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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.

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

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