Expert Comment: Berlin Wall anniversaryFriday 7 November 2014
In the second of two parts Christopher Williams, Professor in Modern History at Liverpool Hope, looks at the circumstances surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, twenty five years ago this week.
The East German communists, led by Walter Ulbricht, masterfully exploited Moscow’s fears of an East German collapse, nearly pushing the Soviets toward a decisive confrontation with the West. They did so to reverse the economic decline in the DDR as the evidence shows that in the years just prior to the construction of the Wall there was a general sense of societal crisis in East Germany. For Ulbricht and the SED the ultimate solution was the “liberation” of West Berlin, removing its supposed subversive influence (in terms of better living standards) on East Germans and other East Europeans.
Although the wall lasted over two decades, it eventually came tumbling down. Despite its longevity, the need for a Wall undermined the East German communist regime and its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Some believe that the West and its superiority in economic and military terms (space and arms race) caused the fall of the Wall. Thus US President Reagan’s “Tear the Wall down Mr Gorbachev” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, in 1987 captures this viewpoint. However, I would argue instead that it was not the West who was responsible but forces inside East Germany such as religious, artistic, environmental and youth groups. As Horst Sindermann, a former GDR official stated "We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers."
Whilst for the last 25th years the Wall, as a physical entity has gone, and we can buy souvenirs of it, there remains what Germans call the “Wall in the head” namely Eastern and Western lander mentalities, attitudes and varying fates of the peoples of the Two Germanies reunited on 3rd October, 1990.
Remembering the victims, via border memorials for example, are crucial to a recognition of the sacrifices made as much as they are important to German national identity in the 21st century. Nevertheless, some nostalgia for the past (as epitomised by the German tragicomedy Goodbye Lenin, 2003) still exists in certain quarters.
What the collapse of the Berlin Wall proves is that if people persist and don’t give up hope then change will happen and so once “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [John 8]. This certainly applies to East Germany by 1989, with the people wanting change and the SED government powerless, despite the existence of the Stazi, to stop it.