WALL OF HOPE; Berlin Wall Falls Again 20 Years On

The Mirror (London, England), November 10, 2009 | Go to article overview

WALL OF HOPE; Berlin Wall Falls Again 20 Years On


Byline: ANTON ANTONOWICZ

INSTEAD of the Berlin Wall, it was giant foam dominoes that toppled yesterday.

Each one was painted with a message of freedom by young people - just like those who, fists clenched, arms raised, flocked to the Brandenburg Gate 20 years ago.

The dominoes, of course, were a symbol - stretching along a mile of the Wall's original concrete and iron path.

They tumbled last night in the presence of leaders old and new, of Britain, France, the US and Russia.

The celebration began earlier, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and ex-Polish President Lech Walesa walked across a former checkpoint.

For Merkel, the first German leader to grow up in the communist GDR, it was particularly poignant, re-tracing her steps in the rain along the steel hulk of the Bornholmer Strasse Bridge.

It was here that the vanguard of East Germans breached the divide after a confused announcement that the East was lifting travel restrictions. The breach became a flood, sweeping away that concrete curtain with an unstoppable tide, leading to the collapse of Communism, to German re-unification, the Cold War's end. No surprise then, that Mrs Merkel thanked Mr Gorbachev, the architect of perestroika - for making the change possible.

"This is not just a celebration for Germany, but a day of celebration for the whole of Europe," she said. By midevening, an estimated 100,000 gathered by the Brandenburg Gate, which once stood in no man's land, surrounded by a wall, barbed wire and guns. Now, instead of guards and dogs and mutual suspicion, there was music from Bon Jovi; fireworks not gunfire; mutually congratulatory speeches from East and West.

"No matter how hard it was, we found understanding," Gorbachev said. "We started cutting down nuclear weapons, scaling down armed forces in Europe." And Gordon Brown hailed the "unbreakable spirit" of men and women who dared to "dream in the darkness".

French leader Nicolas Sarkozy said: "It was a night of enthusiasm - the German people reuniting marked the start of a period of great freedom in Europe."

Yet at the time it did not seem so apparent. A night of enthusiasm, for sure. One that raised hopes in a Cold War Europe living for 28 years with a 96-mile wall encircling West Berlin, stopping citizens fleeing into capitalism.

More than 136 people had died trying to do just that. Yet suddenly, as those first men and women breached the Wall, hope at the prospect of liberation leapt in the nations behind the Iron Curtain.

The same nations whose own transition from one-party rule to freedom was represented by the dominoes last night.

But many feared what might emerge from the rubble. Would Moscow send in tanks? Europe be awash with refugees? Germany be reborn as a juggernaut? Well, none of that happened. Germany now is certainly big, but not bad.

Freedom dawned for central and Eastern Europeans. The USSR collapsed, nuclear war receded. There was a cost, however, as mourning families of the former Yugoslavia will testify after the country fell apart.

Gangsters took over Russia's wealth; Chechen nationalists bombed Moscow; the Kremlin reverted to its old ways.

But a continent slowly healed its divisions. And there, across that gap, it all began - with the two-stroke coughing of Trabants, sputtering motorbikes, rusty bicycles and willing feet. Hundreds that became thousands and hundreds of thousands crossing in just a few days.

It was a party which lasted four days and saw more than three million East Germans cross the border.

A party which resumed last night.

I WAS THERE.. BY THE MIRROR'S ANDREW PENMAN

Joy tempered by capitalism

I WAS at the Wall, copying the German graffiti into my notebook, when a blonde approached. "You're not German, are you?" she asked, seeing how slowly I wrote.

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