Wonderwall: Why Berlin Still Matters? by Peter Millar

Peter Millar, author of 1989 the Berlin wall: my part in its downfall, recalls the heady joys of a generation and explains why their expectations remain so important today.

My wife sat at home in floods of tears in front of the television, the uncomprehending toddlers hugging her knees. I was hanging out on a chaotic street corner hundreds of miles away pouring three 19-year-old waitresses into a taxi to take them to the biggest party the world had seen in four decades.

My wife’s tears were tears of joy. The night was November 9th 1989, and the Berlin Wall was coming down. For the first time in the century it seemed the whole world was empathising with the Germans. But for me, on that street corner in Berlin in the midst of the biggest story of my career, the predominant thing on my mind as a Sunday newspaper reporter on a Thursday night was, “Damn, this is all happening 24 hours too early.”

But then nobody had known it would happen at all. Least of all the intelligence agencies of the West, caught napping on the eve of their greatest ‘victory’, as they would be again on September 11, 2001, their greatest embarrassment. Not even the men who gave the orders in East Berlin knew it would happen. Not even as they gave them. The fall of the Berlin Wall was the triumphant vindication of the ‘cock-up’ theory of history, of what happens when those seemingly immovable objects of political inertia and the status quo get swept away by two irresistible forces: accident and emotion.

In the initial hours of chaos after the first border guards had bowed to the pressure of people, confusion in the chain of command, a lack of clear orders, a fuddled political decision to relax border restrictions, imperfectly understood by the man announcing it, essentially misreported by the western media – which was all most East Germans listened to – nobody really knew what was happening. Could the most concrete manifestation of the Iron Curtain really be crumbling? Was this really a sea change in global politics? Or just a moment of madness? Would the shutters come down again the next day with a political crackdown and the restoration of the Cold War status quo, or would this be a brave new world?

Seldom has emotion been more palpable than on the streets of Berlin that night, the first time in 28 years it was possible to speak of it as a single city. At that precise moment I was less concerned about what I would write than soaking up the intoxicating atmosphere of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. East Berlin wasn’t just a place I went to write about but an inseparable part of my life. The people whose lives were about to be changed forever were not interviewees, but close personal friends, people I considered almost part of my family.

As a young correspondent, then for Reuters, East Berlin had been where my wife and I made our first home together as a married couple. A home we had to share with a secretary and a housekeeper, one of them possibly in the employ of the secret police, with microphones in the walls, and men in unmarked cars on our tails as we went about our daily business. It was where the ordinary East Germans we encountered introduced us to a different kind of world, one in which expectations were limited, luxuries few and far between, where the walls had ears and trust was the most valuable commodity. In late-night conversations fuelled by beer, barroom philosophy and black humour they taught us the difference between acquaintance and friendship, about the value of freedom and the curious sweet-and-sour taste of life in a virtual cage, and finally about how the tide of history can sweep over people and places.

My three waitresses had been working inan East Berlin hotel all evening, while outside the world turned upside down all around them. They heard the news that the Wall had opened while they served pork and dumplings to Russian tourists, but with typical Prussian thoroughness worked to the end of their shift, after midnight, before one winked at the others and said, “Anyone for the Ku’damm?” When they burst giggling and spraying cheap ersatz champagne through the gates at Checkpoint Charlie, heading for West Berlin’s most famous boulevard, I realised they were just what I was looking for: a bright young element of human colour, not that the story was going to be short of it.

For that one delirious night most of East Berlin took a walk on the wild side: two-stroke ‘Trabbies’, the fibre-glass midget cars soon to become an accidental symbol of a revolution based on middle-class values, raced Porsches along the glitzy avenues of the West, littered with broken bottles beneath a sky ablaze with fireworks; it was as if a long-awaited marriage had occurred; Berlin embraced Berlin. Policemen (West) kissed bus conductresses (East). “Berlin is again Berlin. Germany weeps with joy” screamed the headlines on special edition tabloids, rushed off the presses and handed out free on streets in the West.

On the Ku’damm itself, awash with people hugging one another, spreading across the wide avenue in a vast, deliriously happy drunken party I let my waitresses vanish into the throng, when I found myself suddenly grabbed and embraced by friends who were practically family. And for them it really was a family reunion: Kerstin Falkner and her husband Andreas had only weeks earlier fled their home in East Berlin, via the West German embassy in Poland, thinking it would be years before they ever saw the rest of their family again. If ever. Now she was standing arm in arm with her brother Horst and his wife Sylvia, who had only hours before walked through a gap in the Wall they thought would keep them apart forever.

It was an off-duty East Berlin bus driver I met coming West that evening who gave the definitive answer to the question on everyone’s mind. “Can they close the wall again? Never. We’ll see them sink in ashes first.” The domino effect that followed – the Velvet Revolution in Prague, full liberalisation in Poland and Hungary, bloody revolt in Romania and the squalid end of its dictator Nicolae Ceausescu – have left 1989 remembered as an ‘annus mirabilis’, the death knell for the Cold War that finally came to an end with the failed putsch against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, his resignation and the breakup of the Soviet Union itself.

Gorbachev’s was the minor tragedy that any playwright would have seen as a fitting codicil for the drama. More than anyone else he had been the sane force that had made 1989 a year of miracles rather than of bloodbaths. He tried to reform an empire and ended up overseeing its disintegration. At any stage he could have stepped in and halted that disintegration, though he would probably only have postponed it, and at incalculable cost in human life. The most remarkable thing I heard him say was several years after his resignation when he was asked who was his greatest role model. His answer was not any icon from the pantheon of communist, or even historical Russian leaders. Instead he named a much more unlikely individual: King Juan Carlos of Spain. Asked why, he answered simply: “Because he too inherited absolute power and chose to give it away.”
And with that, history came to an end.
I wish.

American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s celebrated 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, arguing that the collapse of communism spelled the global triumph of western liberal democracy could not have been more wrong. In early 1990, I described the tumultuous events of the previous year as a wave of revolutions that had finally ended a 75-year European civil war that went global. Today I might rephrase what in modern parlance might be called a bloody “massively multiplayer role playing game” in four rounds….

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