Remembering 1989 by Julian Scaff
The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989, was not a planned event but rather the result of an administrative error. An East German official mistakenly interpreted a document proposing that East Germans be allowed to travel to the West as being in effect “immediately.” That night crowds of East Berliners crossed through the checkpoints and climbed onto the wall, to be joined by West Berliners. Confused East German guards threw up their hands, and ordinary citizens armed with hammers and pick-axes started to chip away at that quarter-century-old symbol of the Iron Curtain.
The accounts of the fall of the wall are fascinating in both their confused spontaneity and the tremendous symbolic importance of the event which could only be seen in retrospect. On the 20th anniversary of the event, I spoke with Frieder Butzmann, a musician and composer who has lived in West Berlin since 1975. He describes how for his generation which grew up with the wall and the divisions between East and West it was inconceivable that the wall would ever come down, or that Germany would ever be united. He and his peers greeted the events of 1989 with total disbelief. He said although the wall was being dismantled just down the street from his house, and he could actually see it from his window, he chose to watch it on television, perhaps a way of distancing himself and trying to make sense of it. One of the lasting impacts of that event on Frieder was that it has opened his mind to political possibilities that may seem inconceivable in the present. He says “can you imagine a Europe without Germany? Without France? Without Holland or the other countries, just one Europe? Before the fall of the wall I could not imagine it, but now I can.”
The fall of the wall, of course, not only made possible the reunification of Germany but also symbolized the end of the cold war and the collapse of communism across the eastern block countries. Unification became possible not only for Germany, but for Europe. Although 1989 is most often remembered for the fall of the wall, the velvet revolutions in the Eastern Bloc, and the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Empire, it was not just the United States and the West that won. 1989 also saw widespread protests and a fledgeling democratic movement in China, which were dramatically snuffed out on June 4th in Tiananmen Square. China began to emerge as a world power, and perhaps learning lessons from the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, adopted free market principles while holding on to national socialism. The result now is a hybrid that could be called Globalist Leninist Capitalism, another idea that was inconceivable twenty years ago but is now a monolith. Just five months after the Tiananmen Square Massacre the Berlin Wall would start to come down, but China’s adaptation would ensure that no velvet revolution would happen there, at least not yet.
As I gripped my camera in the cold drizzle on the night of November 9th, 2009, shoulder-to-shoulder with around a million other people stretching from behind the Reichstag to Brandenburg Gate, it struck me that this was not just a German event but a European event. This was not confirmed by the speeches by European leaders but rather by the plethora of languages spoken around me, and the excitement shared alike by Germans, Dutch, French, Russian and Spanish, to name just a few. Although I did not witness the events first-hand in 1989, my sense is that there is a feeling of Europeanness now that was absent then. Standing on the grave of that old Cold War monument, a divided Europe is just as inconceivable now as a united Europe was then, and 1989 stands as one of those pivotal years when old world orders fall and new ones are born.
Julian Scaff is Head of the Media Communications department at Webster University Leiden. He teaches video, audio and digital media production, media and film theory, and multimedia art.
[ Berlin Wall 2009 ]