It was 30 years ago this weekend that the Berlin Wall, dividing the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany, was overwhelmed by a proverbial sea of humanity in those places where the concrete barrier was not literally and figuratively ripped apart.
Waves of East Germans skipped and jumped over the ruins at the Brandenburg Gate or surged through Checkpoint Charlie and into the American Zone on their way to taste their first Big Mac and other previously forbidden treasures of the decadent West.
I was not at the Berlin Wall that evening. I was in the Soviet Union after months of travel across East Germany, the other Warsaw Pact states and restive Soviet republics, such as Estonia. The general feeling in Moscow was that the anarchic Poles and Hungarians and even the Balts might revolt, but never the grey, orderly burghers of the DDR.
So Muscovites were stunned when half a million East Germans held a freedom protest in Berlin on Nov. 4. They were more shocked five days later when the border guards at the Wall vanished into the night as their comrades sang and danced their way to freedom.
I had been in East Berlin a week or two earlier. To get there, I had, as usual, run the spooky slalom course through the anti-tank barriers and under the klieg lights and guard towers of Checkpoint Charlie before starting a cross-country road trip to Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), Leipzig and Dresden, where Vladimir Putin was still a KGB officer.
Along the way, I met old friends who had spent their lives dodging East Germany’s notorious secret police, the Stasi. They told me that the end of Soviet rule in East Germany was nigh unless Mikhail Gorbachev brought the Red Army out of their barracks. Remembering that the Red Army had occupied Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968, all of them thought some kind of Soviet military intervention in Berlin was highly likely.
Even at that late hour, the sinister mechanisms of the East German police state were still functioning perfectly. I picked up a young woman hitchhiking one afternoon on a ring road outside Berlin for which, rather unusually, I held a permit to be on. And because I also had a visa that was good for travel outside the capital, and not just on transit routes from the West to the city, this permit also allowed me to have East German citizens in my car.
Nevertheless, one of the ubiquitous traffic policemen, seeing my “Yours to Discover” licence plate from Ontario, soon stopped my vehicle. He looked contemptuously at my Canadian “Ausweis” and road permit and ordered the hitchhiker to get out, forcing her to disappear into a Biblical rainstorm, lest, as he put it, she catch “social contamination” from being in such close proximity to a capitalist.
Such was life for the East during those heady, unpredictable days. Everything seemed impossible until, suddenly, it was possible.
The Berlin Wall was the most iconic symbol of the Cold War, though in some places it was not a wall but a barbed-wire fence. Still, anyone surveying the guard towers and barricades that cut Berlin in two or along the nearly 2,000-kilometre-long barrier that ran from the Baltic Sea to Niederbayern (or Lower Bavaria), with their packs of howling guard dogs, insidious automatic machine gun nests and more than one million landmines, or who tried to reason with the officious, perpetually angry border guards, understood that the East German dictatorship and its Soviet masters were evil to the core.
It’s why Ronald Reagan had captured Eastern Europe and the world’s imagination two years earlier when he demanded: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” It was as inspiring and timely a statement as John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” had been in 1963.
The Wall may have been the most vile emblem of the Cold War but the seeds of the Soviet Union’s demise were not planted there 30 years ago, nor were they sown in East Germany.
In fact, it can be argued that with the possible exception of Nicolae Ceaucescu’s Romania — which was always a special case — the DDR was almost the last country in the Warsaw Pact to be seized by independence fever.
Long before I was aware that that was what I was doing, I spent years covering the end of communism in Europe. It was my privilege to witness almost every stage of the long process by which the Soviet Union unravelled.
The rot started to become obvious to me when I landed for the first time in the Soviet Union in 1978 at the Pacific port of Nahodka. The navy and fishing town was a shambles. Toilets were a quagmire. The stench of urine permeated every dank hallway and creaky elevator. Customs inspectors spent hours grimly inspecting books and correspondence they found in travellers’ luggage, though it was unlikely that any of them spoke a word in a language other than Russian.
The Soviet Union was a country whose citizens could only make domestic long-distance calls with the greatest difficulty. There were queues for everything. It was impossible to buy a can of fish in food stores a few metres away from the ocean, though a one-kilogram tub of the best black market caviar could be had for a pack of Marlboros.
The American line had long been that the Soviet Union was a superpower with a first-rate military, therefore obliging the U.S. to spend more and more on defence, keep a standing army in West Germany and Italy and warplanes there and in the United Kingdom. I had soaked this up, yet what I encountered back then in the Soviet Far East, Siberia, the Urals, Ukraine, Belarus and the Caucasus was an alleged superpower that could not tie its shoes.
My childhood illusions about the mighty Soviet Union had been turned upside down. I was confused. But the Soviet Union had nukes and armies occupying eastern Europe and non-Russian parts of the Soviet realm.
So, while the Soviet Union was disorganized, impoverished and ramshackle, I eventually concluded that the Americans were right. The Iron Curtain was hell or tedium for many of those who were trapped on the wrong side of it. With so much at stake, Canada and other NATO countries had to pay close attention.
The Soviets’ iron-fisted suzerainty over its vassal states finally began to weaken when the Poles, led by Lech Walesa and the Warsaw Pact’s first truly independent trade union, Solidarity, demanded social reforms and workers’ rights in the early 1980s. After the imposition of martial law by General Wojciech Jaruzelski and countless, tense showdowns between the Polish president and Solidarity, whose membership comprised one-third of the population, Poles were allowed to hold somewhat democratic elections in 1989. Solidarity swept every seat except those that had been reserved for Communist candidates.
Aghast at the drama in Poland and fearing Hungary might become similarly convulsed, the communist regime in Budapest turned off the electrified fence that had kept their citizens from escaping to the West and permitted democratic elections. With the fence inoperative, Hungarians began to leave for Austria.
This, the first break in the Iron Curtain, set off a chain reaction. During September, 70,000 East Germans, who were allowed to travel within the Warsaw Bloc and to Cuba but nowhere else, fled through Czechoslovakia to Hungary and from there escaped through Austria to West Germany.
With so many East Germans exiting by the back door, there was no longer much point in trying to keep the front door in Berlin locked, though there was a futile attempt by the East Germans to close their border with Czechoslovakia.
With the Wall poked full of holes, there were still a few more chapters to be written.
The Czechs, darlings of the western media though docile when compared to the plucky Poles, became brave enough to make their Velvet Revolution a few weeks later. The Ceaucescus met their end before a firing squad on Christmas Day as civil war raged in the streets of Bucharest.
A couple of months later, the Stasi and the KGB, in a panic, torched as many of their files as they could and the Red Army began to withdraw from its many garrisons in East Germany. By October, the two Germanies were reunified in a process that was called Wiedervereinigung. Another 14 months after that, the Soviet Hammer and Sickle was taken down for the last time from above the Kremlin parapets, to be replaced by the Russian tricolour.
This is a highly simplified version of how Mikhail Gorbachev’s dream of perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (openness) failed and 100,000 Eastern Europeans were emancipated.
Though there are huge gaps in this history, including the decay that slowly set in during decades of sclerotic Soviet leadership and the steady decline of the Soviets’ state-planned economy, the joyous spectacle at the Berlin Wall on the night of Nov. 9, 1989, has become a useful shorthand for how the Soviet empire died.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas