Celebrate Berlin Wall anniversary?

The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago

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Fall of the Berlin Wall: is there room for optimism on the 30th anniversary?

By Daniel J. McLaughlin

The fall of the Berlin Wall on one famous night in 1989 is one of the most iconic moments in recent history.

For some, it was the start of the bright future - but on its 30th anniversary, have we learned the lessons from the past?

With the rise of nationalism in central Europe, and hints about the return of the Cold War, some argue that the "spirit of optimism is gone".

However, other say that the "spirit of 1989 is fighting back".

The Claim

German news website The Local says there is a "sombre mood" as the country marks 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell - arguing that the "spirit of optimism is gone".

They report that a hint of a return of the Cold War and the rise of nationalism is "dampening the mood".

The Local writes: "Leaders of former Cold War powers will be absent from anniversary festivities, as Donald Trump's America First, Britain's Brexit and Russia's resurgence put a strain on ties.

"Gone, too, is the euphoric optimism for liberal democracy and freedom that characterised the momentous event on November 9, 1989, as Germany grapples with a surge in far-right support in its former communist states."

They say that the mood has "soured" and cracks have appeared within the EU.

The Counterclaim

However, Timothy Garton Ash, author of 'The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin & Prague', says that "the spirit of 1989 is fighting back" despite democracy being under attack in post-Wall Europe.

In an article for the Guardian, he says that a new generation is "standing up to the populists".

He calls the so-called coming death of democracy and a new age of the dictators seen in Europe "simplistic and shortsighted".

Ash writes: "The future triumph of anti-liberal authoritarianism is no more inevitable than was the future triumph of liberal democracy."

He says that the decline in mature democracies, like Britain and the United States, and others in central Europe is "still reversible by democratic, legal means, including peaceful mass protest".

Ash concludes: "If the post-Wall generation in central Europe fights for the liberties it has grown up with, and the EU starts standing up for democracy in its own member states, there is every reason to believe that the 40th anniversary, in 2029, will again give us cause for celebration."

What was the Berlin Wall?

The Iron Curtain was the imaginary dividing line between the USSR and the West - and the Berlin Wall was the physical embodiment of this divide.

Following the Second World War, Germany was split into four different zones controlled by the UK, the US, France and the Soviet Union.

While the German capital Berlin was located in the Soviet zone, it was also split into four sectors: the British, American and French sectors formed West Berlin, while the Soviets controlled the East.

The Imperial War Museum explains: "In 1949, Germany formally split into two independent nations: the Federal Republic of Germany (FDR or West Germany), allied to the Western democracies, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany), allied to the Soviet Union.

"In 1952, the East German government closed the border with West Germany, but the border between East and West Berlin remained open.

"East Germans could still escape through the city to the less oppressive and more affluent West."

To stop people abandoning East Berlin, the Berlin Wall was built by the Soviets to physically divide the city. In 1961, a wire barrier was constructed and it later developed into a fortified concrete structure.

It virtually went up overnight. ThoughtCo discusses how a fluid border became very rigid in such a short time: "No longer could East Berliners cross the border for operas, plays, soccer games, or any other activity.

"No longer could the approximately 60,000 commuters head to West Berlin for well-paying jobs. No longer could families, friends, and lovers cross the border to meet their loved ones."

The Berlin Wall was heavily guarded, lined with 302 watchtowers and separated by a mined corridor of land known as the 'death strip'.

While escape was not impossible - more than 5,000 East Germans managed to cross the border - more than 100 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall.

How did the Berlin Wall fall?

The Berlin Wall fell after 28 years on November 9, 1989.

Conditions in East Berlin worsened in the 1980s, and the Soviet economy sank deeper and deeper, resulting in food shortages. There was civil unrest with half a million East Berliners staging a mass protest.

Five days later, to calm the mounting protests, East German leaders loosened the borders, making travel easier for East Germans. Spokesman Günter Schabowski announced in a press conference that they would be able to travel into West Germany immediately.

There were, however, meant to be regulations in place, but he failed to clarify them. It was too late - East Germans were watching it live on television, and flocked to the border in huge numbers.

With such large numbers approaching the Wall, the guards were told to stand down and allow them through. Thousands of people were able to flow through the border, resulting in celebrations between East and West Germans.

According to History.com, more than two million people from East Berlin visited West Berlin that weekend.

People scaled the Berlin Wall in defiant celebration, and others - known as as “mauerspechte” or “wall woodpeckers” - chipped away at it with hammers and picks. It was completely destroyed within two years.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was the first step towards German reunification, which was made official nearly a year later on October 3, 1990.

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