Fall of the Berlin Wall: 25 years on, we remember the day the world fell apart

Twenty-five years ago next month, the man-made geographical feature that had defined post-war Europe vanished with dizzying abruptness. Introducing a week-long celebration of a still barely credible political earthquake, Boyd Tonkin reports from Berlin

Boyd Tonkin
Monday 27 October 2014 23:49 GMT
Police from both sides stand idly by as the Berlin Wall is breached for the first time between East and West, at the Sandkrug Bridge crossing-point on Invaliden Strasse, in November 1989
Police from both sides stand idly by as the Berlin Wall is breached for the first time between East and West, at the Sandkrug Bridge crossing-point on Invaliden Strasse, in November 1989

“When I ride my bicycle through the Brandenburg Gate, I still think: ‘Wow!’” On a misty October morning, in a café on a quiet, pretty square in upmarket Schöneberg, Bernhard Schlink remembers the epoch-making excitement of Berlin a quarter-century ago. He quotes Willy Brandt, the former West German chancellor who greeted the reunification of his country with the words: “What belongs together, can now grow together.” For Schlink, “I still have a feeling of joy that, in my lifetime, I have witnessed Germany growing together.”

The writer and legal scholar, whose worldwide bestseller The Reader interrogated the lingering secrets and shames of the Third Reich, also played his part in the transformations that re-shaped Germany and the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Early in 1990, he moved from Heidelberg to Humboldt University in East Berlin. There, along with churches, civil-rights groups and political parties, he joined the round-table talks that began to devise a free constitution after the downfall of the dictatorship led by the “Socialist Unity Party” of the German Democratic Republic. “There was such a sense of ‘Let’s try together to get out of this mess’,” he recalls. “There was not much desire for revenge or prosecution. That was brought in more by West Germany even before, and finally after, reunification.”

The stampede towards reunification, which took effect on 3 October 1990, left Schlink’s model constitution for a liberated East Germany on the shelf. Perhaps, given another 6 per cent of “Yes” voters, Scotland could have imported it.

Now, almost 25 years after the peaceful revolution that began to topple the post-1945 world order, hindsight detects a pattern of inevitable change. The Wall fell. Germany united. The Soviet Union lost control of all its satellites before itself falling apart. The Cold War – even history itself, if you interpret Francis Fukuyama’s contested thesis in the triumphalist fashion that the historian himself disavows – came to an end.

Hindsight, however, tends to read chance as fate and choice as destiny. History might have broken another way. No Western intelligence agency foretold the collapse of the Soviet empire. Gorbachev’s top-down reforms in the USSR might have delivered a Chinese future, with Berlin in November 1989 the shaming, blood-stained site of its Tiananmen Square.

That it did not owes next to nothing to the central committee of the SED. On 9 November, after a month of ever-swelling mass demonstrations, the party suddenly reversed its hard-line stance with a bungled, ambiguous announcement at a shambolic press conference of freedom of movement for all East Germans. Rather, the revolution owes amazingly much to a man called Harald Jäger.

A Stasi lieutenant-colonel with 25 years’ service as a passport official, Jäger unilaterally decided to open the crossing at Bornholmer Strasse to the milling crowds of protestors just before 11.30 pm. After a long evening of dithering and insults from his superiors, Jäger snapped. He rang them to say: “I am going to end all controls and let the people out.” And he did. As historian Mary Sarotte argues in a book that traces, minute by minute, the events of that night (The Collapse), “The Wall’s opening was not a gift from political elites… It resulted from a remarkable constellation of actors and contingent events”. Who ended the Cold War? Forget Thatcher, Reagan and Gorbachev. Toast Herr Jäger.

Berliners from East and West celebrate at the Brandenburg Gate in December 1989

Even at the time, what happened and what it meant remained a matter of dispute. Over coffee and cake in her book-filled apartment, two blocks away from the Wall Memorial strip that runs for a mile along Bernauer Strasse, novelist Jenny Erpenbeck recalls that evening. She and her East Berlin student friends enjoyed an ordinary night out and then turned in. In the morning, she didn’t know whether to believe the startling overnight news: “We thought, ‘Is it true? Probably not’.”

She had grown up in central East Berlin, on the GDR side of severed streets “that all ended with a wall”. That seemed natural. So did distrust of the official media. “It made you very sceptical about the system. That was our forte.” Even after it became clear that East Berliners could now travel west at will, she didn’t. “I refused to be in the position of the one who was grateful.” Like many of her GDR peers, Erpenbeck still harbours mixed feelings about the pace and terms of reunification: “We were hoping to have opened the door to reforms, but not to give everything away in a few seconds.”

As the anniversary nears, Germany’s restored capital is meditating on its pivotal role in the making and the breaking of the Cold War world with plenty of polemic, a degree of introspection, but precious little self-congratulation. The S-Bahn station at Bornholmer Strasse – where history stepped into a new era – will keep its name rather become the “9 November 1989” stop, after Deutsche Bahn overruled the borough council. For some reason, visitors stick bubble gum to a surviving section of the Wall at Potsdamer Platz: spontaneous folk-art, or a risk to public hygiene? Berlin loves a row, especially one that draws on its eternally contentious past. At the eastern end of Unter Den Linden, after a decade of ferocious argy-bargy, it is rebuilding the former Prussian “City Palace” on the site of the GDR’s swanky “Palace of the Republic” – a GDR showcase, demolished after reunification, known to East Berliners as “Erich’s Lamp Shop” after party leader Honecker decked it out with fancy lighting.

Berlin air – and Berlin backchat, or Schnauze (snout) – does not readily incubate triumphalism. No one thinks that history ended there on 9 November 1989. Global hyper-capitalism remains the object of widespread suspicion or disgust. As across Europe, “neo-liberal” (read “Thatcherite”) is the ultimate put-down among everyone of a mildly progressive bent. Don’t, however, write this off as “Ostalgia” for the grey landscapes of “actually existing socialism”.

“People say, you’re being sentimental about the terrible GDR regime,” explains Jenny Erpenbeck. “It isn’t that. It’s the feeling of loss – that we lost everything, the good and the bad.” For Schlink, “Even among former members of the East German intellectual elite, whom I happened to meet and to know, I never found a real nostalgia for the GDR. What I found was nostalgia for elements of the GDR – always coming with the knowledge that, if one had to have the whole GDR to have the elements, one would rather not have the elements!”

Erpenbeck worries that, when parties of schoolkids come to visit the Wall memorial displays that run along Bernauer Strasse, they learn only about the terror and repression, the split families and the gunned-down refugees. What more ought they know about her GDR? “For me, the main impression, when I look back, was that I felt safe… You could not buy so many things so you didn’t need money. And the most important things – bread, butter, books, musical scores – these were very cheap.” She studied to be an opera director, without career anxieties. All her artistic colleagues “trusted they could make a living somehow”. Above all, “Money was not a topic. It was not interesting.”

A phrase that Bernhard Schlink used stays with me. “The modesty of life”: friends, family, culture, a rich private existence cultivated against the fraudulent and intrusive state. After dropping her son off at his post-school swimming club, Erpenbeck drives me to the old apartment block on Chaussee Strasse - another Wall-bisected street - where the dissident singer and playwright Wolf Biermann lived. We wander through the shabby courtyard and into a brown, dark stairwell. “In its own way, it’s beautiful,” she muses. Not superficially: but you imagine that the life of inner freedom nurtured here could well have been.

Not everyone looks back with such fondness. At a riverside restaurant on Schiffbauerdamm, yards away from the theatre where Bertolt Brecht created his Berliner Ensemble as the jewel in the artistic crown of East Germany, I meet novelist Daniel Kehlmann – a Berliner by adoption, but with family roots in Vienna and Munich. Kehlmann tells me that his wife, a human-rights lawyer brought up in East Berlin, felt wounded by having to walk past a preserved segment of the Wall after its fall: “It felt like an insult to her.” For him, relics of repression have dwindled into tourist kitsch: “So much of it has been turned into folklore now.” Still, he welcomes the anniversary jamboree: “It’s good to remind people that the GDR was a serious thing, not just some funny little niche.” Among their friends is Vera Lengsfeld, an outspoken politician and writer who, as a 1980s civil-rights activist, was informed on to the Stasi by her husband. Now – “singularly unforgiving”, notes Kehlmann - she leads tours around the cells of the Stasi remand prison at Hohenschönhausen, where she was once detained and tortured.

Berlin, though, looks outwards as well as backwards – to the global forces unleashed by the Cold War’s close as well as to the upheavals of 1989. Migration now looms almost as large in German politics as in British. Jenny Erpenbeck currently campaigns on behalf of a group of 200 African refugees driven out of Libya after Gaddafi’s fall, who want to stay together in Berlin. She helps them with jobs, health issues, even piano lessons: “I wanted to see them not just as refugees, but as people with their own lives.” Two generations back, her Communist grandparents fled Nazi Germany for a difficult spell in the Soviet Union. She identifies with “people who are not allowed to have a life”. As for her own GDR upbringing, “For me, it’s an experience that formed my thinking and character: to have been on the wrong or the poor side” of history. “You get a feeling of how it is to be on the silent side or in the shadows.”

At a cafe on Bayerischer Platz – focus of the “Bavarian Quarter” developed around 1900 by Salomon and Georg Haberland, and the favoured neighbourhood of Berlin’s pre-war liberal, often Jewish intelligentsia – I talk to Julia Franck. From a partly Jewish family herself, the writer left the GDR aged eight with her brother and mother. She recreates that ordeal, and especially the limbo of the Marienfelde reception camp south of Berlin, in her novel West. Today, she points out, Marienfelde – which processed 1.35 million fugitives from the East – still houses refugees. Like Erpenbeck, this former child refugee thinks about Europe’s new “others” and the puzzle of “why society excludes certain people and is even able to destroy them”. Deadly frontiers persist, taking a human toll much higher than the thousand-odd (136 in Berlin) killed trying to cross her torn nation between August 1961 and November 1989: “A lot more people die on Europe’s borders now than ever died on the East-West border.”

For Franck’s own children, now 11 and 13, divided Germany seems a thoroughly foreign country: “They ask some very strange questions! It’s really not their experience at all.” She, too, believes that commemorations matter: “On an intellectual level, it’s not bad to re-think history again and again. Like memory, it has its own plasticity.” In Berlin, the meaning of the revolution of 1989 remains in flux because the new world that it engendered does as well. “It’s not that we remember better or worse,” reflects Franck, surrounded by mementos of the Bayerishe Viertel residents whom the Third Reich either expelled or murdered, “but that each generation has its own claim.”

A rising generation will soon stake its claim on 1989. For now, we live in a world shaped by those who lived that transition and built their careers on its consequences. At Bornholmer Strasse, on 9 November, a young East German scientist from the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry dropped by to see what the fuss was about, and then made a brief crossing. Her name? Angela Merkel. A few weeks earlier, in Dresden, a resident KGB officer anxiously observed the mass protests triggered by the passage of “trains to freedom” taking GDR refugees west by way of Prague. His name? Vladimir Putin.

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