When the Wall fell in ’89…
Witnessing history as it is happening is a thrilling experience. But standing in front of the crumbling Berlin Wall that memorable winter afternoon 20 years ago, I wished I had a hammer or the height. All around me, men, women, children chipped away at what was once the most potent symbol of the Iron Curtain. The fall of the Wall had brought a crush of euphoric tourists to the spot. Many squealed in excitement at seeing their first “Communist” — the East German policemen who stood on the other side, and happily posed for photo-ops. Souvenir hawkers had descended on the site in droves. Bits of concrete wrapped in cellophane sold as Wall memorabilia, at the speed of Heineken beer cans on a hot, summer day. Some of it was authentic, some of it not. A middle-aged tourist couple from the United States clambered atop the great divide and scribbled: “We came, we saw, Suzy and Jack….”. Suzy and Jack were followed by a tall, hefty, British school girl. She swung her hammer and yelled in delight, “It is like slicing a marriage cake!” At that moment, it became blindingly obvious to me what I had to do to take home that slice of history. Never mind the lack of hammer or height… “May I have a few pieces,” I asked the girl in a soft voice, picking up a couple of bright chunks that fell on the ground as her hammer struck The Wall. “Of course,” she replied sweetly. The sun shone brightly.
I was an accidental witness to the dismantling of The Wall. In the autumn of 1989, I found myself in Paris, along with 30 odd journalists from all over the world, ready to embark on a nine-month media fellowship intended to improve our knowledge of Europe. The good luck was courtesy a scholarship from the French government and the Paris-based journalists in Europe Foundation.
For someone like me, who had not travelled outside her country, this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get to know Paris and Europe. In the early days, we, the Anglophones on the course, struggled with French, hung around James Joyce bars and savoured the many delights of Paris. That languid rhythm, however, soon came to an end. On November 9 1989, there was a bang which changed everything: the East German authorities, trying to ease the the pro-democracy pressure that was building up, opened up several checkpoints for visits. East Berliners, first by dozens, and soon by the thousands, swept through the opening in the Wall. The Soviets under Gorbachev did not offer any military help. The rest is history. Soon Berliners were dancing on top of the Wall, breaking pieces sometimes with their bare hands. The Berlin Wall, which had separated East and West Berlin since 1961, had been breached, paving the way for the reunification of the two Germanies. It was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire.
I missed the dancing atop The Wall. At that time, I was in Hungary where they were singing Winds of Change and planning to pull down the red star from public buildings. But in the days, weeks, and months that followed, I travelled through East Berlin, the now defunct East Germany, and post-Communist Eastern Europe, watching the collapse of communism and old certainties.
Former East Germany was mesmerising. I did not speak German but found it easy to understand their reflexes. Growing up in an India which was yet to embrace the global marketplace, I could relate to the awe and craving for consumer goods and foreign brands which “Ossies” (East Germans) felt in the early days of freedom.
An incident from March 1990, when the German Democratic Republic (GDR) of yore was preparing for its first free elections, is etched vividly in my mind. I was in the eastern city of Leipzig where the pro-democracy demonstrations had started which led to the eventual toppling of the Berlin Wall. My hosts were Sabine and Gerhard Leinkeit, friends of friends, who loved the idea of having an international house guest. At the dinner table, one evening, Gerhard said he was planning to buy a car, “You already have one,” I said. “I do not have a car, I have a Trabant,” he quipped. The Trabant, an east German car, I later discovered was the butt of many jokes, a bit like our Ambassador — cheap and devoid of conveniences.
Sabine, his wife, was warm and welcoming, sharing many of her embarrassing moments after the Wall came down. On her first visit to a West Berlin supermarket with her two sons, she had been hugely confused by the astounding choices. Her sons could not control their excitement at seeing the sheer variety of toothpastes and soap. “Mama, mama, look, look, so many things… they screamed. The West Berliners were looking at us and laughing. We must have come across as country bumpkins,” she said. I could relate to that moment instinctively…
But along with the euphoria of freedom, there were disturbing signs. Communist East Germany had junked Marx and embraced democracy. But freedom and free thought had also opened the floodgates of racism. Everything was changing — rules, regulations, currency, social systems. The future looked uncertain. Many could not cope. The changes were too fast and the man on the street was groping for an anchor. I saw a shaven east German in saffron chanting Hare Rama, Hare Krishna in the middle of a market in Leipzig. On the walls, there were graffiti screaming “Auslander raus” (Foreigners Out). At the bust stop, at the cafes, one heard vicious racial jokes, especially against the Vietnamese and Africans. Constantino, a Mozambican worker in a meat factory in East Berlin, one of the thousands of foreign workers, told me he was afraid to travel in the train amid rising xenophobia. An Indian student who had studied in Eastern Germany said it was time to organise and demand rights for foreigners who were the most vulnerable group in this fluid situation.
Twenty years on, the postcards and old photographs bring back a flood of memories of those turbulent times.
November 9 dealt a knock-out blow to Communism. But brash capitalism and the consumerist paradise did not always bring a better tomorrow to all who rejoiced. The defeat of the old enemy has not ended fear. Only its shape and form have changed. At the end, those who learnt how to live through the chaos, those who knew how to cope with uncertainties, did well. Those who did not, fell by the wayside. For me, that is the compelling message from those moments in history.
Patralekha Chatterjee writes on contemporary
development issues, and can be contacted at