Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Historians can tell you pretty much everything about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why it happened, where it happened, how it happened. The recent 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall made me think about whether there is anything that a person who was there at the time knows that historians and later generations do not.

Most obviously, people who were there will know what it felt like at the time. The true drama of 9 November 1989 is hard to recapture. One obvious reason for this is that the vast majority of photos and videos only show the side of the Wall covered in colourful graffiti - the western side, the free side, the one that already enjoyed freedom of expression (hence all the colourful graffiti). Yet it was the other side of the concrete barrier that mattered, the side that people had risked their lives to climb over.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a momentous occasion for West Berliners, and for West Germans, but it was not the day of unification. That came nearly a year later, on 3 October 1990, after a majority of East Germans had voted to join West Germany, and Helmut Kohl and George HW Bush had skilfully negotiated it with Gorbachev. The fall of the Wall was a day of liberation, for those behind the Wall, not the day of unification for those in front of it. The emotional quality of this liberation can only be captured if you can imagine what it was like to live behind that “anti-fascist protection rampart” (its official name) for all your life, never setting foot in the western half of your own city, and with the expectation that this would continue for years to come.

Here is a second thing that historians struggle to recapture: the sense of what people at the time did not know. To those who lived behind it, the Berlin Wall had become a seemingly unchangeable fact of physical geography. Even when things began to change so dramatically in Poland and Hungary, most people just did not believe the Wall could crumble. After all, there was a nuclear-armed empire holding it up. However much as the historian warns against the problems of having hindsight, you simply cannot un-know your knowledge of what came afterwards. So even if you do not fall into the trap of writing history as if that which actually happened somehow had to happen – what Henri Bergson called “the illusions of retrospective determinism” – it is almost impossible to recreate the emotional intensity of the moment of liberation. For that intensity came from having lived for most, if not all, your life with the certainty that the Wall was permanent. Some did believe that the Wall would come down and Germany would be united, but none foresaw when and, above all, how.

For example there is the story of a former MI6 man, on the evening of 9 November, who was meeting with his colleagues from the West German foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst. The West German spies were in the middle of telling the British spooks, clearly on the basis of their excellent East German sources, that change in East Germany would only come very slowly, perhaps in a matter of years, when someone put his head round the door and said: “Turn on the television: the Wall’s open!”

In many ways 1989 has become the new 1789: both a turning point and a reference point. Twenty-five years on, it has given us what is, politically, the best Germany we have ever had. (Culturally, other Germanies have been more interesting, but today's Germany is democratic, rich, and supporting the rest of Europe.) It has made possible the Europe we have today and there is no corner of the world its consequences have not touched. Those consequences have been of two kinds: the direct results of what actually happened, and the ways in which people read and misread it, which themselves produce unintended consequences.The fall of the Wall has become a kind of master metaphor of our age, used especially by western politicians, not just to represent, but to predict, the forward march of freedom.

So where are the people who were around in 1989? It is not that this generation has been silent: Edward Snowden, who was six when the Wall came down, can be seen as both a voice and a hero of that generation. But it is not yet clear what broader political vision this generation represents, how it will change Europe and whether it will appeal to a wider world. Indeed, if it is to succeed, this cannot just be a western generation: the generations in Beijing, Delhi and São Paolo are just as important.

It is hard to tell whether the people around in 1989 will come together as a defining political generation and how they will act. But one thing is clear: their action (or inaction) will determine how we read the Wall’s fall on its 50th anniversary. On them will depend the future of our past.

This blog was inspired by this article I read. I would highly reccomend reading it.