On this day 30 years ago, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, thousands of delirious East Germans (known as Ossis) rushed into West Berlin, to be welcomed by an equally rapturous crowd of West Germans. The Ossis’ sense of suddenly-won freedom was intoxicating.
The 45-kilometre wall, built in August 1961 to stem the tide of East Germans fleeing one of the harshest Communist regimes, was the hated symbol of the Cold War between a totalitarian East and a free, democratic West.
Many East Germans, living in the so-called German Democratic Republic which was declared in 1949 after it had been under Russian occupation following Germany’s defeat in 1945, were killed trying to cross the heavily guarded Wall which divided the Soviet-occupied East Berlin from the Allied-occupied West Berlin. The fall of the infamous Wall, however, did not happen overnight.
For months, there had been protests in East Germany demanding freedom and democracy, while East Germans fled to the West through Czechoslovakia and Hungary, which had opened their western borders.
The accession in 1985 of Mikhail Gorbachev as the leader of the Soviet Union, and his reformist perestroika policies, also meant that the stifling of democratic reform movements in Soviet satellites, as had happened in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, would not happen in East Germany this time.
As Gorbachev himself has written in a recent issue of Time magazine, his first step then was to rule out military force by the Soviet troops stationed in the GDR.
Aware that with the fall of the Wall, the prospect of German reunification was very likely, he tried to quell Soviet and even Western fears in this regard. As things turned out, the Communist regime in East Germany lasted barely a year, since on October 3, 1990, West and East Germany were reunited, although Berlin did not again become the capital before 1999.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was perhaps the highlight of 1989, which, like 1848, was indeed an annus mirabilis of revolutions as it saw the toppling, again under popular pressure, of all the Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, and eventually in the Soviet Union itself, which broke up into its 15 component republics.
The costs of German unification, which then Chancellor Helmut Kohl bravely undertook on behalf of West Germany, were enormous but well worth the cost, even if, despite the massive transfer of funds, the former Eastern Länder still lag behind the rest of Germany.
There are lessons to be learned from this great historical moment of 30 years ago. The first is that the will of the people, no matter how harshly repressed, eventually prevails. Indeed, in the article quoted earlier, Gorbachev writes: “When asked what I regard as the main hero of that time of drama and turmoil, I always reply: the people.”
Then there is the priceless achievement of democracy, the embodiment of fundamental freedoms. Sadly, such freedoms – such as freedom of expression – are under constant threat, even in established democracies, with the worst examples being the killing of journalists, including our own Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Thirdly, walls are a symbol of division, so it is painful to see countries such as Hungary, which experienced the heavy hand of repression and lack of freedom of movement, literally erecting walls to keep out those seeking refuge from war, persecution and hunger.
Thirty years on, the lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall are there for all to see.