The Fall(out) of the Wall


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Like you, or the vast majority of you old enough to remember, I watched the Fall of the Wall on television 20 years ago -- on Nov. 9, 1989.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/11/2009 (4838 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Like you, or the vast majority of you old enough to remember, I watched the Fall of the Wall on television 20 years ago — on Nov. 9, 1989.

Peter Mansbridge brought many of us the story live from Berlin, the Brandenberg Gate shining in the dark in the background. After months of protest across Soviet East Germany, a mob rushed the gates that for 40 years had separated East Berlin from West Berlin — separated West from East, freedom from tyranny, hope from despair — and the guards refused, at last, to open fire on their own and instead opened the floodgates.

“It was the moment the Cold War ended, the hour the German people reunited, the night the Soviet empire cracked,” Daniel Hamilton, a professor at Johns Hopkins who had lived in divided Berlin in the 1980s, has written.

After two generations of breathing the poisonous atmosphere of the Cold War, of enduring the uneasy “peace” of nuclear detente, of watching Eastern Europeans crushed by the Red Army every time they dared to throw off the Soviet yoke, the impossible had happened. The Iron Curtain was torn and delirium gripped the world — a paroxysm of joy.

Ding-dong. The witch is dead!

It was five months later, on the first day of spring, when I first saw The Wall up close and personal. It was still an impressive barrier, but it was toothless, or rather, its teeth were snaggled. Whole long sections of it had been removed, some sold to wealthy Americans to decorate restaurants, clubs, parks and gardens — to the victors, and all that.

What was standing, covered in lurid, spray-painted graffiti, was being chipped away by tourists seeking souvenirs, and entrepreneurs seeking tourists seeking souvenirs.

One, an East German who had lived the lie of a planned economy, had embraced market capitalism overnight. For some dollars, he rented me his hammer and I busted out a piece of the wall that I keep in a curio cabinet at home.

Five months after The Fall, however, the euphoria had given way to dread that somehow, once again, the Communists would fix the outcome, the dream would end and everyone would wake up again in chains.

Which is why Free Press editors sent me on a three-month odyssey across Eastern Europe in the spring of 1990 — to chronicle the Fall(out) of the Wall.

I first went to Ukraine, where the fear of a Communist fix was palpable, and with good reason, as it turned out. The Communists had all the power and despite considerable courage on the part of the forces of democracy, they retained that power in the March 4 elections. But regardless, it was a “free election” — the opposition rose from zero seats to 111. Ukrainians were off their knees, and still are, as the Orange Revolution emphatically underlined five years ago.

From there I travelled to Berlin for the East German election March 19. Again, the concern was that the Commies would pull a fast one, but it seemed a specious fear. Unlike Ukraine, where Ukrainians wanted a divorce from Moscow after a forced marriage dating back to the Czars, the Germans simply wanted to reunite, as was so clear election night when the anti-Communists celebrated victory by singing the banned Nazi anthem, Deutschland Über Alles.

But in East Berlin I also found something familiar from Ukraine — most people cherished being free of Moscow’s iron grip, but they also seemed to confuse the fruits of democracy with the fruits of western capitalism, thinking that ballots would somehow deliver dollars and big-screen TVs.

By the time I got to Warsaw, I was growing impatient with fears of being tricked.

But I was coming to understand what seemed an irrational anxiety — they hadn’t been free in more than 40 years, they hadn’t been themselves, they couldn’t be. When they tried too hard, the tanks rolled.

Or at least most Poles had not enjoyed freedom, but they had been trying mightily for at least a decade so that many worked outside the country and therefore knew freedom was only one part of prosperity, the other parts being hard work and enterprise.

And so on to Czechoslovakia, as it was then, where again all was anxiety despite the Velvet Revolution and the inspiration of Vaclav Havel.

The journey ended in Romania, where despite demonstrations by as many as 80,000 screaming for freedom, they did not, really, achieve it.

That’s probably because it was never so much a Soviet satellite as a dictator’s fiefdom. Perestroika had been practised there for decades before Mikhail Gorbachev announced it as policy, which meant that the Romanian Communists were entrenched with or without the existence of the Soviet Union, and they remain very much so today — Romania has the highest concentration of Communist politicians of any of the former Soviet satellites.

I came home from those three months changed. Tyranny is not an abstraction. Yearning for liberty is not an abstraction. But freedom can be, as we continue to learn.

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