I am shaking off the stupor caused by house-related renovations to comment on a breath-taking event that took place 25 years ago. Throughout the spring and summer of 1989, the situation in the German Democratic Republic escalated. East German “tourists” went on holiday to Czechoslovakia and Hungary – just about the only places they were allowed to travel. But they did not return home. They ended up camping on the grounds of the German embassies in Prague, Budapest and even Vienna, while behind-the-scenes frantic diplomacy was deciding their fate.

Back in East Germany, while the powers-that-were were gearing up to celebrate the up-coming 40-year birthday of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) in October, activists in Leipzig and Dresden and other eastern cities continued their weekly Monday Demonstrations. The meetings and marches were non-violent and centered around the Protestant Church, an institution just about tolerated by the government. Plenty of “unofficial” Stasi operatives took part, to be sure.

What did these people want anyway? Just everyday things really. Like being allowed to travel unhindered and not be walled in. Like the freedom to speak their minds without fear of arrest. Like not being spied on by neighbors and “friends” who had been enlisted for this purpose by the Stasi – the secret state security police. Just simple things really, things we in the West have always taken for granted.

Of course on the west side of the wall, West Germans watched expectantly, fearfully. There was no telling where it would all end. And from past experience, there was a good chance it would not end well. But bit by bit, the regime granted concessions. And then, almost by accident, on November 9th the wall opened. People turned up at various Berlin border crossings, demanding to be let through. East German border guards who were not able to get any clear orders from above, raised the barriers. Thank heavens, they had no desire to fire on their own.

And my husband and I watched this spectacle, wide-eyed and incredulous, from the comfort of our West German living room, along with most other “Wessis” (West Germans). From one day to the next, separated families could be reunited, ordinary “Ossis” (East Germans) could suddenly go where they pleased. And over the following months the road taken in Trabis and Wartburgs would lead to what became an inevitable destination: reunification.

Those were heady days, weeks and months. We became addicted to following the news reports on TV and radio, anxious to hear of the next unbelievable milestone in the journey to once again becoming one Volk. And 25 years later a generation has grown up that did not know the sorrow of a Germany rent in two by the post-World War II settlements. Those young people can’t imagine what it means not to be free.

And although the east of the country still lags behind economically, huge strides have been made, billions have been invested in infrastructure. BMW builds cars in Leipzig, VW in Dresden. Berlin is now, once again as it should be, the capital of the country. Both the Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Federal President, Joachim Gauck, hail from the east.

Of course, the fall of the inner-German border was just the beginning. Along with it, the entire Iron Curtain came crashing down and the Soviet Union dissolved. Voila, the end of the Cold War and the commencement of a new world order.

Unfortunately, black shadows loom overhead. Need I list the crises that dominate the news every night? The new world order has not brought world peace but new instability. One of the crises in particular seems to me to be so stoppable. That would be the Ukraine.

Why, dear Mr Putin, do you want to go backwards rather than forwards?
I wish he’d give us an answer.


Filed under Beginnings, Cities, Endings, German History, Remembering


  1. When you’re as old as I am, walls go up and walls go down. In Berlin aged 13 ( in 1958) the wall had not yet gone up. A ride on the equivalent of our Circle line enabled me to get off near in Stalin Allee , aka Unter den Linden as this was before the Entstalinisierung. I marvelled at the lack of basic desire on the part of the Soviets to show their best in such an obvious location – the iconic, as my kids say, Brandenburg Gate. Some of the balconies of the hideous concrete buildings had fallen off and were lying in the road. A walk down a side alley between the latter brought two surprises. The Trummerliteratur I had read, was instantiated and I was tempted to engage in converstion some people living in a pile of rubble. Then two hands were on my shoulders and the heavies in the long dark leather coats so beloved of any daft régime, be it Soviet, Nazi or even Fascist, almost took me off my feet , turned me round and brought me back to the main drag. As this was done in complete silence, dear old Heinrich Böll ,whom I had just read, came to mind – Und sagte kein einziges Wort.

    Further down the road I came across a shop selling wonderfully cheap ( in Western Mark terms) ) Supraphon ( Czechoslovakian) LP’s of composers such as Janacek who was, and still is, a favourite of mine. They also sold , and I bought, German Classical authors. On the Metro back to somewhere near Lichterfelde II where I was staying with a family I had time to ruminate on the lunatics who were running the asylum and their lack of expertise in public relations and general approach to showing yourself in the best light possible. To get to Berlin I had got off the ferry at Hook of Holland and taken a train to Berlin – don’t fall asleep , I said to myself, or the next stop is Warsaw. Once the East German border had been crossed the true sad, sad, grey lunacy of it all immediately became apparent . My three remaining untipped Camel were swapped for whole a packet of Rothändle at a kiosk of station whose only purpose was to let trains pass each other.. Apart from Gitane papier maïs I had never had a fag that caused me cough at the first puff before biting off my own uvula.

    In their wisdom the Soviets had ripped up the track to leave just a single line except at the stations. Even the meagerest of ditches that afforded a bridge was manned by some unfortunate with a sub machine gun. Had I been a train spotter ( yes, there is something yet more anal retentive than collecting stamps) complete with anorak and little book I would probably have lost all sphincter control at the sight of the huge ,black , antediluvian steam engines that were puffing and hissing about the stations. Near nemesis was about to approach; a smartly uniformed ( dictatorship being the rule of the uninformed by the uniformed) Colonel took my good old blue British passport and all the money I had , a 50 DM note , he said to go and get me a visa. A lot of time passed and my usually optimistic approach began to wilt. Just before Bahnhof Zoo he of the shiny boots returned with Visa , some change and my passport.

    Once off the train the lunacy of it all was just in your face. Technically , the border between the western and the eastern sectors of Berlin was halfway down the platform. The first half was so. so Ossie. Rotting wooden posts grew out of split , weed strewn asphalt and just about held up a leaky roof whose sole purpose was to channel the rain down you neck at random intervals. Suddenly all was shiny steel, glass, the pavement had been swept and washed – no doubt which side of the fence you were on.

    Years on , 1989 to be precise, in the interregnum when the border guards knew not Arthur from Martha I attempted to cross the border near Coburg to visit the factory whose organisation and products I was engaged to provide and design. My Wessi compagnon was allowed through but not me. I pointed out to my interlocutor whose Sauerradler was obviously not perching too well that the UK had been one of the first countries to recognise the DDR . Could it be that the gangly youth knew no history , or perhaps obeyed the eternal law that no one , but no one loves a smart arse.

    To look at things in a different light I recommend a play which has never been put on in its entirety by Hochuth called Wessies in Weimar. There is a wonderful scene where all the East German farmers are told to grub up untold acres of perfectly good apple trees because their EU besotted new masters feel they don’t conform – shades of straight only cucumbers. They might have been forgiven for thinking that the
    unrelenting bureaucratic lunacy lives on. With Junkets all round( ex premier of Lushemburg) heading for a fight with himself over taxation policies he introduced there’s a feeling of 1989 in the air today.

  2. Ruth-Inge Rolke

    and ( ) Hungaria – Ungarn, wo die Menschen Zuflucht in der amerikanischen ? Botschaft suchten

    Love Ruth-Inge


    • Hi Ruth-Inge,
      I have just done a bit more homework. I couldn’t find any mention of East Germans seeking refuge in the American Embassy in Budapest. I must correct my statement, however: According to the website of the Budapest West German Embassy, East Germans were taken in in Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and East Berlin. There was no need for them to stay at the Vienna Embassy because they there free to leave for the Federal Republic. They would have crossed the “green border” that Hungary opened in August 1989 between them and Austria. Greetings, dch

  3. Sue Sykes

    So I guess you are back from England….or didn’t you go yet?  Did the T-shirt arrive yet? Talk next weekend, maybe??? Sue

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