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5 November 2014

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.

By Peter Millar

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.

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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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