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?


  1. "The wall created ... 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."

    No it wasn't.

  2. @scunnert - GDR propaganda clearly tried to justify the wall on these basis amongst others, see here.

  3. Perhaps I worded that paragraph badly - probably...

  4. You were supposed to respond: Oh yes it was!

    Ach the DDR justified it as protection against a revanchist BDR and necessary to keep out spies and sabateurs.

  5. Sorry hun, suffering from a serious loss of humour today. A case of takin' masel too seriously. Sorry.

  6. The German identity is one created by Bismark - in 1871 I believe - ( haven't checked)- and expanded by Hitler in the 30's. Although there's a big difference between Bavarians and Prussians - not to mention Austrians they, never-the-less, bought into it big time in the 30's. The lasting legacy of the Treaty of Versailles no doubt.

    What Hoeneker did was to try and create a new identity by splitting eastern Germans from their western cousins. That the people on the ground didn't want this is plain. Their identity was German neither east nor west. They had a shared history of utter madness that will bind them together for eternity - whether from guilt or chauvinism.

    Whatever - the DDR was an artificial construct that required a system of repressive control unrivaled in Europe until modern Britain.

  7. Hi. I agree with scunnert. Germans identity has been built for hundreds of years and any kind of separation couldn't really split the nation. I think that it was just matter of time. I think that similar situation can come into being in Korea too. However, the costs might be tremendous. That's why the fall of Berlin wall should be seen as a symbol of freedom and peaceful way how to reunite a nation.


  8. Hi Jay, thanks for commenting - of course the Berlin Wall coming down was proceeded by Tianamen Square, Hungarian borders being removed and the Polish Solidarity movement - and then followed by the liberation of all of the USSR satellite states and Communist regimes in Europe (bar Albania). It was a citizens movement for freedom (not political ideology), of which the East/West German reunification was only one small part.

    The outcome 20 years on? We in the UK are less free in some respects than many of the citizens of those states - and nobody here seems to have noticed...

  9. Pre-modern Germany was formed in the same way that the EU developed from a free trade area to its current monster state.
    1818 the Hohenzollern family created a customs union ( Zollverein ) of all its' various territories centred upon Prussia. The main block to its continued expansion was the question of whether Austria would be allowed to join it ( and thus threaten Prussias dominance ) of what was becoming a German speaking Free Trade Area by the gradual accession of smaller territories ( notablty Bavaria ) and the aggrandisement of the powers of the new entity.
    By 1871 it had become the Second Reich, The Empire of the Kaizers, dominated by military concerns and we all know where that led to.

    Enough history; I too grew up with the Berlin Wall as the constant backdrop to current affairs but was having difficulties with alcohol at the time of its fall.

  10. Thanks for the potted history Banned, very interesting - I wasn't aware of the Free Trade arrangement.

    So are you saying you were so drunk you knocked the wall down? Now that would be some drinking story...