City limits: in West Berlin, press and police watch East Germans cross the border, 10 November 1989. Photo: Magnum Photos/Mark Power
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Crossing over: Germany’s dramatic reunion, 25 years on

Historians, scholars and Berliners are looking back at the chain of cause, effect and accident that led to the events of that night of 9 November 1989, and the way the city and its citizens have evolved since then.

The Collapse: the Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall 
Mary Elise Sarotte
Basic Books, 272pp, £18.99

Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall 
Hester Vaizey
Oxford University Press, 218pp, £20

Berlin Now: the Rise of the City and the Fall of the Wall 
Peter Schneider
Penguin, 326pp, £9.99

It is strange to think that the Berlin Wall has been down for a quarter-century, almost as many years as it stood. It seemed for a whole generation to be an indestructible symbol of Europe’s division, for a cold war in which the fate of the world hung in the balance. It is almost as strange, given the state of the world today, to recall the year 1989, when – with the signal exception of the horrors of Tiananmen Square – almost all the news was good, where in one country after another freedom was won, borders were opened and democracy triumphed.

When I first arrived in East Berlin in 1981 as a young correspondent for Reuters, one of my first stories was the huge military parade held to mark the 20th anniversary of the building of the wall. As I listened to the dictatorial head of state, Erich Honecker, claim it might stand for a further hundred years it seemed all too obviously true.

Now, 25 years on, it is of little surprise that historians, scholars and Berliners are looking back at the chain of cause, effect and accident that led to the events of that night of 9 November 1989, and the way the city – and the citizens at its heart – have evolved in the decades since.

In The Collapse, the American historian Mary Elise Sarotte uses the benefit of hindsight to track the developments in East Germany, beginning with a depiction of the inhumanity of the wall, reinforced by the grim story of one of the last young men to die attempting to cross it, just a few months before it fell. Chris Gueffroy was shot through the heart by an East German border guard marksman in February 1989. The friend who was with him was badly wounded but survived and was jailed for three years, only to be released to West Berlin in October 1989.

Sarotte’s book is at its best on the farcical sequence of events on the fateful evening of 9 November itself. Honecker had been ousted by his own politburo after demonstrations in East Berlin and Leipzig, and his bumbling heirs, in an effort to defuse the tension, made a hash of announcing a change in travel restrictions. What was intended, we now know – even though those involved have since changed their stories to fit the subsequent facts – was merely that East Germans would be allowed “freely” to apply to make trips to the West, on the assumption that once this was allowed, most would choose not to emigrate but to return home. As it happened, Günter Schabowski, the 60-year-old politburo spokesman, misread a note about the new rules hurriedly passed to him before a press conference, and announced that people would be allowed to cross the border, including the wall, “with immediate effect”.

Schabowski’s inaccurate choice of words was seized on, and misinterpreted, by the western reporters present. East Berliners, who listened almost exclusively to West Berlin news programmes, could hardly believe it – justifiably – but hurried to the crossing points “just in case”. Sarotte recounts the story (established by German reporters in the early 1990s) of how the guards at the Bornholmer Straße checkpoint, the biggest crossing point in the densely populated working-class East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, were soon facing a crowd of thousands clamouring to be let through.

In an attempt to put historic events at a human, understandable level, Sarotte focuses on a couple of individuals who were among the first to be let through to the West, their identity cards (unknown to them) having been stamped to mark them as undesirables, not to be allowed back in.

With no clear instructions coming from on high, Harald Jäger, the Bornholmer commander, who had only half a dozen men against a crowd of thousands pressing on the barriers, had two alternatives: order his men to fire, unleashing carnage and perhaps a mass onslaught, or to let people through. He took the line of least resistance. Soon reporters were beaming back not just radio reports but live television pictures to East Berliners sitting at home. They saw their fellow citizens crossing to the West, and the trickle became a flood.

Caught out like everyone else by Schab­owski’s unexpected and unintentional, unscripted announcement, I was coming back to Berlin from a demonstration on the Baltic coast. I dashed to Bornholmer, where I, almost alone, was not allowed to cross even though I had a multiple-entry visa. With stereotypical Prussian bureaucratic thoroughness, the guards pointed out my visa was valid for Checkpoint Charlie only. I arrived there to a scene of chaos. The border guards I had known for years, by sight if not name, offered to look after my car for me.

Shortly before 11pm I crossed from East to West Berlin, as I had done hundreds of times before – but this was the first time I had a beer thrust into my hand and my hair tousled to cries of “Wilkommen in die Freiheit” (“Welcome to freedom”). The rest of the night was a blur of a party as I met East Berlin friends on the Kurfürstendamm, the glitziest boulevard in the West. My friend Dieter Kahnitz, who ran a bar barely a hundred metres from the Bornholmer crossing, took an improbably capitalist decision: instead of joining the queue to cross to West Berlin he kept open all night and made a small fortune from revellers passing in both directions who did not have the Deutschmarks to celebrate in the West.

If Sarotte’s extensively well-researched and fluently told history has a flaw, it is that it is heavily biased in favour of an American perception. She warns that any western triumphalism is misplaced, but still concentrates unduly on the role and reporting of the NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, a name not known to most East Germans.

The Oxford academic Hester Vaizey’s archly titled Born in the GDR is not so much a book as a graduate research project, which is in no way to disparage its interesting insights. Vaizey, too young to have first-hand knowledge, has chosen eight former East Germans and interviewed them about their memories and experiences since the fall of the wall. Her interviewees show up the contrast between sinister Stasi-state perceptions of the East and those former citizens who look back on it with an almost Farageiste nostalgia (when life was easier, there were fewer foreigners, and the price of a pint and a loaf was constant).

At one end of the scale is Mario, a gay East German who was jailed for attempting to flee to be with his West Berlin politician boyfriend, then interrogated and encouraged in the relationship by the Stasi, trying to exploit it for intelligence. He is still undergoing therapy today.

At the other is Peggy, a young teenager in 1989, who looks back with nostalgia on a carefree youth, holidaying by peaceful lakes, with modest expectations, and unprepared for the cut-throat world of western capitalism. She recalls the mother of her friend bursting into tears at her first sight of the shops in West Berlin’s Europa Centre, bewildered by the choice of shoes and matching handbags. She has my sympathy. When I first came back to England from Moscow and East Germany in the mid-1980s I found myself unable to buy a toothbrush. There was too big a choice. I was used to: “Toothbrush? Da or nyet?” I left my south London Sainsbury’s with a jar of gherkins and frozen prawns, the only items I recognised.

Vaizey quotes the Leipzig psychologist Walter Friedrich describing the dilemma that East Germans faced in 1989-90 as they prepared for unification and were “confronted with textbooks lauding the praises of the West German state, which only months before had been portrayed as an imperialist oppressor. Normality had been turned on its head.”

The same logic would confuse people all over the formerly communist world. Muscovites had been taught that the greatest crime you could commit was to buy an item at one price and sell it at a profit – only to be told in the 1990s that not only was this legal, but it was the basis of social progress. Russian girls decided their ingrained notions of morality meant nothing any more, and prostitution became an attractive and well-paid career choice.

Peter Schneider’s Berlin Now is for those with a knowledge of the city back then and a curiosity about how Europe’s most anomalous, schizophrenic, stultified metropolis from 1945 to 1989 has been transformed into the continent’s most vibrant capital, yet still with an offbeat edginess and sense of self-denial.

Schneider, a “foreigner” from Freiburg, on West Germany’s western edge, represents a particular class of Berliner: those who chose to come and study in West Berlin because the city’s ambivalent and disputed status released them from the otherwise obligatory military service.

He came, and stayed, and became in many ways the archetypal postwar new Berliner, with a keen eye for the reality behind his adopted home’s famed grumpiness, lack of hospitality, rough street accent and above all Schnauze (literally “snout”, for which our closest equivalent is London cockney “attitude”). Having spent formative years in my own twenties in East Berlin, where Schnauze was at its most acute, I recognise Schneider’s gradual understanding of the city that became identified as the Nazi capital, even though it never gave the Nazis a majority (they went from 2.6 per cent of the national vote in 1928 to 18 per cent in 1930, and at their peak got no more than 28.6 per cent in Berlin).

Berliners took life as a series of hard knocks. During the years of partition the city’s true identity, its accent, its cynical view on life, were sheltered in the East from the draft-dodging, cosmopolitan and insular city in the West. Schneider is nostalgic more for West Berlin than the East he hardly knew, but he has embraced the city’s new incarnation.

Berlin Now is stuffed with glorious anecdotes about the rows over architecture, infrastructure, sexuality and morality in a city forced to weld itself together since 1989. High on its list of worries has been how to cope with an influx of “newbies”: rich West Germans, lured to the nation’s new capital and despised by the natives for diluting its character.

I cannot help being drawn to the story of Wolfgang Thierse, the East German who until 2013 was deputy president of the Bundestag, still living in the now über-trendy Kollwitzplatz by dint of a pre-unification lease. The flat that was my first marital home, with 29 Stasi microphones hidden in the walls (Reuters found them when it renovated the place in the 1990s), was just around the corner.

There is no time like the present to recall the point when, in a brief moment of clarity, even the British rejoiced in the new-found freedoms of their fellow Europeans instead of complaining about them. 

The updated edition of Peter Millar’s “1989: the Berlin Wall – My Part in its Downfall” is published by Arcadia Books (£9.99)

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood