Ah, the end of the wall....yes. When did we begin to get the first tiny inkling that maybe the wall could actually be on its way out? Could we see it coming? Looking back it seems quite obvious, one step led to another. Once the Soviet Union would no longer send in the tanks to support the East European Communist regimes if they seemed threatened, down they went like dominoes, and away went East Germany, and away went its major contribution to history, the Berlin Wall. But no, it came as a surprise. A really big one, since you're asking.
What was the date when it fell? I've been asked this so many times, and I've usually pedantically replied that it became ineffective over a period of time, and so really there is no one particular date....etc. etc. But there was a day, a magic date, when it really started to crack in earnest, and that was November 9th 1989. That was the day when everyone all over the world saw the amazing scenes on their TV news as Easterners poured through the control point in their Trabant cars, greeted by Westerners with German champagne, the sparkling Sekt wine, which quickly makes you giddy, and started off a gargantuan party, and people danced on the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate.
People are always pleased at first when an old established order of things is swept away, old rules and restrictions relaxed. But it wasn't long before people began to realize the price that must be paid for the reunification of Germany, which was enormous just in money, let alone the physical and mental effort required. Soon there were even 'We want our wall back!' graffiti seen. Many people, myself included, had very much enjoyed the strange situation that Berlin had been in, and missed it when it was gone. Of course, now it was fun going round all the streets that were re-opening, and walking in the previously forbidden areas. Being able, also, to ride in taxis to the Opera House on Unter Den Linden through the Brandenburg Gate, and walk back again on beautiful summer evenings, where previously such an outing involved showing passports and queuing up with hundreds of others at the control desks in the bowels of Friedrichstrasse Station, and not being able to linger over drinks after the show for fear of missing the deadline to return to the west.
East German Soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie c.1985
I was a long way away from Berlin in November 1989, and so I missed all the partying. I returned in the spring of the following year, and must have seemed like a madman to all those around me, as I rushed around the city taking it all in. I felt bereaved, quite frankly, even though I should have been happy that millions of East Germans were now free of the dead hand of Communism.
Thinking about it, it was a more complex feeling than just missing something that had interested me. The Berlin wall to me was a physical expression of the history that had shaped my family's life, a connection from the chaos of mid-century Europe from which I myself was born. I felt that the world was beginning to leave me behind. The convulsion of the Second World War, from which the division of Germany came, is now hardly relevant to modern Europe. History students today puzzle over what is left, and try and work out how on earth we managed to get in that situation in the first place. Wasn't it just the craziest thing? A modern European city divided into two straight down the middle? But then one of the wisest things ever said about history is, "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there". To study history you must study the culture of the time as though it were an alien world. What did the people know? Just as important, what didn't they know? What did they see every day, where had they just come from, what were they trying to achieve, and what were they trying to get away from? Get a clue on a few of those things, and you'll get a clue on why the Berlin Wall was built, and why it fell.
Image from 1990, DDR Grepos and W.Berlin Cops
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