The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Surprises of History
By DORIS L. BERGEN
I find it hard to believe that 10 years have gone by since the events now known as "the fall of the Berlin Wall."
Of course the Wall didn't really fall in November 1989, nor, for that matter, did it come down. Instead, it simply and suddenly stopped being a wall, in the sense of a border and a barrier, and became something quite different: a place to party, the source of "hew-it yourself" souvenirs; a giant, international photo-opportunity — even a dance floor.
I remember it all very well, because in the fall of 1989, I was living in Berlin (West), finishing up the research for my Ph.D. dissertation. I had spent much of September and October commuting every day from my cheap but trendy neighborhood to an archive in Potsdam, across the border in East Germany. The trip took three hours and four forms of public transportation each way. It included a stop at the border that could take anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours, and involve anything from an order to reveal my right ear and remove my glasses to a full body search. Later I would discover that the archive in Potsdam was only 20 minutes by car from my flat in Berlin-Schoeneberg.
But in September and October 1989, it felt worlds away. So I didn't expect to emerge from a long day of research on Nov. 9, 1989, to see the security guards at the archive gathered around their radio, weeping.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"They're dancing on the Wall!" one of them told me.
History, I discovered in the fall of 1989, is not predictable. Nor is it inevitable, simple or unambiguous. I was surprised by the events of Nov. 9, 1989, but I was not uninformed. Like everyone in Berlin, I had become addicted to news sometime that spring and summer. So much was happening all around us — in Poland, Hungary, the Soviet Union, next door in the German Democratic Republic and as far away as China. My housemate and I bought every newspaper we could find — and took every opportunity we could to get on a train or plane — to see for ourselves.
During 1989, I visited Yugoslavia and Poland, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia each twice and East Germany more times than I could count. I knew that those countries were being transformed — anyone could see that — but I had no idea that within a few years, all of them, except for Poland, would have ceased to exist. As late as October 1989, it seemed as likely that East Germany would be the site of another crackdown in the style of Tienamen Square than that the Wall would open peacefully and the two Germanies unify within a year. There was a kind of confusion and wonderment to the events of November 1989, as developments somehow took everyone by surprise. For me, that air of bemused joy will always be associated with the hordes of East German cars — small, stinky Trabants — that poured across the border in the late weeks of 1989. Their drivers had no idea where they were going; East German maps included only white space in what was West Berlin.
It's easy to be smart — and smug — looking back from our vantage point a decade later. It's also easy to forget that in November 1989, the opening of the Berlin Wall didn't look like the final American victory in the Cold War. Instead it looked like the triumph of a few daring leaders and a lot of peaceful, persistent protesters in the countries of the east bloc, from the Soviet Union to Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic.
Today, 10 years later, Mikhail Gorbachev — once renowned architect of glasnost and idol of Germans east and west — has long been reduced to making advertisements for Pizza Hut. The women and men who faced down police to demand "socialism with a human face" are all but forgotten, buried beneath a few CNN clips of euphoric, champagne-swilling crowds dancing on the Wall. Maybe there is another lesson about history here, a lesson about how quickly and effortlessly we rewrite the past to suit our needs in the present.
I'm not nostalgic about the disappearance of the East German state. It was an oppressive, dishonest, destructive regime based on a network of informants so dense that they outnumbered the objects of surveillance in many dissident organizations. It was a paranoid regime too, with its watchtowers, dogs and armies of petty bureaucrats eager to regulate and obstruct. Even the food was terrible, at least what you could get easily as a visitor in shops and restaurants. Nor do I mourn the collapse of communism, a system that took an enormous toll on members of my own family in Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s, and later in Siberia.
My only plea is for some humility in the face of history and its complexity. By all means, celebrate the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall. I intend to raise a glass myself. But keep in mind the generations of people whose lives and struggles, past and present, can be obscured by the easy claim that "we won the Cold War."
Doris L. Bergen is an associate professor of history.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, November 9, 1999