Reflection on fall of Berlin Wall

On today’s 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I cannot say that “I was there”. I was a 22-year-old university student on a semester-abroad programme at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.

But I had the good fortune of being able to visit Berlin the following month, at the end of the programme. After visiting a German high school friend in Aachen, I remember the excitement of the journey, tinged with a concern that my experience might be dampened by my inability to read or speak German.

I recall the train journey as we went through East Germany itself. A stereotypical immigration officer to check our passports on the train: a very tall, stern man wearing a full-length wool coat and large hat. Watching morning commuters on their bicycles, waiting at crossings, while our train passed along inside a concrete wall corridor.

Thankfully for posterity, I kept a travel journal, and have already published on this blog my incredible experiences:

http://www.mrulster.org/2009/09/berlin-19891218.html

http://www.mrulster.org/2009/09/berlin-19891219.html

http://www.mrulster.org/2009/09/berlin-19891222.html

And the perspective of one of our group:

http://www.mrulster.org/1990/01/penn-state-student-sneaks-through-crack.html

I took a trip nostalgic a couple of years ago with Madame Oui. At some places it was had to remember what the site looked like 20 years ago, such is the level of new development and upgrading that has taken place. But there is no denying the unity and vibrancy of Berlin.

For today’s celebrations, there will be an act of toppling 8-foot dominoes, to symbolise the collapse of the Cold War. Indeed, I remember a Financial Times headline at the time, with Warsaw Pact leaders caricatured as dominoes, falling one upon the other.

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Spiegel Online has an article on the organisation of the dominoes. There will be 1,000 of them, decorated by thousands of young Berliners, “to encourage young people to reflect what the fall of the Wall meant”.

Today’s event includes 20 dominoes that were sent to other parts of the world with societal divisions, including Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Cyprus, Yemen, South Korea, China as well as India, where one village has erected a wall to separate Muslims and Hindus. They were decorated locally, then returned as part of an exhibition that ran since October.

Ultimately, these dominoes, or “Goethe Stones”, will be put on display in Goethe Institutes in Berlin, Bonn and Leipzig. If funding allows they will also be exhibited internationally.

Curious in its absence is the participation of Belfast or any other Northern Ireland city that has peace walls.

It is lamentable that more “peace walls” have been erected since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. Ironically, one even runs along the border of an integrated school.

Locally, the only event I know about to reflect upon the fall of the Berlin Wall is by Youth Link, an inter-church youth service that promote community relations.

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Youth Link is supporting the “Up Against the Wall” project, initiated by Tony Macaulay’s report on Peace Walls.

A stark difference between the walls of Berlin and Belfast is that it was the Soviet authorities who built the walls, separating families who did not want to be separated. In Northern Ireland, its authorities build more walls on demand from those residents living in interface areas. Indeed, there remains sufficient support from those living along peace walls to have them maintained, as a form of security.

Here, I’m mindful of the history of 9 November 1989, when both the French and British governments weren’t the most optimistic or enthusiastic about the prospect of the fall of the Berlin Wall. From a realpolitik perspective, it’s easy to understand the comfort of the known Cold War divisions than being unready for the uncertainty of its hasty collapse.

But there was no stopping the decisive actions of Mikhail Gorbachev, backed by the masses of people who embraced the reform movement wholeheartedly.

Indeed, Gorbachev himself describes how his Perestroika and Glasnost programmes led to a better life for so many:

Yet one of the results of the end of the Cold War was the reemergence of ethno-national conflicts, such as the collapse of Yugoslavia, and the erection of new borders.

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So, it would be a mistake to make a simplistic comparison between the imposed, tightly sealed border that separated Berliners, from the organic and discontinuous high walls that pepper cities and towns in Northern Ireland.

Nonetheless, today is an appropriate moment to reflect on our own society’s divisions, both physical and mental, to consider how much better we could all be if we could topple our own dominoes.

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