Fall of the Berlin Wall, from the archive: ‘Suddenly the world has no edge any more’

The age of mined frontiers patrolled by helmeted men with guns and dogs is over, writes Neal Ascherson

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The Independent Online

From The Independent 10 November 1989.

It wasn’t just the landscape of European politics that suddenly changed last night. It was the European cosmos. For most west Europeans now alive, the world has always ended at the East German border and the Wall: beyond lay darkness and demons. The opening of the frontiers declares that the world has no edge any more. Europe is becoming once more round and whole.

This is the best news the German people have heard since 1945. But it’s right to look back: at the huge, artfully built frontiers of wire and lights, towers and minefields, dogs tethered to wires, sensor devices and mantrap guns, sanded death-strips, helmeted men with guns. There on the border or the Berlin Wall, hundreds of human beings died and hundreds were maimed. The dogs howled and raved in the night. Sometimes there would be detonations, and then the screaming which might be human or might be a roe deer blown in half by a mine. This is what is over now.

When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the East Germans claimed that by sealing the Berlin border they had saved the peace. Then as now, the outrush of people to the West was threatening to bring about the collapse of the East German state, but in an utterly different world. Then, the collapse would have brought the two superpowers into violent collision. Now, it’s by opening the borders that the East German regime tries to avert collapse.

But, of course, the East German leaders are still playing games here. Egon Krenz can live with two possible results of what he has now done. The first is a colossal bolt to the West. If that happens, the Bonn government is trapped. West Germany cannot assimilate a far greater in-flow. Instead, Bonn would be driven to provide the German Democratic Republic with instant and enormous economic assistance and political encouragement – to make it a country worth staying in. It would mean committing West Germany to Mr Krenz and his version of reforms. And that Mr Krenz well knows.

The other outcome could be that the population, seeing one of its biggest grievances met, will begin to simmer down. There would be a temporary increase of emigration to the West but then the torrent would dry to a trickle. Many of these refugees would return home if their country was more free. But the people are on the move in the biggest spontaneous movement of Germans since the 1918 revolution. They want a change not of rules but of regime….

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