Monday, 9 November 2009

On this date: The fall of the Berlin Wall

Tonight twenty years have passed since the Berlin Wall came down. The fall of the wall on 9 November 1989 was the climax of the revolutions which swept through Central Europe that year, starting with the near-free elections in Poland in June and the opening of the Hungarian border to the West and ending with Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and the violent downfall of the Ceausescu regime in Romania in December. Two years later the Soviet Union itself collapsed, changing the world forever.
The Berlin Wall had been the very symbol of the Cold War, making its fall the quintessential symbol of the mostly peaceful revolutions of 1989. During the 28 years the Wall existed, at least 136 people, possibly more than 200, were killed trying to escape over it.
In today’s Berlin you will here and there find a reminder of the divided city, such as a line in the street discreetly showing where the Wall once stood. Scattered across the city are also pieces of the Wall itself.
One of them may be found in Potsdamer Platz (first photo). Before the Second World War this square was, in Timothy Garton Ash’s words, “Berlin’s Piccadilly Circus”. Bombed to pieces during the war, it fell right in the middle of no man’s land when the city was divided into East and West and lay like an empty wasteland for forty years. In the past twenty years Potsdamer Platz has woken up and become the centre of the German capital’s commercial district.
Another slab of the Wall may be found in a bookstore in Friedrichstrasse – on it, President Reagan has written his famous words from his 1987 speech in front of Brandenburg Gate: “Mr Gorbachev, Tear Down – Tear Down – This Wall!” The greatest credit for 1989 should perhaps go to just Mikhail Gorbachev, who, by making it clear that the Soviet Union would not intervene like they had done in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, allowed the revolutions to happen.
In Tauentzienstrasse in the western part of the city stands Brigitte and Martin Matschinsky-Denninghoff’s sculpture “Berlin”, symbolising the divided city (third photo). It was erected on the occasion of the city’s 750th anniversary in 1987, two years before Berlin again became one.

In The Guardian today Timothy Garton Ash writes about that memorable night and Victor Sebestyen, author of the excellent Revolution 1989, on the meaning of “the real 9/11”:

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