“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” – Francis Fukuyama, 1989
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Was it the “end of history” that Francisc Fukayama suggested? Although perhaps that’s an exaggeration, it was probably the most transformational event in our lifetimes. Certainly, it ended a cycle of tyranny and brutality under totalatarian ideologies like Naziism, Stalinism, Fascism, Communism, etc., that characterized much of the Twentieth Century. In some ways, the Iron Curtain, of which the Berlin Wall was the most visible manifestation, froze half a continent in time, almost as if the World War II didn’t really end until 1989.
While our world today is by no means perfect, the events of 1989 delivered greater democratic and economic rights to hundreds of millions of central and eastern European people, not to mention exerting a profound influence on places as far away as the government of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing.
Having been in East Berlin in the former German Democratic Republic (DDR) a scant two weeks prior to this momentous event, on 28 October, 1989, I observed a world at the crossroads. I was in Germany preparing to open up German and European business for MKS, and used that opportunity to visit my friend Stephen Stern in West Berlin. He had built to message catalogues which translated the MKS Toolkit into German for the first time. Steve was well versed in the countercultural arts and political landscape that is unique to Berlin. Thus, I was fortunate to venture for a day trip into East Berlin, entering via the checkpoint at Freidrichstrasse train station and exiting by the famous Checkpoint Charlie. We bought our day trip visas for the mandatory conversion of 50 DeutschMarks into 50 OstMarks (East Germany money) and saw the sites of East Berlin.
Navigating the S-Bahn (tram), at a proletariat friendly 10 Ost Pfennig fare, as I arrived at Gethsemane Kirche, in Prenzlauer Berg near Schoneberger Alle in East Berlin, I was hu mbled to watch ordinary people filing through the Church in search of information. Here families with baby carriages and other ordinary people filed silently around a sanctuary filled with newspaper clippings covering of the protests against communism happening in Dresden and Leipzig and the opening of the Iron Curtain between Hungary and Austria. Meanwhile, outside the church, candles burned to commemorate those protestors who were political prisoners, while 4 not so discreet secret police, possibly Stasi, watched these events unfolding from across the street.
For those without the historical context or even wanting to refresh their memory, the Economist posted a great photo show here on Life Behind the Berlin Wall in the former DDR. More immediately, I chronicle here are a few of my direct impressions from that heady time.
Western Decadent Levis?
At Freidrichstrasse, there was an hour and one-half wait with mobs of people from Poland, Hungray, Czechoslavakia and East Germany returning from an excursion to West Berlin, most possibly for the first time in their lives. I was surprised, and perhaps a bit amused, to notice the most popular item being carefully carried back home across the Berlin Wall. Was it American Levi Jeans? Was it Marlboro cigarettes? None of that.
Counterintuitively, the most popular item people were carrying was bunches of bananas. Apparently the Bolshevik economic system had very great difficulty in getting such fresh fruit to the masses. Der Spiegel recently reported a Communist era joke from the DDR was: “Did East Germans originate from apes? Impossible. Apes could never have survived on just two bananas a year.”
Border Guard Intimidation?
After the banana incident, I finally was face to face with the East German Border Police (Deutsche Grenzpolizei) who checked my Canadian passport. Imagine a door behind you and in front of you, both electrically locked to prevent your movement. The guard looked at my passport and me, without smiling, for what must have been two minutes.
All in all, the episode was pretty intimidating, perhaps not so much for a westerner, but certainly if you were a humble citizen of the DDR. This moment was perhaps my most vivid, firsthand experience of a totalitarian regime.
An amusing footnote is that a colleague, Frank Pfeiffer, who worked in German IT told me that part of the reason why they stared me down for so long was that was how slow the Robotron (Digital PDP-11 clones, but running as much as 1000 times slower) computers were. It’s ironic that perhaps what I was mistaking for unsmiling tyranny was simply the result of an economically stagnant and technologically backward economy.
Avoiding Flashy Western Tourists?
That day, and again in March 1990 when I was back in East Berlin, I noticed that as I walked down the street that people averted their gaze from me. For a long time, I assumed that people were offended perhaps by my flashy westernized, Americanized clothing and persona. Actually, that wasn’t the case at all. It was the natural response of a populace tyrannized by institutionalized and pervasive spying. As much as one-third of the populace was either Stasi or a part time paid informers. A few years ago, I read an excellent book about life in the DDR which could only have been written by an outsider, who in fact was also a fluent German speaker. If you have the opportunity, pick up Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. It is a very personal and rivetting read.
Bankruptcy of Central Planning
Another lasting memory of my one and only day behind the iron curtain was the drab, grey pallour of daily existence in the land of the Bolsheviks. After the bright, neon lit, excitement of West Berlin, East Berlin was a contrasting shock of nondescript urban decay. Nothing appeared to have been painted in the preceding 50 years and the masonary covering of street-facing building facades was falling off, leaving a patchwork of even more grey.
The showpiece of Berlin was always the Unter Den Linden, a broad ceremonial street running from the Brandenburg Gate to the area with all the main museums. Notably, even those museums, although presenting a majestic facade, turned out to have unrepaired World War II vintage bullet holes on the rear portion where tourists were less likely to venture.
For me, even in uber-disciplined East Germany, the socialist ideal of Communism was an empty promise. It just plain didn’t work. And, while an appearance of working could be maintained in a heavy industrial economy, it was far too common for the output of a plant to be worth less than the sum of its inputs. Even in 1989, it was already becoming clear that information technology, and the forced conversion of an economy from heavy manufacturing to a knowledge based one, was further magnifying the gulf between the Communist East and the Market-driven West.
There are important lessons for all of us. In Canada, which has always had a love affair with socialism, we must recognize that science has never created an economic system that works better than the market. In this year of global economic meltdown, it is important to remember that the failings of Wall Street insitutions should not be confused with the efficient and rational forces of a market-based economy, which clearly work. For me personally, that day behind the Iron Curtain irreversably shaped my politic worldview.
Another lasting legacy of the C old War standoff symbolized by the Berlin Wall, was the crazy nuclear profileration of weapons that could destroy the world many times over and the strategic engagement known as Mutually Assured Destruction. Sadly, through the 1970’s and 1980’s, the threat of human destruction created, expecially in the West, a whole generation of people who were cynical about human survival. This was not a generation of Utopians, but rather of people who felt disenfranchized and unable to reverse the excesses of the Military Industrial Complex.
Thus, it is refreshing to see that the Millenials (or Generation Y as per my post Fail to Understand the Net Generation at Your Peril)) are an optimistic cadre who believe that, while their parents generation has created a mess, they need to passionately focus on making the world a better place. On reflection, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War has probably enabled this generation to consider shaping a better future world. It will be interesting to see where this energy ultimately leads as the Millenials start to become the next generation of leaders.
On balance, the legacy of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Col War and the breakup of the Soviet Union has been a positive one. Although the dislocations for a whole generation were wrenching, overall people are for the most part in a far preferable position. As more stories continue to emerge about the bungling, state controlled, world, i like to think that our modern inter-connected world of instant information could never allow a Big Brother totalitarian state to stifle free information flow. Unfortunately, this is probably too optimistic a view and the lasting message is that people need to stay vigilant and remember the lessons of history.
Freedom is precious and shoud never be taken for granted.