Sunday

9th Aug 2020

Bittersweet feelings as Europeans celebrate end of Berlin Wall

  • The Brandenburg Gate. At least 136 people were killed trying to cross the wall in its 28-year history (Photo: Wolfgang Staudt)

The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago changed the course of EU history. But many people in Europe are still waiting for the political and economic freedoms promised by the event.

Lela-Rose Engler was on 9 November 1989 a 26-year-old student of East German origin resident in West Berlin. Having heard radio reports of massing crowds on the eastern side of the barrier, she took the underground to the Heinrich-Heine-Strasse crossing point at around 11pm local time to see what was going on.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Confused border guards had begun letting trickles of people through from east to west at various points from 9pm onward. The mass breaches started at 11.30pm, with tens of thousands gathered on the western side to greet fellow Berliners after 28 years of separation.

"That night there was pure joy, no thoughts about problems ...just a feeling of getting back a missing part of your body, your missing other half," Ms Engler told EUobserver.

"Even today it is very emotional, almost too emotional, for me to speak about this night. I'll never forget one man, from the west, saying to the people crossing the border from the east: 'It is really high time that you came.' It's the nicest welcome I've ever heard in my life."

The peaceful end of Communism in East Germany came amid similar developments in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria the same year. But the broader transition was more violent than the Berlin events suggest. In December 1989, 1,104 people died in the Romanian revolution. In 1991, 14 protesters were shot in Lithuania.

The European Economic Community (EEC) of 20 years ago was hardly recognisable compared to the union of today.

Helmut Kohl was in power in Germany. Francois Mitterand led France. Margaret Thatcher was in charge in the UK and Jacques Delors was president of the European Commission. The EEC had just 12 members. The euro was in its planning phase. The Baltic states were still part of the Soviet Union. And the community's main priority of creating the single market was a far cry from the institutional and geopolitical angst generated by taking in eight former Communist states in 2004.

When the majority of the 27 EU leaders go to Berlin on Monday (9 November), talks on the fringe of the festivities will likely tackle who to name as the union's first permanent president and foreign minister, following the tortuous ratification of a constitution-type treaty.

Apparatchiks still in power

At the same time, former dissidents such as Poland's Lech Walesa will make statements welcoming the end of Soviet domination alongside guests including President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, a country where power remains concentrated in the hands of Cold-War-era apparatchiks such as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and which is undergoing a new wave of nostalgia for Soviet greatness.

"Some of the worst and most frightening elements [of the USSR] are still present. Take a look at what is going on in the Khamovnichesky Court. Just like in the past, the siloviki are in control," Marina Filipovna, the 74-year-old mother of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, told this website.

"I feel that a similar wall is being erected today - between us and the West. Even between people, between those who understand what is happening and those who do not want to understand."

Mr Khodorkovsky, a one-time oil tycoon and Putin critic, is currently on trial at the Moscow court in what is widely seen as a politically-skewed case designed to keep him in jail for life.

Russian human rights campaigners and journalists work in a climate of fear, while pro-Western politicians in Ukraine and Georgia have to reckon with the threat of Russian military force to bring their countries to heel.

Domino effect

The €5 million Berlin festivities involve concerts by rock groups Bon Jovi and U2 and will culminate in the toppling of 1,000 2.5-metre-high polystyrene dominoes. When the last domino falls, at around 8.40pm in front of the Brandenburg Gate, a fireworks display will go off.

Millions of eastern Europeans will watch the celebrations with bittersweet feelings, however.

Amid the uncertainties brought by the financial crisis, some older people remember Communism through rose-tinted spectacles. Just 59 percent of respondents in Poland and 53 percent in Slovakia said that life is better today in a recent survey.

Meanwhile, looking at the EU from the outside in, many Belarusians, Moldovans and Ukrainians may reflect that their countries have no EU accession perspective and remain cut off by an economic chasm. A visa to enter the union costs €35 for Moldovans and Ukrainians, the lion's share of the monthly minimum wage. It costs €60 for a Belarusian, twice what the poorest people earn.

New pro-Russia campaign comes to EU capital

Russian news agency Ria Novosti is rolling out a new public relations campaign in the political capital of the European Union which, according to sources in the PR industry, aims to justify Russia's great power ambitions and improve the image of Joseph Stalin.

EU leaders to discuss top jobs at Berlin dinner

Visiting leaders from across the European Union are expected to use the festivities surrounding the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall for informal talks over the appointment of the European Council president and EU foreign policy chief.

Agenda

This WEEK in the European Union

European leaders gathered in Germany for the 20 anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall will use the occasion to hold informal talks on the shortlist for EU's newly created top positions and agree a date for a special institutional summit.

EU wary of violence in Belarus election

EU states have voiced fear of violence during Belarus elections on Sunday, as president Aleksander Lukashenko seeks to maintain his third decade in power.

EU: Hong Kong election delay undermines democracy

The EU demands Hong Kong reverse decision to postpone Legislative Council elections by one year, as western powers suspend extradition treaties with the global financial hub given China's controversial national security laws.

News in Brief

  1. Germany breached rights of Madeleine McCann suspect
  2. EU offers trade perks to Lebanon
  3. Germany charges ex-Audi chiefs on emissions cheating
  4. UK quarantines Belgium, as European infections climb
  5. Bulgaria's Borissov mulls resignation
  6. EU prolongs anti-dumping duties on Chinese steel
  7. Swedish economy contracted less during April to June
  8. EU offers help to Lebanon after port explosion

Feature

The Hagia Sophia and the global battle of symbols

The Turkish president's decision to restart Islamic worship services in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia last Friday is not innocent. So how should we react? By doing the opposite - and make Cordoba's famous Mosque/Cathedral in Cordoba a museum.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  3. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  5. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis

Latest News

  1. EU wary of violence in Belarus election
  2. Iraqis paid €2,000 each agree to leave Greece
  3. EU's most sustainable islands are Danish 'Sunshine Islands'
  4. Worrying rows over future EU chemicals policy
  5. Rainbow flag protesters charged by Polish police
  6. An open letter to the EPP on end of Hungary's press freedom
  7. Renew Europe has a plan to combat gender-violence
  8. Why EU beats US on green pandemic recovery

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us