Top Scoops

Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | Scoop News | Wellington Scoop | Community Scoop | Search


Tearing Down Walls: Berlin Twenty Years After

Tearing Down Walls: Berlin Twenty Years After

Twenty years have passed since a vision collapsed. For it was not just the Berlin Wall that fell in November 1989, but a social and political project that began with Vladimir Lenin at the Finland Station. The novelist Günter Grass’ version of two perennial Germanies in the centre of Europe guarding against a concentration of power he found historically dangerous went with that. The forces of communism received a mortal blow as the East Berliners streamed across the breached barriers.

How did it happen? Put it down to those historical companions: chaos and contingency. On November 9, 1989 there was a misunderstanding of the draft travel law, articulated (more to the point obfuscated) by a clumsy Politburo official, Günter Schabowsky. Before he realized what had happened, the law’s effect had been misunderstood, and the green light had been given to the opening of the barriers and the champagne. The refusal by Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union to intervene militarily, something it had done in 1956 and 1968 in its various satellites, sealed the fate, not merely of the wall and the German Democratic Republic, but the communist system.

As the wall peckers went to work on the murderous barrier that month, place of numerous, and failed efforts at escape, there was still some belief in a ‘third’ way between communism and capitalism, a political system weaned off Moscow’s dominance and Washington’s market liberal patronage. Socialism might be retained in some humanized form. But in the end, it was the dissidents, and thousands who protested at Dresden and Leipzig the previous month, who put pay to that.

Today, with grumbling against capitalist excesses gathering force, there is some nostalgia for the GDR. This is not just from Vladimir Putin, who was once stationed as a KGB officer in the East. It is tempting to forget that the GDR was underpinned by a criminal caste, an ethos that kept people in at the end of the well-trained gun. This aspect of terror is easy to downplay. The interminable, ritualized queues for goods can be forgotten. And the wall was, of course, designed less to keep people out of the proletarian Eden than in it.

The end of the tangible wall also ended the symbolic walls of control over the market capitalist system. The sword that hung over the multinational corporations was removed. Regulations were abolished. The market became the pre-eminent and privileged actor to distribute social goods. The hammer and sickle was exchanged for market mysticism. The enthusiasts of geopolitics embraced new nomenclatures on ‘architecture’- the end of the wall propelled the construction of other structures such as the ‘Washington Consensus’.

Civilization’s post-1989 centre ceased to hold – global and as yet unresolved disorders were fomented. The optimism of ‘history’s end’, where ideological scores had been supposedly settled, evaporated. Nationalism re-emerged, some in virulent forms, to dissolve empires and states –the Soviet Union, and the Balkans.

Today, walls to hem people in are still being built with various measures of state brutality. The wall is an architectural measure that suggests imprisonment rather than deterrence. They are also remarkably weak structures in the long run. The modern arguments are familiar to those that arose in keeping the noble proletariat within his and her home: refugees should stay put. But they, like mass populations in the past, remain deaf to the orders of authority. Walls, in short, don’t work.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

© Scoop Media

Top Scoops Headlines


Boris Johnson At Sea: Coronavirus Confusion In The UK

The tide has been turning against UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Oafishly, he has managed to convert that tide into a deluge of dissatisfaction assisted by the gravitational pull of singular incompetence. Much of this is due to such errors of ... More>>

Reese Erlich: Foreign Correspondent: Rightwing Populism Will Make You Sick—Really

The four countries with the most confirmed COVID-19 infections in the world are all led by rightwing populists: the US, India, Brazil, and Russia. Throw in the United Kingdom, which has the largest infection rate in Europe, and you have a common pattern. ... More>>

Dunne Speaks: Early Voting Is OK, If You Know Who To Vote For

Early voting is now open which is great for the 80% or so of the population whose vote does not change from one election to the next. They can go out and vote at their convenience without having to wait for election day. But for those who are yet even ... More>>

The Conversation: Biodiversity: Where The World Is Making Progress – And Where It’s Not

The future of biodiversity hangs in the balance. World leaders are gathering to review international targets and make new pledges for action to stem wildlife declines. Depending on whether you are a glass half-full or half-empty person, you’re likely ... More>>

Gordon Campbell: On Trump’s Current Chances Of Re-Election

By now it seems clear that National have no fresh ideas to offer for how New Zealand could avoid the Covid-19 economic crisis. As in the past, National has set an arbitrary 30% ratio of government debt to GDP that it aims to achieve “in a decade or so,” ... More>>

The Conversation: Rogue Poll Or Not, All The Signs Point To A Tectonic Shift In New Zealand Politics

Richard Shaw AAP(various)/NZ Greens (CC-BY-SA)/The Conversation Strong team. More jobs. Better economy. So say the National Party’s campaign hoardings. Only thing is, last Sunday’s Newshub-Reid Research poll – which had support for the Labour ... More>>

The Coronavirus Republic: Three Million Infections And Rising

The United States is famed for doing things, not to scale, but off it. Size is the be-all and end-all, and the coronavirus is now doing its bit to assure that the country remains unrivalled in the charts of infection . In time, other unfortunates may well ... More>>

Binoy Kampmark: Altars Of Hypocrisy: George Floyd, Protest And Black Face

Be wary what you protest about. The modern moral constabulary are out, and they are assisted by their Silicon Valley friends in the Social Media club. Should you dare take a stand on anything, especially in a dramatic way, you will be found out ... More>>

  • PublicAddress
  • Pundit
  • Kiwiblog