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.

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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.

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