Twenty-Five Years after the Wall

Twenty-five years ago this Sunday, about 20,000 people from the east side of Berlin walked over to the west.

Of course, this kind of population movement happens every day in every city in the world, as urbanites go to work, eat out, visit friends, attend plays, etc. But Berlin of 1989 was a famously bifurcated city, with a 28-year old wall and rigid travel restrictions keeping Easterners out of the West.

But on November 9th of that year, two East Berliners changed all of that. Günter Schabowski, a member of the ruling Socialist Unity Party, mistakenly told the news media that his government’s decision (after a summer of East German migration to the West via neighboring countries) to open the Wall would take effect immediately. Four hours later, with a crush of people gathered at checkpoints, a border guard named Harald Jaeger decided to disobey his superiors and lift the gates, rather than risk a riot. (Here’s Jaeger’s story.)

The British historian-journalist Timothy Garton Ash was present in East Berlin that night, as he was in Warsaw, Prague, and the other centers of what he called the “refolutions” of 1989. Reflecting on the anniversary for The Guardian, he offered a largely positive review of American historian Mary Sarotte’s recent book on the “accidental opening” of the wall, but argued that some of the experience of the eyewitness is beyond the ken of the historian:

Everyone can imagine, or at least can think they can imagine, what it is like to land on a Normandy beach, under Wehrmacht machine-gun fire, dodging mines, knowing that every moment might be your last. What we end up picturing in our mind’s eye may be more Tom Hanks than the historical reality… but the drama is obvious. Hence the endless films and video games based on the second world war.

The true drama of 9 November 1989 is harder to recapture. For a start, it is not the one you see on the vast majority of photographs and video clips, which show the side of the Wall covered in colourful graffiti. For that was the western side, the free side, the one that already enjoyed freedom of expression – hence all the colourful graffiti….

So it was the other side of the roughcast concrete barrier that mattered, the side that people did not spray with aerosol cans but had risked their lives to climb over. The emotional quality of this liberation can only be captured if you can imagine what it was like to live behind that “anti-fascist protection rampart” (its mendacious official name) for all your life, never setting foot in the western half of your own city, and with the expectation that this would continue for years to come.

Protestors standing on the Wall in 1989
Licensed by Creative Commons (Lear21)

Garton Ash recalled East German dissidents sighing, earlier in 1989, “it may be possible in Poland and Hungary, but not here.” While the collapse of the East German state now seems inevitable, even allowing for “the illusions of retrospective determinism” (quoted by Garton Ash from Henri Bergson), the nature of the collapse was contingent. That it happened when it did, with the speed it did, and without the violence that so many expected depended on the actions, reactions, and (think border guards with loaded weapons) inactions of individuals.

And perhaps, I wrote back in August 2011, on God’s grace.

The early days of this blog coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Wall going up, which led me to reflect on how its history — and the larger story of the Cold War that it symbolized — made me rethink categories like freedom and justice. But also hope. I closed with these words from the Lutheran journalist Uwe Siemon-Netto, who emphasized the contribution of East German churches to the events of 1989:

What happened? A manifest expression of Original Sin in the sense of man’s innate inability to believe and trust in God; but at the same time a confirmation of Martin Luther’s brilliant insight about cloudbursts of the Holy Spirit that suddenly soak one area richly, and then inexplicably move on. This is what we have witnessed here.

As for me, this amazing story still gives me huge hope. For it has reinforced my faith by confirming, on a secular level, the maxim that history is always open to the future and the theological truth [that] God is the ultimate Lord of history that the Spirit [is] always good for surprises.

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