Twenty years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell. When I got home from high school that day and turned on the TV and saw all the channels covering this extraordinary event I had to pinch myself -- was this really happening. Then my parents and I saw people climbing up on the walls, the notorious Trebants literally lining up to go through Checkpoint Charlie -- and people using chisels, jackhammers, anything they had handy to literally rip the wall down and I thought ... well, there are no words to describe it. The following day, a Friday, the students at school were in a total party atmosphere -- whether our parents had come from Eastern or Western Europe, we knew then the Cold War was finally over. With Remembrance Day just a couple of days away, it made what our soldiers had fought for truly worthwhile after 44 years.
There had been a power shift in Poland earlier that year via a semi-democratic election; in Hungary the Communist Party simply declared itself out of business. The "day after" as it were the government in Bulgaria just proverbially threw in the towel and the end of dictatorship in Czechoslovakia was just around in corner.
What happened in Germany, however was inconceivable. One had to reasonably presume that, even with Erich Honecker out of office, the Soviet Union would intervene as they did in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The fear was especially real given that the Soviets still had several hundred thousand troops stationed in the East. This time, Moscow, which was under the control of Gorbachev at the time, just let things play out on their own. One supposes it was because the still active Soviet Union had problems of their own; but the realization that the Warsaw Pact was no longer to be considered a group of client states beholden to a superpower's interests was huge.
It was hard enough to know that a double-fenced No Man's Land cut through the heart of Europe, quite literally from the Baltic to the Adriatic. Even more insane was the Berlin Wall, which completely surrounded West Berlin (well inside of East Germany), a city that had vast urban and rural tracts.
The truly horrible thing, one reason why I still hate walls so much, is that it wasn't meant to keep the people of West Berlin out of East Germany as in a prison city -- instead, it was East Germany that was the prison country and West Berlin a free international city for while France, the UK and the US occupied West Berlin it couldn't actually say it was part of West Germany. In fact, it was so crazy that many in the "main" part of West Germany actually tried anything they could to get into West Berlin to evade compulsory military or alternate service. Some sources I've read suggest it cost the East about USD 1 billion per year to maintain the Berlin Wall -- when a country was still basically trapped in a post-World War II infrastructure. Today, public transit across Berlin is so generally easy it's hard to remember that as many as 12 of the 25 rapid transit lines that serve Berlin, both surface (the S-Bahn) and underground (the U-Bahn) were either totally cut off mid-point or had to run through so-called "ghost" stations -- not to mention the chaos done to the tram / streetcar lines.
Twenty years later after the fall, it's reprehensible to see people advocating for walls in the United States, such as Lou Dobbs. As pro wrestler and former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura pointed out to Larry King last year, you build a wall to keep people in -- not out, citing Berlin as just one example. And America is literally being its own prison as more people want a wall to keep the "enemy" Mexicans from crossing in. It will get to a point where people want to break down the walls, and when it does it will either be peaceful as it was in Berlin or a violent bloodbath as the Christmas coup in Romania was a few weeks later. It's true a "wall of the mind" is still there and people still speak of being from "East" or "West" Berlin and reconstruction has been hugely expensive but the vast majority, I am certain, would never want to go back to the bad old days.
So many of us saw the Iron Curtain as permanent that when it just faded away, literally in one night, I think it caught the West off guard. It's been said that all NATO ever did was plan for an invasion from the East, it never had a plan for what to do if Eastern Europe ever actually did democratize.
Yes, we had always had the hope that freedom would ring from Lisbon to Tallinn. But had you told me that not only would the Iron Curtain disappear but it would become possible to travel across Europe without any border guards whatsoever, and that over time you would only need one currency as well -- not to mention that Canada would build a permanent embassy right where the death zone stood -- I would have said you were nuts. Yet within a few years after "the end" people from both East and West Germany could travel freely to the other countries in Western Europe without border checks, by 2007, border controls had been abolished in nearly all of central and eastern Europe. Even Switzerland and Liechtenstein, about two of the freest countries you can imagine, finally got with the program and also opened their borders to the rest of Europe this year. The Euro is the currency of 16 of the 27 EU member states and widely accepted in many of the others. The impulse for freedom cannot be resisted.
Freedom doesn't come by building walls. They come by breaking them down. Meanwhile, while the former Warsaw Pact and the Baltic States have relative prosperity and complete freedom, Russia has retrenched back into dictatorship. I think deep down people want the openness of the late 1980s back and they will wake up sooner or later. So too will the people of Mainland China, the ordinary people who know their country took the wrong path in 1989 unlike Eastern Europe which understood a future would like in freedom and not repression. Sadly it's just not happening fast enough.
Twenty years ago today was the day that changed everything. I for one am glad it did.
UPDATE (Tues 09/11/10 3:26 PM EST, 2026 GMT): Some minor corrections. Also, the party last night in Berlin, where Lech Walesa toppled the symbolic dominoes across the city, was a lot of fun. Too bad Thatcher wasn't well enough to attend -- on the other hand, she was at first opposed to reunification.
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It was a momentous day.
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