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Berlin

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was the culmination of months of protest across communi

It was the most dramatic moment in an extraordinarily dramatic year. All across eastern Europe, one-party regimes collapsed in a heap. But nothing could trump the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall on the evening of 9 November 1989. Television viewers around the world were transfixed as the loathed symbol of a divided continent broke open.

Following a confused, partly unintended announcement at an official press conference, East Berliners poured through the once-impenetrable barrier in to West Berlin; thousands more clambered on to the wall and celebrated there for days to come. Overnight, the barrier lost all its power.

This was a time of fairy-tale strangeness, a brave new world in the unburdened sense of the phrase. The fall of the wall was not, however, as unpredictable as politicians have often been eager to suggest. Indeed, it was unexpected only if one failed to see what the pressure of the crowds had already achieved, in the lead-up to that day.

Some changes were obvious and widely acknowledged. Through the summer of 1989, there was a vast outflow of East German refugees, especially through liberal Hungary, which proudly and publicly snipped a symbolic hole in its border fence in May, with unexpected consequences.

In the months to come, tens of thousands slipped across the Hungarian border to the west. East Germany’s lifeblood was haemorrhaging away. Those who remained and chanted “Wir bleiben hier!” (“We are staying here!”) provided no comfort to the regime, because their meaning was equally clear: “We are staying – because we want change.”

All of those pressures – from the leavers and the stayers alike – smoothed the way for what came next. However, probably the single most important moment came a month before the wall fell, on the evening of 9 October, in the city of Leipzig.

Throughout 1989, weekly Monday demonstrations – prayers for peace in the Nikolaikirche, followed by a demonstration – gradually gained strength, despite constant beatings and arrests. Eventually, the authorities decided enough was enough. They would teach Leipzig, and thus all of East Germany, a lesson.

A “reader’s letter” (read: an officially sanctioned announcement) in the Leipzig local paper announced that “these counter-revolutionary actions” would be dealt with, “if need be, with weapons in our hands”. In effect, the regime was publicly heralding its plans for a local reprise of the Tiananmen Square killings, which had taken place just four months earlier.

Nor was this mere bluster. The city of Leipzig was closed off. Weapons and ammunition were handed out. Hospitals were cleared. Before the demonstration began, I counted 16 trucks with armed workers’ militias in one side street alone. Inside the 13th-century Nikolaikirche, everybody knew what to expect once prayers were over. Through the tall windows, we could hear the echoing cries of the huge crowd outside, chanting, “No violence!” But it was clear to everybody: violence there would be tonight, and it might be lethal.

After the service, we moved outside. Presumably in common with many of those around me, I felt the tightening knot of fear as we waited for the shooting to begin.

A few minutes passed, without violence. And then a few minutes more. And then – utterly dramatic and conventionally un-newsworthy in equal measure – it became clear that there would be no shooting tonight. No shooting, not even arrests or beatings. As one demonstrator said after it was all over: “I felt as if I could fly. It was the most fantastic day that I have ever known. Now, we knew that there was no going back.”

Even outsiders could share in the exhilaration of that achievement.

Late that night, the Stasi secret police fetched me out of my room, searched my baggage and threw me out of the city (I had already phoned my report back to my newspaper in London from the central post office, and was thus content to be deported). The hotel receptionist asked why I was leaving in the middle of the night. I pointed to the waiting men in overcoats, and explained that my crime was to have witnessed and written about events that they would rather went undocumented. “It’s a disgrace!” she said, loudly enough for the Stasi men to hear. Such insolence would, until a few days earlier, have got her the sack or worse. Now the fear was broken. It would never return.

The regime’s threats of lethal action were intended to persuade the crowds to stay at home. Instead, more had come out that day than ever before. Despite all the guns and all its power, the regime was more afraid of the crowds than the crowds were afraid of the regime. This was, to quote Ryszard Kapuscinski’s description of the fall of the Shah of Iran a decade earlier, one of the last zigzags to the precipice.

In the next fortnight, the numbers of protesters doubled and doubled again, as the regime looked sulkily on.

Then – in an increasingly desperate attempt to slow the momentum – the government came up with a last, surreal concession. On 3 November, it was announced that all citizens could now leave for the west without special permission. Just two conditions were imposed. In a citizen-laundering exercise, they could not leave directly from East Germany to the west, but must pass through a third country on their way. Oh, and yes, everyone must give up their East German identity card when they leave, poor things.

Thus, the regime’s front door remained locked. The guns, watchtowers and minefields of the Berlin Wall were, after all, still in place. However, a side door – a simple detour of a few kilometres through Czechoslovakia and on to the west – was now officially open to all. It was a gloriously absurd contradiction.

The sacking of a third of East Germany’s ruling politburo, which happened the same day, would, in other contexts, have seemed important. By now, however, three weeks after Leipzig, the resignation of yet more men in ill-fitting suits seemed like yet another rearrangement of the deckchairs. (The loathed Communist leader Erich Honecker had already been dumped, just a week after the Leipzig showdown.)

More significant was that the Berlin Wall had suddenly become pointless – a redundant symbol. Thousands of East German refugees were crammed into the West German embassy in Prague; they received the news in dazed disbelief and headed off to the West German border.

The travel ban that underpinned East Germany’s very existence was now in free fall. The only real surprise was how utterly unprepared the politicians were for the wall’s fall when it finally came. Chancellor Helmut Kohl initially refused to believe his closest aide. “Ackermann,” he insisted, “are you sure?”

This was not a victory for Ronald Reagan (“Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall!”), nor indeed a victory for the Soviet leader (a pragmatist who reluctantly bowed to the inevitable). Nor (another much-heard version) was it all down to a mix-up over which pieces of paper should or should not be read out at a press conference. It was a victory for the crowds of Leipzig and beyond.

The East German protesters did not stand in isolation. They owed much to the defiance of others who had come before. By autumn 1989, the Communist wheels were falling off all over the place. In partly free elections in Poland in June – the same weekend as the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing – the independent Solidarity movement defeated the Communists so overwhelmingly that the humiliated regime had no alternative but to bow to demands for a non-Communist prime minister. At the very latest from 4 June onward, the clock was ticking for one-party regimes across eastern Europe.

Elsewhere, too, extraordinary changes were afoot, demonstrating what Václav Havel called the power of the powerless. August 1989 was the 50th anniversary of the secret deal between Hitler and Stalin which allowed Moscow to gobble up the Baltic states. Two million people – a quarter of the entire population – formed a human chain that stretched for hundreds of miles through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. To the fury of Mikhail Gorbachev, they demanded a restoration of pre-war independence. (Gorbachev still pretended that the Balts had joined the Soviet Union voluntarily, which – especially given the mass deportations to Siberia after annexation in 1940 – was very sweet.)

For western politicians, the Baltic protests were either an irrelevance or an annoyance (“It’s worrying, because this makes things difficult for Gorbachev” was a frequent mantra). But the peaceful mass resistance of the Balts – despite and because of a subsequent armed crackdown – played a pivotal role in ending the Communist one-party system for all time.

Even today, many politicians still seem to believe that only their fellow politicians can initiate profound and lasting change. A seemingly plausible argument is made, too, that people should not make impossible demands. In 1989, the protesters of eastern Europe – in Leipzig, Gdansk, Prague, Vilnius and elsewhere – proved the sceptics wrong on both counts. Those lessons still deserve to be remembered. l

Steve Crawshaw is UN advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. He was east Europe editor of the Independent from 1988 to 1992. He is the author of “Easier Fatherland: Germany and the 21st Century” (Continuum, £15.99) and co-author of “Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity and a Bit of Ingenuity Can Change the World”, to be published next year

Share your memories of the year of the crowd with us by emailing: 1989@newstatesman.com. A selection will appear on our website

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd