After the Wall

Ten years ago today, Germany was reunited after four decades of Cold War. Tonight, the crowds will be on the streets again. But is there really any cause for celebration?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Once upon a time, and a very bad time it was, I used to walk round the centre of divided Berlin with a 1923 Baedeker, and try to work out where - beneath the death strip, or in no man's land - the historic buildings had been. Now most of those historic buildings have been rebuilt. I'm actually living in one of them: the famous Hotel Adlon, hard by the Brandenburg Gate. And the little pink map in my 1923 Baedeker, which I still have with me, is a much better guide to central Berlin than any maps from the 40 years of the Cold War.

Having crossed through the Wall so many times in the past, and vividly remembering how it was a prison wall for 17 million inmates, I still get a kick out of passing through where it used to be. But most people no longer even know when they are crossing from former West to former East. There are now special maps on sale to show you where the dividing line between two worlds used to run.

The physical reconstruction of Berlin over the 10 years since the Wall came down is a wonder. Yes, perhaps there is a little too much black and grey ashlar, steel and glass. I wish they had put the original pediments and ornamentation back on to the reconstructed buildings, rather than going for a flattened neo-classicism that does occasionally spark a memory of the architecture of Albert Speer. But there are some exciting modern buildings too, such as the new National Gallery and the Sony headquarters on Potsdamer Platz. Altogether, to see the historic centre of a great city sewn together again makes the heart sing.

The human reconstruction is a different story. What was so unforgettable about the night of 9 November 1989 and the subsequent days was that here was world history being made by ordinary men and women. Yes, it could not have happened without Gorbachev, and Helmut Kohl, and the cack-handed Communist leaders of East Germany who bungled the announcement of the opening of the frontier planned for the next day, 10 November. But what made it that extraordinary, triumphant carnival of liberation was the East Germans who - prompted by West German television reports of that confusing announcement - flocked to the Wall in such numbers that the frontier guards finally gave way and let them through.

My memories of those days are all about ordinary people, not about the so-called great men. The people hacking away at the Wall, but also those quietly walking back home with little carrier bags after their first- ever shopping trip to the West. "Twenty-eight years and 91 days!" said one man in his late thirties, strolling up the Friedrichstrasse. That was how long it had been since he went to bed as an 11-year-old boy on 12 August 1961, and woke up on 13 August to find the Wall. He said he had been most moved by a hand-written poster proclaiming: "Only today is the war really over."

Another asked me slyly: "How much is the ferry to England?" The day before, his question would have been unthinkable. Meanwhile, ordinary West Berliners embraced complete strangers from the East, and asked them into their homes for coffee and cakes.

Now, the 10th anniversary is being celebrated as a global media event. German television has built a special glass studio right in front of the Brandenburg Gate, on the eastern side. CNN and other networks have their "stages" on the other side. Thousands of foreigners, journalists and assorted stars have flown in. The three towering figures of German unification, Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush, are all in town. But revisiting my old haunts, listening to acquaintances old and new, I don't find much popular enthusiasm. "When we talk to friends," said one, "we find they're just staying at home, like us."

Probably a lot of Berliners will, after all, turn out this evening, if only from curiosity. Yet the feeling is very far from triumphant, especially in the east. The East Germans, unlike their Eastern neighbours, the Poles and Czechs, got a ready-made democracy and market economy, and financial transfers amounting over the 10 years to something like pounds 20,000 per head. Yet there is widespread disillusionment - and resentment of the condescending, almost colonial way they feel they have been treated by westerners. For the spontaneous outbreak of national affection did not last long. And west Berliners today are quick to complain about their brothers and sisters in the east. The recent city elections showed a city still psychologically divided, with a large vote for the conservative Christian Democrats in the west and an astonishingly large vote for the post-Communist Party of Democratic Socialism in the east. Put the results on a map and it looks like an Eighties guidebook to the old, divided Berlin: the west in black, the east in red.

The German media are obsessed with this continued "Wall in people's heads". They seem to talk about nothing else. I took part in a talk show on Sunday evening with the extraordinary title "United, Betrayed or Sold Out?" So there has been a complete role reversal. Ten years ago, it was ordinary Germans, above all the East Germans, who celebrated this amazing triumph of people power, this dream come true. Germany's European neighbours, meanwhile, and especially their political leaders, watched with mixed feelings. Mrs Thatcher was the most outspoken in articulating doubts and fears, but she was by no means alone. The Poles, the Dutch, the French, the Italians - all were worried about what a liberated, united Germany would do. Would it drift away from the West, tempted by Gorbachev into a special relationship with the East? Would it dominate Central Europe, not militarily of course, but economically, creating a new and unhappy Mitteleuropa? And remember those commentaries in British papers about the emergence of a "Fourth Reich"?

Now, by contrast, it's the Germans, especially the east Germans, who are full of doubts and worries, and their neighbours who flock to Berlin to celebrate. For those foreign fears of 10 years ago now read like Gothic tales from the 18th century. If today you ask policy-makers in Rome, London, Paris or Warsaw what the main problems in Europe are at the beginning of the 21st century, few of them will mention "the German problem" at all. And if they do, it will not be high on the list. For the first time in modern history, there is no longer a "German Question". (Instead, we have an English Question. And, of course, several very large European ones.) This is a fantastic outcome, a tribute to the peaceful and responsible ways in which Germany was united and united Germany has so far used its power.

To be sure, there are still major problems in Germany. One of them is

overcoming the psychological barriers between east and west. Some say that these will last as long as it took to reconcile the North and South of the United States after the American Civil War. I don't believe it. In fact, in the southern parts of the former East Germany, in Saxony and Thuringia, there is already much more self-confidence and fewer "Ossi" ("Eastie") complexes. All in all, the division between prosperous south and less prosperous north is becoming more important in Germany.

Then there is the challenge of keeping the country's economy competitive, despite the huge bill for unification and the country's high labour costs. This is a major problem because the man who now rules Germany from Berlin, Gerhard Schroder, is trying to be a Tony Blair without first having had his Margaret Thatcher. There's a real worry that his "red-green" coalition won't push through the kinds of economic liberalisation, deregulation, privatisation and the reduction of tax burdens that German business really needs. On a different front, we might worry about sour attitudes to immigrants - despite a new, more liberal citizenship law. For the ageing German population needs more young immigrants, to work here and to pay for its pensions.

But what country does not have problems? These are major problems in Germany, but there is no major problem with Germany, no German Problem with a capital P - as there was, not just from 1945 until German unification, but throughout most of modern history. And there was nothing inevitable about this outcome. It could have happened quite otherwise if Stasi Colonel Harald Jager, then in charge of passport control at the Bornholmerstrasse frontier crossing, had given the order to use force against the East Berliners gathering at the barrier, instead of letting them through shortly after 9 o'clock that November evening. It could have gone wrong at 100 other moments between then and now.

So even though many Berliners, especially in the east, have mixed feelings, I shall certainly be out in the streets to celebrate this evening. To celebrate the rebirth of Berlin, the peaceful emergence of the best Germany we have yet to see, the end of the Cold War, and a world that, though it may not be much more peaceful or more civilised, is at least more free. Reasons enough to raise a glass of good, cold Berlin Pilsener - and at least two cheers.

The writer's eyewitness accounts of the revolutions of 1989, `We The People', has just been reissued in Penguin paperback, with a new postscript. He will be writing on these pages tomorrow about the `summit' he chaired in Berlin between Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush