Monday, 9 November 2009
The Berlin Wall, 20 years ago, now
When photographer Anthony Suau was sent to cover the opening of the border between East and West Berlin he was unsure at first, but his agent convinced him that it would be the 'story of a lifetime' - how right he was. Anthony framed some of the most universally recognised photographs of that optimistic time.
28 years after its construction the 96 mile long Berlin wall, a testament to the failure of the Allies to find peace in the aftermath of WWII and the definitive symbol of the cold war, came down on the evening of the 9th November 1989. In those 28 years around 130 civilians trying to escape to freedom in a walled city were killed by border guards, it is not known how many were successful.
The wall created a physical divide which split families and communities along an arbitrary national border, one that had never existed before. Erected at the orders of politicians - under the guise of preserving a 'way of life', and a national identity that was different, better than that of those on the other side and moreover one that blood had been spilled to preserve.
The wall was also a perfect metaphor for political ideologies which exploited division, ethnicity, nationalism and the hubris of a belief in their philosophical superiority. Politicians on both sides were quick to exploit any photo opportunity alongside the wall, pointing to it as a symbol of all that was wrong with 'the other side'.
Something special started in 1989; the regimes of China, Poland, Hungary, GDR, Yugoslavia and many more felt the wrath of a disillusioned populace - as they railed against governments that little valued freedom.
Ordinary people just wanted to be free; to come and go about their lives without interference and fear of persecution - they were not commenting on the merits of one political system versus another nor interested in arcane dialetics. Those who were less free wanted the same freedoms they believed others enjoyed.
The Berlin Wall was the perfect symbol of the perceived differences in liberty - dividing ordinary people who had fought together, lived and loved together - in less than a generation they had been separated and subject to very different treatment by their respective governments. The Berlin Wall was doomed from the day of its construction, for what it stood for was inequity.
From this commentator's current point of view, as I immerse myself in the broadcast coverage of 20 years ago with tear stained eyes, it is as if it had never happened.
Our freedoms, on this side of the wall so to speak, are being eroded now - without as much as a word of protest; Ubiquitous monitoring of all of our activities, the proliferation of databases, 3000+ new criminal offences since 1997, ID cards, presumed guilt, state mandated biometrics and the politics of fear are the new wall.
Now where is that chisel and sledgehammer?