(This post is Chapter 1 of my book Inventing Europe: The Rise of a New World Power, published by Lester Publishing in 1991. The chapter on the opening of the Berlin Wall was written at the time.)
Berlin is a phoenix. A city of ashes and ruins at the end of history’s greatest war, its destruction was brought on itself by a regime that planned conquests, concentration camps, and the Final Solution from its inner sanctums of power. Hitler’s fondest dream was to crown his empire with a completely rebuilt Berlin, a city of enormous boulevards, massive structures, giant monuments — a totalitarian vision, a focus for the rule of a megalomaniac. Hitler’s legacy, instead, was a destroyed Berlin rent in two, a partitioned Germany, and a divided Europe. In place of the demolished Nazi empire, two superpowers were to anchor their global systems in Berlin. During the decades of their Cold War rivalry, Berlin was the most intimate meeting ground for the United States and the Soviet Union, the most likely flashpoint should their deadly antagonism become uncontrollable. The city became the symbol of irreconcilable ideologies. For the capitalist world, West Berlin became an oasis, a materialistic temptress in the antechamber of Stalin’s communist empire. For the East, West Berlin was a choke-point, the target for skilful threats that could extract concessions elsewhere. Twice the Soviet Union tried to bring West Berlin to its knees. First, it used a strategy of annihilation when it closed off land routes to the city in 1948, forcing the West to supply the metropolis by air in the famed Berlin airlift. Second, it deployed a strategy of attrition when it placed the city under long-term siege with the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. In both cases, West Berlin rebounded to become more brilliant, more culturally significant: because of the failure of the assaults, this city under siege was gaining the upper hand, negating the legitimacy of the East German system by its very presence. These assaults transformed the former Nazi capital into a symbol of freedom. As Berliners responded to menacing encirclement with grace under pressure, they started down the long road to rehabilitation in the eyes of the world. Time would be needed before other Europeans would again accept Berliners and other Germans simply as neighbours and not as invaders and murderers. Time would be needed for the Communist empire in the East to corrode.
In the end, West Berlin prevailed over its surrounding Communist hinterland. On the day the Berlin Wall was opened, November 9, 1989, the city celebrated as one. It would be whole again. The consequences were legion. Berlin was again the heart of Germany. Beyond that, it was the city around which the New Europe was to be constructed. The bipolar world of American and Soviet global power was in its twilight days. On November 9, it became clear that Europe as well as Berlin could be whole again. With Germany at its centre, Europe could become a vast and effective global power. The Berliners who celebrated that night as they danced by the Wall, popping champagne corks and shouting delirious cheers as bewildered East Germans crossed into West Berlin, were feting the coming together of their city. The celebrations heralded the birth trauma of a new era of global power. Berlin, Germany, and Europe would no longer have their fate determined principally in Washington and Moscow, as had been the case since the end of the Second World War. The era in which the Germans were the losers of a global war was over. They would chart their own course, while an anxious world waited to see how they would use their new found power.
Those who reveled that night in Berlin could not escape the ghosts of history, nightmarish ghouls whose shadows intruded on the glittering celebrations. Just a few meters west of the Wall was the Reichstag building, reconstructed after the notorious fire of February 1933 that served as a pretext for the Nazis to tighten their dictatorship. Only a short distance from here, but on the other side of the Wall, was the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of German unity. Not far away was the site of Hitler’s destroyed bunker, where the Nazi leader took his own life. From the time before the Nazi era, were the ghosts of earlier days. It was down the Unter den Linden, the grand boulevard that passes around the Brandenburg Gate, that German officers drove their vehicles on August 1, 1914, as they exulted in the news that mobilization for war had been proclaimed. The echoes of Bismarck’s triumphs were here, as were the memories of tragic Weimar, the febrile, ill-fated cultural capital of the world during the 1920s.
From the day the Wall was opened, the process of exorcizing the ghosts began. It was not that the past would ever be forgotten. Too many people, Germans and non-Germans, were determined never to lose the lessons of two world wars and the Holocaust for that to happen. Germany’s most distinguished writer, Gunter Grass, sounded a lonely protest against the creation of a single, powerful Germany: “no one of sound mind and memory can ever again permit such a concentration of power in the heart of Europe. Certainly the great powers cannot; nor can the Poles, the French, the Dutch, the Danes.” Despite the eloquent warning, however, Berlin was moving ineluctably away from its past towards its future at the centre of the continent, with the potential to play a pre-eminent global role.
The exorcism took different forms. One was the sound of hammers ringing as enterprising Berlin students worked round the clock, chipping fragments from the Wall and selling them to passers-by for a few marks each. They were all too willing to stop their work to philosophize with astonished visitors about the future of their city and the future of Europe. “You foreigners are too worried about German reunification,” one serious student told me as he chipped away at the Wall near the Brandenburg Gate. “We have learned our lessons, and it hurts us that we are still not trusted,” he said, stopping to warm his hands. It made a great impression on me, this sober youth, the grandchild of those who had lost the war, reassuring an older visitor from one of the victorious countries. History had come full circle.
Just up the Wall from the serious young men, revelers in red and white Father Christmas outfits were singing carols to two bemused East Berlin border guards who stood atop an observation point, right beside the Wall. Not far from them, near the Reichstag building, simple memorials marked the places where people desperate to escape from East Berlin had been shot down by border guards. One person who would not be enjoying the reveling that night was a young man of twenty-two who had been killed at the Wall in February 1989. The words “Honecker Murderer” were scrawled across the memorial.
Exorcism took political forms as well. Just six weeks after the opening of the Wall, the West German Social Democratic Party held its national congress in West Berlin, having transferred it there from Bremen at the last minute. The congress opened on the seventy-sixth birthday of Willy Brandt, the former mayor of West Berlin, who had become the first Social Democratic chancellor of West Germany in 1969. Brandt was a special kind of godfather for German social democracy, indeed for German democracy as a whole. “Lieber Willy, dear Willy, we love you,” said Herta Daubler-Gmelin as she opened the party congress, embracing Brandt and presenting him with a bouquet of roses. There was no artificiality in the gesture. Brandt had spent a long time fighting for German democracy and now he was there to preside over the exorcism of the past. He had gone into exile during the Nazi era. Mayor when the Wall was built, Brandt had stood at John F. Kennedy’s side when the president delivered his famous “I am a Berliner” speech. Even in those tense days, Brandt had fought to keep up a modicum of communication with those on the other side. As chancellor, he had challenged Cold War orthodoxy with his Ostpolitik, his historic opening to East Germany and Eastern Europe. On November 10, 1989, he had stood by the newly breached Wall to proclaim: “What belongs together, grows together.”
As long as the Germans were on the front lines of two geo-political systems centred elsewhere, they were safely contained. They were history’s ultimate potential cannon fodder, all too aware than any war between the superpowers would begin with Germans killing Germans. Suddenly, the opening of the Wall made them no longer victims, but the most important political actors in Europe.
Berliners felt the change in the status of the Germans more acutely than anyone else. For more than four decades, Berlin was a city to which things were done. It was a crucial piece on the Cold War chessboard. It symbolized two social systems and, in a characteristically German way, managed to push both of them to their limits. No bureaucracy has ever made itself so coldly ugly at that in East Germany. Crossing by car from West Berlin to East Berlin was an education in itself. At Checkpoint Charlie, you would pass the small allied control hut without having to stop, and then encounter the East German bureaucratic maze on the other side of the Wall. Handing your passport and car-ownership papers to one guard after another, you would finally be motioned to stop and get out of the car to buy Ostmarks for Deutschmarks. Typically, the officials in the wickets were facing the other way and would turn to make the currency exchange only after interminable delays. At last, you were signaled to drive into East Berlin. The city was stilted and lifeless in a way that had to be experienced to be believed. There was an emptiness at the heart of this metropolis that no perfectly preserved opera house or museum of German history could ever dispel.
West of the Wall, by contrast, was capitalism at its most orgiastic. The matchless way to experience the full high of West Berlin was to set out by car from West Germany, passing through East Germany to reach the city. After the long journey that took you past the dreary, smoky East German towns and through the ugly checkpoints — if passport processing were a growth industry, this country’s future would have been assured — the entry into West Berlin was mind altering. All at once you were cruising down the Kurfurstendamm. The brilliant lighting, the opulence of the breathtaking structures, the explosiveness of the contrast brought you fully alive to the oasis that was West Berlin. New York had nothing on the Kurfurstendamm, where capitalism felt as bright and new as it did on Tokyo’s great thoroughfares. Here were the neon gods calling down the names of the world’s great corporations from on high. On the street, the sleek Audis and Mercedes swept past crowds of window shoppers.
Behind the façade, however, there was another story. The decades-long, Soviet-sponsored siege of West Berlin exacted a toll. Even though its symphony orchestra was probably the finest in Europe, and its museums, theatres, and nightclubs were without equal, West Berlin entered a period of long-term industrial and commercial difficulty as a consequence of the interminable Berlin crises and the building of the Wall. Over time, Berlin-based industries suffered decline, sometimes falling on hard times, closing their doors or moving elsewhere. The West Berlin economy became increasingly dependent on highly mobile multinational corporations whose commitment to the city was no greater than to any other specific location. In part as a consequence of the claustrophobia that went with living in a city under siege, many Berliners left for West Germany. The German-born population of West Berlin stagnated. The city came to have a much higher proportion of those over sixty-five and a much lower proportion of those under fifteen than did the cities of West Germany. Many of the newcomers were Turkish and Yugoslavian guest workers, whose influx provoked a nativist reaction among some Berliners, fuelling the development of an important constituency for the extreme right wing. Many other newcomers were students from West Germany who often drank deeply at the well of Berlin culture and intellectual life and then took disturbing ideas back to the stolid West German communities from which they came. Hard-drug use was much higher in West Berlin than in the Federal Republic. The city became a spawning ground for a proliferation of subcultures and political protest movements. West Berlin became associated with violent demonstrations, the occupation of buildings by protesters, street battles involving the police, and terrorism. To help the city withstand the siege, the West German government poured money into it, setting up programs to entice people to move there from the Federal Republic. West German taxpayers ended up paying about $2 billion a year for the nurturing of West Berlin. Considering the long-existing feelings of estrangement between Berliners and other Germans, this tax was a very real irritant. Berliners had thought of themselves as more intelligent, more cultured, more alive than the comfortable burghers of other German cities and towns. For their part, other Germans often saw Berlin as a city of anarchists, drug pushers, and spawners of dangerous ideas.
Despite the costs extracted as a consequence of the siege, however, West Berlin sparkled, becoming every more a jewel of freedom. In East Berlin, it was instantly obvious that a terrible social experiment had been carried out. And the Wall and the social corruption in East Germany made it evident that the experiment had been stillborn from the start. The regime that had gunned people down for attempting to flee to West Berlin ruled from behind an unchallengeable arsenal of Soviet weaponry. While its leaders were making the monstrous claim that East Germany was breeding the “new socialist man,” they were themselves living luxuriously in perfumed villas north of Berlin, in secluded Wandlitz, where all the pleasures of the West were sumptuously present. The barbecues, double bathrooms, bars, aquariums, and satellite dishes were installed and serviced by West German workers so that East Germans would not be tainted by acquaintance with these luxuries. I could not help thinking of Wandlitz as I was driving across East Germany one rainy afternoon in early December, just weeks after the Wall had been opened. I stopped at what was called a restaurant, actually a trailer that served no coffee, only lemon tea as a hot beverage. What turned out to be quite good toffee was the only thing to eat. Posted up a this peculiar establishment was a sign warning parents to guard against the television advertising of the West and to take seriously the task of rearing socialist children. Along the side of the highway, people could often be seen working under the hoods of their Trabant cars, trying to coax a few more kilometers out of these two-stroke pollution-generating machines. The families sitting in them, often with their belongings on the roof or in the rear window, did not look like West Germans. They had that genuine proletarian appearance—old-fashioned moustaches, haircuts, and clothes that had long since disappeared in the West. These were characters out of a Steinbeck novel, for whom the phrase “the people” would not seem embarrassing or out of place. The leaders who had hidden out at Wandlitz had presided over a system that made people wait fifteen years for a Trabant. In the end, it was “the people” working in the most polluting factories in Europe who could stand it no longer. Even more than in relatively well-supplied East Berlin, it was in miserable, industrial Leipzig that implacable hatred for the regime had boiled over into the streets.
The regime had specialized in grand and petty tyrannies. Locking people up so they could not travel, and transforming their country into a prison where they could not speak or publish or meet freely, made East Germany a grand tyranny. Deciding how scarcity would be allocated so that the friends of the regime were more likely to be rewarded with consumer goods made it a petty tyranny.
One dissident who was finally expelled from East Germany in 1977, and now lives in West Berlin, where she is an author of children’s books, told me how she explains the difference between the two Berlins to her youthful audience. Franziska Groszer recounted the story of buying food for her family. In East Berlin, she would have to spend an hour each day in long line-ups to purchase food. Occasionally, she would be lucky and buy a large fish. When she reached home, she would call her friends at once to make the fish the occasion for an instant party. In West Berlin, she would find the fish she wanted easily enough, but might have to go to five or six stores to find one she could afford, since she had no job.
As the story shows, neither social system seemed ideal to her. She had, however, the kind of appreciation for the freedoms of the West that only those who have lived without them can ever feel. In the East, her children’s bookstore was closed on the order of the authorities, her efforts to publish or to present children’s puppet shows blocked. In the maze of bureaucratic repression she experienced, she was never given the satisfaction of being told what rules of the East German state her cultural activities had violated. She was simply told that she could not continue them.
Her description of the dissident circle of which she was a part in the mid-1970s was a testament of hope and hopelessness. Her circle included thirty or forty people, for the most part intellectuals, who would gather in people’s houses. While they had no concrete basis for optimism during what was the heart of the Brezhnev era, they tenaciously clung to a belief that someday something would have to give. Their main weapon against a system that enjoyed an overwhelming monopoly of coercive power was to try to raise the consciousness of people, to counteract the mind-numbing message of the regime that any well-being they could hope for came from an unassailable power above them. For the dissidents, reading to children and putting on puppet shows were acts of subversion, aimed at instilling the idea that people could be self-sufficient, that they did not depend on largesse from on high. During these years, Franziska Groszer would never go to see the Wall. She avoided it, always aware that it was there. She and her friends were well-informed, and knew a great deal about other countries. But they could not reach out to them. For her, the Wall meant the loss of the world. She felt diminished by it. Everything she lived was shrunken. While the Germans were clearly one people, it was evident that those who had survived the experience of being dissidents in East Germany had no intention of giving up the hard-won lessons of their experience. That experience would always mark them off from other Germans.
The euphoria, the sense of possibility that accompanied the opening of the Wall, was worth savouring. It would not last; the practical difficulties ahead, the calculations of the powerful, the dislocation of the powerless would foster new and often dark emotions. But for those who experienced the opening of the Wall, the wonder of the moment could never be taken away. However briefly, people without positions of power had seized control of their fate and, in the process, they had toppled not only a local system of tyranny, but a world order: they had opened the way not only for a new Germany, but for a new Europe, a Europe that would be invented not only in the streets, but at the highest political levels.