For those gazing across from the Western portion of graffiti crowded murals towards the lines of dogs, men, and steel, the Berlin Wall was a matter of habitual terror. It was also defiance — be it the system operating in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) intent on projecting this “bulwark against fascism” or the Federal Republic of West Germany, keen to remind the other Berliners that there was another political system across the barbed wire. Across the murderous partition, these systems gazed.
Then came November 9, 1989, and the words of the popular anchorman Hanns Friedrichs in West Germany: “This is a historic day. East Germany has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone.” It may well be that nothing is quite so formidable than an idea whose time has come. But there is also something to be said about an idea whose time has left. The exit signal is given, and then, walls crumble, ground gives in. The entire eastern bloc crumbled over a matter of months, a matter of sheer exhaustion. The baffled Western powers could barely believe their dumb luck.
The Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev’s refusal to cede to any wishes to use tanks to bring the protestors to order was fundamental. The Soviets stayed in their barracks even as the first parts of the wall started being removed. A shadow of this was already being cast in October 1985, when Gorbachev explained to his East European colleagues that the principle of responsibility had to be shouldered by states individually. 1956 and 1968 would not be repeated.
For a moment in time in 1989, even if it was the briefest of moments, the DDR suddenly seemed democratic. If nothing else, it was more representative even as the awnings were falling down. But the momentum of history was simply too powerful for the hope that a reformed German socialist republic might survive. Agents were corroding the edifice of the state.
The DDR was being readied for the funeral pyre, a social and political experiment that had been cruel in the name of justice; savage in the name of working freedoms. There was free healthcare, guaranteed employment, free education. But this came with limited mobility in travel (paradise was not to be exited), a muzzled press and a distinct lack of free speech. The planned economy was also a magical, ultimately mystical effort of control, needing barbed wire and a police apparatus so sophisticated, the webs of betrayal are still being patched together.