I was at the library at Northwestern University, putting the final touches on the galleys of my first book, which addressed the topic of Soviet foreign policy. There was a FedEx box at the library, and my deadline was the last pick-up time. In a mad rush, I finished the remaining fact-checking chores, did one last proof, and dropped the manuscript in the box just before the truck pulled up to retrieve the packages. I was done, and I was exhilarated.
I went back to the apartment in Chicago where I was temporarily staying. It was late in the evening, and I was looking forward to having a celebratory drink. I walked into the apartment to the sound of the television. I stared at the images and couldn’t quite make sense of them. There were people on top of a wall. No, wait: there were people on top of the Wall.
It was November 9, 1989. The Berlin Wall was falling. It was an extraordinary event. I was one of the few people in the United States whose joy was mixed with dismay. The manuscript that I’d just painstakingly proofed would now need some serious revisions.
For most Americans, the fall of the Berlin Wall remains the iconic image of the changes that took place in East-Central Europe 25 years ago. Just look at how the U.S. media has been covering the anniversary of 1989. The Polish elections that took place on June 4, 1989, the cutting of the barbed wire “iron curtain” between Hungary and Austria that took place several weeks later, and the Monday demonstrations that began in Leipzig that September have all received scant coverage.
But the anniversary of the Wall’s demise has gotten the full treatment. There was, after all, something cinematic about the fall of the Wall: the crowds of ebullient people, the shocked politicians, the physical dismantling of the thing itself. An election or a street demonstration just didn’t have the grand narrative sweep or generate the sheer number of photo ops. At a current exhibition at the Goethe-Institut in Washington, DC, you can see all the American artists who have been drawn to the Wall over the years, from Keith Haring to Chuck D.
The events of November 9, 1989 had a similar impact on me. My whole life had taken place in the shadow of the Wall, which divided East and West, capitalism and Communism, the “free” and the “fettered.” I’d gotten my first glimpse of the Soviet bloc when I was a teenager in the late 1970s, studied Russian in Moscow in 1985, and lived in still-Communist Poland in the first half of 1989. It was hard to adjust to the shattering of this world order. However noxious the Cold War was, it was at least predictable. But what began on November 10 was something altogether different, and somehow I had to revise my manuscript to reflect this brave new world (the eventual title, Beyond Détente, captured some of that flavor).
I assumed that the fall of the Wall had a similar impact on everyone in East-Central Europe. But when I returned to the region in 2012-13 to conduct interviews with nearly 300 opinion leaders, I discovered that, with some important exceptions, the Wall didn’t occupy such an important place in the regional imagination. Many people just couldn’t remember what they were doing on the day it happened or what they were thinking at the time.
The exceptions were, of course, the Germans themselves. Nearly every German I interviewed had an interesting story to tell about that day in November.
Former East German activist Marina Grasse, for instance, was organizing a forum in East Berlin on educational reform on November 9. “We thought maybe 10 people would come, maybe 20,” she remembered. “But there were two or three thousand people. For many of them, it was the first time that they talked in public. And all of us there were just listening. And it was not easy to listen. We started around 7 pm, and then it was 8:30, and something was going on. People were running around, coming and going. I asked my colleague to go and to ask, “What’s going on?” And he came back, and he said, ‘The Wall fell down.’ I don’t think I understood what he said because I answered, ‘It doesn’t matter, we’ll continue.’ After another 30 minutes, the hall was empty.”
Many people in the East dropped whatever they were doing to rush to the border and go across. Another former East German activist, Vera Lengsfeld, crossed over with some friends and found themselves at a bus stop on the other side. “The regular bus was pulling in, and the bus driver was very surprised,” she told me. “He asked, ‘Well, where are you guys coming from?’ It usually was a very quiet bus stop right at the border. We told him we are coming from East Berlin. And he was so surprised that he dropped his usual route and he gave us a sightseeing tour through West Berlin.”
West Germans were also making their way to the border. Politician Eva Quistorp rushed from Bonn to Berlin to experience the change. “From that moment when I arrived at Checkpoint Charlie, I forgot time and food and everything,” she told me. “I don’t know if I ate anything in those hours or drank any water. It was incredible. It was better than Woodstock!”
Other Germans were almost paralyzed by shock. “I was standing there and people started crossing to the other side,” Reinhard Weisshuhn, an East German human rights activist, related. “It was open or it was about to be opened. But I couldn’t cross. I kept standing there for some time and then I went home. I didn’t go to the West. I could not do it. I then followed it via TV, but I could not react.”
For East German activist Thomas Klein, the fall of the Wall made the task of changing East Germany (formally known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) much more difficult. “We were not interested in being able to go to West Germany,” he told me. “We were concerned with building a new GDR, and we belonged to organizations that did not support the idea of reunification. We wanted a different, independent East Germany.”
Journalist Roland Jahn had been kicked out of East Germany and had to push against the crowds moving west in order to revisit East Berlin. “I always felt that the movement to leave East Germany was the largest human rights movement in the East,” he told me. “And many of the civic groups that existed at that time distanced themselves from this movement and put their main emphasis on reforming East Germany from within.”
Some dissidents in other countries in the region also distinctly remember what they were doing on November 9, 1989. Czech oppositionist Jan Urban, recently released from jail, had gone to the Bohemian spa town Marianske Lazne where West and East German tourists were forced to stay on separate floor at the hotel.
“We were walking that day on the colonnade,” Urban remembered. “Until then, East Germans and West Germans always walked in separate groups. But this time everybody was screaming, laughing, crying, drinking from champagne bottles. We didn’t understand a thing. So we went back to our hotel. There were more crying people. But this time nobody went along with the selection of floors. Everyone flocked into the West German TV room. I just couldn’t believe my eyes: people standing on the Berlin Wall—beautiful.”
But aside from Germans and a sprinkling of dissidents in other countries in the region, the fall of the Berlin Wall was just one of a series of events that took place around the same time. “From that period of changes, other moments were more memorable and stay in my mind better than the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Hungarian environmental activist Veronika Mora told me in a characteristic comment.
On that very same weekend in November, for instance, the Bulgarian Communists removed long-serving Party chief Todor Zhivkov from his position. The Czechs and Slovaks, a mere week after the fall of the Wall, launched their own Velvet Revolution. The Hungarian government had already let 600 East Germans cross by foot into Austria the previous August and sent another set by bus along the same route in September. Hungarians are more likely to remember the June 1989 reburial of Imre Nagy, the executed leader of the 1956 revolution, than the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Poles, like the Hungarians, had been at the forefront of change, carefully negotiating with the Communist government for a revolution that proceeded inch by inch. They’d had the first semi-free elections in the region in June 1989. They’d formed the first non-Communist government in September. They were the first ones to make a political breach in the Iron Curtain. But suddenly, after November 9, the spotlight shifted away from them and to the countries that were experiencing sudden, unexpected change. Poles generally feel damned by the faint attention.
But attention isn’t always a good thing. We remember what happened in Romania in December 1989 because of its violence. The first signs of revolt took place in Timisoara in mid-December, as residents protested the forced removal of ethnic Hungarian pastor Laszlo Tokes from his church. The protests—and the violent response by the government—spread to Bucharest. Over a thousand people died during the Romanian revolution, including Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, shot by a firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989. Many of my interviewees who didn’t remember where they were when the Berlin Wall fell were quick to add that they clearly remembered the execution of the Ceausescus.
The Romanian experience served as a reminder that not all transformations are miraculous. Until December 1989, the activists in the region had been extraordinarily lucky. Hardliners in the Czech Communist Party and the Army could have fought back against the Velvet revolutionaries—we “could have been shut down with 20, maybe 50, people with AK-47s,” Jan Urban reflected—and much blood might have been spilled. The Polish Communist Party acquiesced to their stunning electoral loss in June 1989.
And the Stasi, that formidable institution of surveillance and repression, didn’t put up any fight at all. “I talked to a lot of the Stasi people, and they said that they were told during the period of upheaval, ‘Stay in your barracks, don’t do anything. The Wall’s open, we’re going to cut a deal, and everything will be okay,’” journalist David Crawford told me. “If these people had been told, ‘Stay in your barracks, we’re going to have reunification, and when it’s over you’re going to get 800 DM a month as a pension, and you’re going to be unemployed, and you’re going to be a pariah to society, and you’re not going to be able to work in the public service,’ there might have been a lot of public resistance.”
With the violence of the Romanian revolution, the first happy phase of transformation was over. Still to come was the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia as well as the many conflicts that took place with the unraveling of the Soviet Union. The drastic dislocation that accompanied economic transition from plan to market threw millions of people out of their jobs and sent millions more abroad to seek employment. Corruption spread as quickly as an infectious disease. The gap between Europe’s east and west—which the Poles, Hungarians, and Bulgarians expected to be bridged within a generation at most—remains stubbornly wide: per capita GDP in Hungary is about $23,000, while in neighboring Austria it is nearly double that.
There would be new freedoms, accession to the European Union, and a growing middle class. But the expectations raised during those revolutionary days of 1989 were so high that disappointment was inevitable. Still, no one could have imagined back then that public opinion polls in the region would, more than two decades later, reveal that a majority of people—in Romania, in Hungary, in Serbia—would say that life under Communism had been better.
Even in wealthy Germany, reunification was anything but smooth. “East and West Germany were like a couple that had rushed into marriage with very little understanding of what it would be like to live together, merge finances, come to joint decisions, and make all the little adjustments that are necessary when two people with very different backgrounds are suddenly thrown together,” I write in Conflict Resolution and German Reunification. Despite the billions of Deutschemark poured into the former GDR, the standard of living in the eastern parts of Germany is lower than in the west, and the unemployment rate remains stubbornly higher.
In part, that’s because all those inter-German payments largely went into the pockets of westerners. “The transfers didn’t end up all in East Germany, they rather passed through it like a boomerang,” German economist Rudiger Frank told me. “Just think about it: what was the money used for? It was used for infrastructure projects, for building up an efficient administration, for the social security network, for investment. Now, who benefitted from all that investment? It was West German companies who expanded to the east. So that was a subsidy to West German industry. Infrastructure projects, highways, roads, telecommunication networks, who did that? West German companies, because all the East German construction companies were either bankrupt or bought up by West German competitors.”
Still, 25 years ago, Germans had an opportunity that few are given in history: to tear down the walls of their oppression with their own hands. It was not violent or aggressive. It was a popular celebration. In a world of war, pestilence, and poverty, we should celebrate these few precious victories as we try, in so many ways to tear down the walls that still divide us.