allowing East and West Germany to unite “would undermine the stability of the entire international system”. That was also the view of US President George H W Bush, she said, who had asked her to convey this message.
The celebrations over the coming days mark an extraordinary moment when those demanding freedom took their lives in their own hands. Through chance, sheer weight of numbers and a sequence of events that included a bungled TV interview by a spokesman who had not read his notes properly, the wall began to be torn down in the evening of November 9 by “Mauerspechte” — wall woodpeckers. It marked the beginning of the end of the Communist world.
Europe has changed dramatically since that night. Despite British and US views, Germany did indeed unite the following year. The people who lived east of the Iron Curtain, Thatcher had previously noted in her infamous 1988 Bruges speech, must never be forgotten since they had “once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity”, and hopefully would do so again. The fall of the wall enabled that to happen.
The journey since has not been an easy one. There are still major inequalities across Europe, but particularly in countries that once lay behind the Iron Curtain, as well as in Germany itself — something that is fuelling the rise of the hard Right and the hard Left.
Those who moved west in search of opportunities and better wages have often found themselves unwelcome and stigmatised: the supposed threat to British workers of the “Polish plumber” was one of many scapegoats used during the Brexit campaign of 2016, as were fruit-pickers from EU states, whose failure to return to the UK this summer has led to significant manpower shortages on farms, and crops being left to rot.
The status of eastern Europeans as second-class citizens is also a reality across many parts of the EU, with no voice, no champions and few advocates — leading to comments like those of Nigel Farage that he preferred Indians and Australians coming to the UK than east Europeans. So much for that common past and values.
It is ironic that as we celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall this weekend and bathe in the nostalgia of joy and unity of 30 years ago, the world is in a much darker phase, one where optimism is in short supply.
And we know that there is so little reason to be hopeful because one of the things missing at the moment is a song that captures the mood. In 1997, when the UK really did want change (and an election), the song was Things Can Only Get Better. In Berlin, 30 years ago, it was Hasselhoff’s Looking For Freedom.
I’m not sure the current No 1 — Dance Monkey (“Dance for me, dance for me, dance for me, oh oh oh”) — captures the zeitgeist in quite the same way. Or perhaps, in fact, it does.
Peter Frankopan’s The New Silk Roads is published by Bloomsbury.
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