We’re currently witnessing the weaponising of optimism, as is par for the course during a General Election campaign. Less than a week in and I’ve already lost count of the endless billions being promised for all the public services the incumbent administration appear to have forgotten they’ve been responsible for underfunding over the past decade. Not that they’re alone in this imaginary lottery, mind; the other side are also hoping the electorate are suffering from amnesia by falling for it this time round – something that’s harder to achieve when it’s barely two years since the last visit to the polling station. But, hey, that’s politics – selling dreams when seeking office and selling nightmares once in it.
This weekend has given us a sober reminder of how optimism can spontaneously emanate from the street without any political salesman, yet still leave a lingering taste of thwarted possibilities. I’m talking Berlin 1989. Had I been born and raised in the GDR, would I feel the demolition of the Berlin Wall a worthwhile exercise if the first sight to greet me upon finally crossing into the fabled West was the mullet-haired star of ‘Knight Rider’ singing some awful 80s AOR homage to ‘freedom’? It’d get even better once the bloody Scorpions commented on the state of play with their excruciating, lighters-aloft anthem, ‘Wind of Change’. No wonder some displaced East German citizens found their first experience on the other side of the Iron Curtain somewhat overwhelming and soon began to harbour an inexplicable nostalgia for the world they’d left behind.
Not that the most repressive regime outside of North Korea would be necessarily mourned for its least celebrated aspects. In terms of eliminating ‘subversion’ by keeping tabs on its people and effectively treating them as inmates by playing a ruthless, inflexible gaoler, East Germany had few rivals during the Cold War era. Long after Uncle Joe was dead and discredited in the Soviet Union, the GDR stuck more rigidly to Stalinist notions of state control than any other nation housed within the Soviet Bloc. The limitations placed upon the personal freedoms and aspirations of those closest to the dividing line of Europe were uniquely cruel. Any East Berliner born after 1961 would never have known any different, so suddenly being free to stroll into the half of their city that hadn’t been locked in the deep-freeze of 1940s totalitarianism must have been one hell of a culture shock.
Yet, a felicitous portrait of East Germans crossing into West Germany as though they were a lost tribe of savages encountering civilisation for the first time isn’t entirely accurate, for many in the GDR were able to receive TV transmissions from the West, and consequently had a rough idea of how the other half lived. With old Berlin physically obliterated by Allied air-raids and the invading Red Army at the end of WWII, the Brutalist landscape that arose from the ashes once the city was split in two included one notable landmark that inadvertently backfired on architects and planners seeking to instil pride in the alleged beneficiaries of the great Communist experiment. East Berlin’s impressive TV Tower – the Fernsehturm – opened for business in 1969, yet its public observation deck offered GDR natives a view beyond their side of the city, as did the pictures it enabled them to pick-up on their television sets.
However, seeing something presented as a rather abstract image via the cathode ray tube and then being able to observe it in the flesh are two very different experiences. Once the barrier to the West was abruptly gone, GDR viewers of the West German way of life were finally able to see that life for themselves. Those belonging to the first wave of East Germans to pass through the holes in the Wall without being shot at often speak of supermarket shelves, of being beguiled and bedazzled by the abundance of choice when it came to a solitary item. Westerners naturally took it for granted that there might be half-a-dozen different brands of baked beans on offer; not so East Germans.
But what could have been a gradual, sensible transition to democracy in the East – leading to the eventual and inevitable unification of Germany – was scuppered by the short-sighted intransigence of the East German authorities. Deliberate misreporting by West German TV of a bumbling announcement on the slight relaxation of travel restrictions from East to West provoked an unstoppable march to the Wall by the people in November 1989; had the East German Government accepted the wind direction provoked by Gorbachev’s reforming agenda and dismantled the system with delicacy long before, instead of being reluctantly pushed into abandoning it overnight by the impatient masses, perhaps three decades later the former GDR wouldn’t still be the poor relation of its neighbour. But they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) loosen their grip on power until the eleventh hour, so whilst the rightly unlamented Stasi vanished from East German lives, so too did the more benevolent elements of the State that the people had become dependent upon.
The West German Government handed out cash incentives to the newcomers in the wake of the Wall’s removal, hoping it would help complete the absorption into the bosom of capitalism. Malnourished by their exclusion from the seductive extremes of the material world, many understandably became drunk on an excess of luxury items as though they were contestants grabbing the goods on the ‘Generation Game’ conveyor belt; meanwhile, the long-term security the GDR at its best had given them swiftly evaporated. But with the Wall gone, the domino effect across Eastern Europe was set in rapid motion; in many of those countries, revolution was already brewing; it merely took events in Berlin to legitimise the overthrow of the old order. The virus of democracy eventually made it to the gates of Moscow within a couple of years and Europe was a united continent again for the first time in half-a-century.
As with the 2008 election of Obama as US President or the end of Apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of those remarkable events that spread beyond the emotional euphoria of those witnesses to it at the scene and become communal experiences for worldwide audiences to share as a rare reference point of collective optimism. Most generations have one such moment – VE Day, the first Moon Landing etc. Such moments tend to simultaneously mark the death of bad old orders it had been difficult to imagine ever been overthrown and signal the dawn of a better age in which so many hopes and dreams are invested. Unfortunately, these moments invariably fail to live up to their promise, yet that doesn’t prevent the deep desire for them to realise their potential to change the world for the better.
When one looks at Eastern Europe today, with the malevolent spectre of a former GDR-based KGB man hovering over it, and when one considers the traumatic carnage in the Balkans that the collapse of the Soviet Empire unleashed, it’s understandable that some find curious comfort in the certainties that a black & white division between East and West represented. But we can’t go back to that Cold War. We’ve got one all of our own.
© The Editor