Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Big Read: If we rise up, then walls fall

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06 Nov 2014 | Tony Leon | The Times

This Sunday, 25 years ago on November 9 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. There can be few modern events - perhaps other than Nelson Mandela's walk into freedom some three months later, and there is a direct link between both of them - which so symbolically, and on prime time television, defined the turning of the page of history.

"Things are always clearer through the rear-view mirror than the windscreen"
STOP, IT'S HAMMER TIME: A 1989 picture of the demolition of the Berlin Wall while East Berlin border guards watch from above the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Scholar Francis Fukuyama called it the "end of history", which it was for around 12 years until 9/11 in 2001, when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre were also reduced to smoking rubble and we were reminded, anew, that history mocks those who prematurely declare the endgame.

Still, the breaching of the 156km "iron curtain" erected by the Soviet-backed East German regime in 1961 to prevent its citizens from fleeing the claims of the dictatorship of the proletariat for the material pleasures, democratic choices and better life chances on offer in West Berlin stands out in the memory for many reasons, some of which still resonate today.

Some two years before thousands of East Berliners poured across the wall without being shot by border guards, unlike the 136 victims of such atrocities before them, the nemesis of the Soviet system he so opposed, US President Ronald Reagan, made a famous address at the Brandenburg Gate, very close to the wall of Berlin's division.

He was not the first US president to use divided Berlin as a backdrop for the claims of freedom against the tyranny next door: John F Kennedy had proclaimed "ich bin ein Berliner" just after the wall was constructed. Reagan used his speech - literally against the wall - to challenge the new, reforming Soviet boss, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and guarantor of its East German satellite: "Mr [Mikhail] Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

In fact when the wall fell, it was not because the Soviet leader tore it down, but rather because the "power of the powerless" - as anti-Soviet, pro-democracy leader, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia - described the people's revolution that swept away the 45-year imposition of communism across Eastern Europe. But Gorbachev was simply not prepared to use force to maintain the system.

His Chinese counterpart, Deng Xiaoping, in Beijing was not as fussy. He sent in tanks and soldiers to Tiananmen Square in June that year. An unknown number of pro-democracy demonstrators died.

When Gorbachev confided a few years later to Reagan's successor, George HW Bush, that the wall fell - and with it the aspirations of seven decades of Marxist Leninism - because "ordinary people made it happen", he was only half right. It also depended on whether the powers-that-were would defend it by force.

And, of course, the hinge of history always swings on events unknown to even the most careful and well-informed.

Although history makes the path it follows seem inevitable, "the view'', as Warren Buffett famously remarked, "is always clearer through the rear-view mirror than it is through the windscreen".

Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis recounts that at the beginning of 1989, the year of such shape-shifting change in Europe, China and South Africa, there were - just like the French Revolution that overthrew the divine right of kings two centuries before that - few signs of the upheavals in store.

As he noted: "What no one understood, at the beginning of 1989, was that the Soviet Union, its empire, its ideology and therefore the Cold War itself, was a sand pile ready to slide. All it took to make that happen were a few more grains of sand."

The people, in their masses and discontent with the slide in the price of Soviet commodities and the US outspending the Soviets in arms, all contributed.

But as I saw for myself, even just a few weeks before, it did not seem as though these events would conspire to tumble walls, empires and ideology. I was a guest of the [West] German government in Berlin just weeks before the wall came down. On a Saturday morning my local host, a Christian Democrat MP, took me on a tour, via the U-bahn, or underground, from West to East. Even with a South African passport back then, provided you paid hard currency, the East German border guards would give you a day visa to visit the "showcase capital of the showcase country of the Eastern Bloc", as he sarcastically described the grim city of East Berlin.

Though it was in effect the same city, with the same people, it was a world apart. The consumer bustle and anarchic freedom of the West gave way to goose-stepping soldiers, hideous artifacts of monumentalist architecture and very few goods in downmarket stores. A few hours there convinced me that, with its many challenges and imperfections, life on the western side was immeasurably better.

The fall of the wall a few weeks later also led to changes here when FW de Klerk, who read the writing on his own wall of apartheid, reckoned the fall of communism removed an immense obstacle in the path forward for South Africa.

So, November 9 1989 is one of those anniversaries that, literally and figuratively, changed the country and the world in which we live today.

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