What have you been doing on November 9th 1989? Do you remember? I was thirteen years old and sleeping snugly in my bed, when my parents woke my sister and me up and allowed us to sit down in front of the television in the middle of the night. What we saw on the screen is now burnt into the visual memory of European citizens. You all know these images: a row of trabis, East-German cars about which many jokes have been made, passing through Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin monument that stood on the GDR-side of the city and could be viewed from the West by tourists when stepping up a podest and looking across the wall.
This re-opened gate has since then become one of the strongest symbols for the end of the Cold War, for the fall of the Iron Curtain. Alongside this historic traffic jam, a crowd of people was shouting and jumping and crying and laughing and wondering. The word of that hour was „Wahnsinn!“ („Crazy!“). The greeting sent out to the world was: „Wir sind ein Volk“ („We are one people“).
This sentence had already been shouted with a slightly different wording „Wir sind das Volk“ („We are the people“) on so called „Montagsdemonstrationen“ („Monday demonstrations“) in Leipzig a few weeks before. These demonstrations with ten thousands of people (70.000 on October 9th 1989) were non-violent, but the protesters were afraid that the situation might lead to an escalation. They feared that the state powers and the police might attack them – as had happened so often in European history – in 1953 in the East-Berlin, in 1956 in Budapest, in 1968 in Prague, and even that same year, in China on Tiananmen square. This is why they appealed to the police: „Do not shoot, we are the people - like you.“ During the summer of ’89 many fled from the GDR. Some applied for asylum in the German embassies in Budapest, others fled when the Hungarian-Austrian border was opened for a „Pan-European Picnic“ on August 19th 1989. Until the end of September, about 32.000 GDR citizens fled through this first hole in the fence.
Why am I writing about such a big historic topic? For Germany, the long division into two countries, a legacy of the Second World War, came to an end in 1989 – officially, when an agreement with the allies (USA, GB, France, Russia) was reached and a peace treaty was signed in Moscow on 3 September 1990.
This is, why this year, in 2009, there are hundreds of thousands of exhibitions, conferences, speeches, concerts, panels, discussions and publications dedicated to this date and to all the changes that it brought with it, there’s also a great online library about the “Wende” (only in German) with a chronology of audio files, glossary and explanations. I have been to several of those conferences in March (1989-Global Histories, “Freiheit im Blick” of the Goethe Institute, “Europa im Aufbruch” of the Boell Foundation, Deutungshoheit 1989 of the Evangelische Akademie in Berlin). In Berlin, it was almost impossible to escape these events. It made me think about the impact that year still has on us, from the financial crisis to the rebirth of nationalism in many European countries. 1989 opened not only the wall, but also the markets: capitalism in all its variations swept over Europe. Today, we see the break-down of totally liberalised markets and the daily fights and even protests this weekend of the people in East and West against poor wages and unemployment. The economies of smaller countries like Hungary, Iceland, Lithuania and now also Rumania (not so small) even had to be rescued with big loans by the International Monetary Fund, by the EU and other institutions. The digital revolution with new media like internet, mobile phones accelerated the globalisation processes – and the feeling of a shaking world. Nationalist movements try to regain territory and play on the insecurites of many citizens.
I have spoken with many of my friends and colleagues about our collective conciousness: What do we today think about solidarity, freedom and equality, the big words of 1989? My friends talked about the freedom to travel, the right for alternative ways of living and of alternative spaces (like Kreuzberg in Berlin). One friend told me that, after a new law in Spain, now everybody who helps an illegal immigrant, gets sentenced. She said: „Individual freedom and solidarity have now become criminal.“ Equality for my friends meant „all human beings are granted the same rights“, but not „all humans are equal“ – some mentioned the inequalities amongst men and women, this has already been discussed on this blog. And solidarity, for one friend, was more important than tolerance. When asked about a common European history, they were unsure. One, a teacher in Bavaria, was convinced that her pupils know more about the Second World War and Nazi Germany than about the GDR or the break-down of the Soviet Union. Another friend of mine is working on a radio piece about a „Museum of Lies“, in Gantikow, East Germany, which shows the ability of the GDR state to fool its citizens and is visited by about 10.000 people per year but is not accepted by the villagers. They want him to move away. And the German journalist Maxim Biller has published a article where he reproaches the East-Germans to have taken away our “free, liberal West-Germany”, he rails against an overall “Ossifizierung” (Ossi-fication, Ossi meaning “East-German citizen”). This has been critized in other media, especially in a blog of a former GDR weekly, “Freitag”, who has now been relaunched with the help by Jakob Augstein, the son of the founder of the West-German weekly “Der Spiegel”, Rudolph Augstein, and is now called “Der Freitag”. So, still a long way to go even in Germany - but at least, we have a new East-West-newspaper!
But I also listened to former oppositional politicians from Budapest (György Dalos), Warsaw (Adam Michnik, Kazimierz Wojcicki), Leipzig (Katrin Hattenhauer), Berlin (Markus Meckel, Ludwig Mehlhorn, Wolfgang Templin) and Bratislava (Pavol Demes) who recalled personal memories and struggles. They told stories of 1989, stories of freedom, of peaceful protest against oppressive regimes, of the right to the freedom of speech. The Polish ambassador in Berlin, Marek Prawda, called for a „revival of the sense of community from these days that we could well need today“. Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, called the year an „annus mirabilis“ („a year of wonders“): „This system fell because many people came together. In such a moment, we are all better human beings than we would normally be.“ He said that there were two different results of the fall of communism: firstly, freedom and hope, but also secondly, hate and war (in the Balkans).
There is no „end of history“ like the American historian Francis Fukuyama has proclaimed. Today, we are not sure anymore at all about anything. Where will history, especially European history, lead us? Is Europe an old lady between new superpowers (Russia, China)? Or a peaceful, economically inventive community of democratic countries, taking part in global agenda setting (climate change, financial control mechanisms, human rights)? Adam Michnik asked if the Europeans were capable and willing to defend the EU, as they would defend a „republic“, with good arguments and a strong vision. Are we?
What have you been doing 1989? Or, if you cannot remember, what have your parents and friends been doing? What would you defend the EU for, if the EU was your state, your republic? Do you know the former activists in your countries? And what do they do today? There is much history yet untold that can bring us Europeans together. And please excuse this rather blog-unfriendly lenghthy piece. If you have stayed with me, thank you for your solidarity!