Fall of the Berlin Wall, 25 years on

No one present in the German capital when the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago today would ever forget the experience. The uncontrollable cries of joy from family members reunited after decades of enforced separation, the spontaneous hugs between complete strangers; even the most hardened cynic could not fail to be moved.

Nor did anyone doubt the huge strategic significance of the event. For the Wall was more than just fortifications, mines and electrified barbed wires; it was the hated symbol of Europe's divisions, a monument to the Cold War which, over four decades, arbitrarily forced nations around the world to decide whether they belonged to the Soviet-led "East" or the US-led "West". Once that Wall collapsed, everyone instinctively realised that the world had changed: This was raw history in the making.

Yet few analysts - myself included - predicted then how much Europe would be transformed by that experience, or also how deep the divisions between Russia and the rest of Europe would remain. The story of the past quarter-century is one of a huge European achievement as well as a monumental strategic failure, rolled into one.

The tourists who now rush to have themselves photographed next to the few slabs of concrete still standing from the Wall cannot possibly realise what a horrible significance it had for the Germans.

The repulsive sight was not so much the Wall itself, but the dilapidated, boarded-up houses around it which gave the place the ghostly feel of an abandoned movie set, the Achtung Minen - "Attention, Mines" - signs which would suddenly pop up in the middle of a street or a park, and the constant barking of the ferocious dogs kept by East German border guards.

And then, there were the simple wooden crosses scattered everywhere on the Western side, marking the spots where young Germans who tried to flee were mowed down by East German machine guns. The black-and-white photograph which still haunts Germany today is that of Peter Hechter, then aged 18, who, hit by bullets, was left to bleed to death on the barbed wire, with tearful West Berliners on the one side watching in frustrated impotence while East German border guards simply ignored his anguished pleas for help.

My abiding memory is of an elderly East German woman who, on the night the Wall fell, decided to take a stroll into the West. The East German border guards still manning checkpoints asked to see her identity papers. "I'll show you nothing," she shouted at them. "Get out of my way; this is my country, and there is no border here." The guards looked away; she and millions of ordinary Germans like her simply trampled over Europe's dividing lines.

Yet the Wall was crumbling years before it actually fell for, although it kept people in, it could not repel the flow of ideas and technology. East Germany did everything possible to create a separate national identity: its hormone-injected gymnasts routinely scooped medals at the Olympics. However, its people still believed themselves to be part of the wider German nation, indistinguishable from their Western brethren.

The East German regime also tried every propaganda trick to instil pride in the country. But East Germans ignored this altogether by watching West German television instead. As people used to joke at the time, they lived in East Germany during the day, and in West Germany each evening, as they settled before their TV screens.

Although few analysts grasped this 25 years ago, the fall of the Wall was an early indication of two facts which are now commonplace: that no physical barrier is effective in the age of electronic media, and that there is no substitute for good governance.

Weeks after the Wall fell, communism was largely gone from the rest of the European continent. And 18 months after that, the Soviet Union itself collapsed.

The psychological impact was immense, and not always positive. As nations under siege, the East Germans and their other communist East European neighbours developed a unique community spirit. The extended family network was its bedrock, and the smallest achievement was greeted with huge satisfaction. Food was scarce and local goods were shoddy, but the community spirit was strong.

Yet all this was shattered by the advent of the market economy. The younger generation was offered plenty of opportunities as Western investment transformed the region. But the older generation was not only rendered unemployed, but unemployable as well.

Eastern Europe's economies were exposed to massive competition from the West. One year after the Wall collapsed, most of the local manufacturing sector disappeared. The first signs of democracy were, therefore, accompanied by the biggest fall in personal wealth since World War II. Wealth disparities between the old "East" and the rest of Europe still remain, and nowhere are these divisions - which the Germans call "a wall in the head" - more apparent than in Berlin itself.

Still, it will be churlish to deny the vast improvements which have taken place. Germany is a united nation, at ease with its neighbours. The Europeans may grumble about immigration from Eastern Europe, but for any European aged under 25 today, national borders are just a fiction. A war is unthinkable now, in a continent which generated two world wars in the last century. And although the recent economic crisis has left deep scars, Europe is far more prosperous than it was a quarter of a century ago; Poland, for instance, is six times wealthier than when it was ruled by communists in 1989.

The shockwaves from the fall of the Wall reverberated worldwide. In some places - like North Korea - the event heightened fears that any political reform will destroy the ruling elite; arguably, it was the fall of the Wall which persuaded leaders in Pyongyang to accelerate the development of nuclear weapons as their own impenetrable bulwark against collapse.

But in many other countries, the Berlin Wall episode was evidence of the inevitable need to open up markets and release people's ingenuity. Soon after the Tiananmen Square bloodshed, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping relaunched his country's economic reform programme precisely because he understood that his government's legitimacy could not come from the gun, but from a prosperous economy.

Yet, in one respect, the Europeans failed spectacularly - in the task of integrating the Russia which emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who allowed East Germany to unite with West Germany, is still hailed by Europeans as a liberator. But in Russia itself, he is dismissed as, at best, a bungler. The late Boris Yeltsin, the man who took over Russia after Gorbachev, was also once a European hero for his efforts to integrate his country into the new Europe; now he is viewed by ordinary Russians as just a drunken fool.

Much of this was probably unavoidable. Given their troubled past, the East Europeans remained suspicious of Russia's designs, and wanted the West's protection as quickly as possible. Russia itself did nothing to atone for its occupation of Eastern Europe; to this day it refuses to acknowledge that it was responsible for many crimes. And, despite the Russian complaints, Europe did try its best to establish good relations with Moscow.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that all these efforts failed. Russia today is exactly where it was a century ago: both part of Europe and outside it, not an outright enemy, but not a friend either. The collapse of the Wall was one of Europe's greatest triumphs, the only example in history when an entire empire disintegrated with barely a shot fired in anger. But it did not result in a truly united continent.

For in one East German city, a young Soviet secret service officer watched helplessly as the Berlin Wall collapsed that night 25 years ago, and vowed to himself that, one day, he would avenge the humiliation by proving to the world that Russia was still a great nation which, if not loved, should at least be feared.

That young officer was Vladimir Putin. Today, he is Russia's President.


This article was first published on November 9, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.