Twenty years ago, like scores of millions of others, I watched in delight as the Berlin Wall came down. A huge crowd stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate, waving the flag of the Federal Republic and singing the current words of the country’s stirring national anthem, composed by Haydn. This piece is still better known outside Germany as “Deutschland über alles,” but now extols peace, unity, and freedom.
It was a rare, seismic event, and it produced a kaleidoscopic variety of perspectives on Germany, Europe, and the whole world. For Germany, it was clear that the imposture of the Democratic Republic (East Germany), an artificial creation of Stalin’s Red Army in 1945, was over. It was like watching a fly after a blast of insecticide, buzzing furiously about, in denial that it was about to drop down dead.
I remembered the aftermath of the popular unrest in 1948 and 1953, of East German dictator Walther Ulbricht’s assertion that the “State had lost confidence in the people,” prompting disillusioned Communist writer Bertolt Brecht to ask if the regime intended to choose another population to misrule.
Like all who lived through the Cold War, I saw the steady departure of huge numbers of East Germans to the West, through Berlin, and Khrushchev’s construction of the wall in 1962, the first “national” physical enclosure to keep a population in rather than invaders out. And I watched the agony of fugitives being murdered by the East German police as they tried to cross over the wall, and the immense demonstrations on the western side, with swaying masses locking arms and singing the mournful and moving German dirge, “Once I Had a Comrade.”
What the Americans had mockingly called “the Pankow regime” had been backed into announcing the opening of the wall. Ulbricht’s successor, the equally leaden Erich Honecker, when sacked by his central committee as the state crumbled, dutifully voted for his own dismissal and censure to preserve unity. His successor, Egon Krenz, bustled purposefully around, explaining how much East Germany had to teach West Germany: “In [East Germany], we don’t have to take our car keys out of the ignition when we park our cars.”
All Germans were aware of the ability of totalitarian police to discourage street crime, and also of the limitations of East Germany’s absurd little plywood, 40-mph national car, the Trabant. (When they strayed unsuspectingly out onto the Federal Republic’s unlimited-speed autobahns, the Trabants were regularly run down, and over, by the mighty Porsches and Mercedes and BMWs of the west.)
The only becoming face of East Germany was that of the graceful and beautiful figure-skating champion, Katarina Witt, the poster girl of the Communist government, who often concluded her performances by reclining on the ice, on her side, an allegory of female allure. She was much indulged by the regime, but carefully monitored, with officials listening pruriently to bugged recordings of the highlights of her allegedly energetic but quite conventional sex life.
In the only place where heavily armed Soviet and American soldiers had faced each other in the Cold War, at the world-famous Berlin checkpoints, there was now an immense flow of traffic, and thousands of people tearing down the wall, as U.S. leaders from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan long had demanded. Now its relics could join the other nearby alluvia of previous German states, like the rings of a tree: Frederick the Great’s Brandenburg Gate; Bismarck’s Reichstag; the pretentious Hohenzollern Lutheran cathedral, with implausibly heroic tombs of deceased infant princes; a few stark, Teutonic, Albert Speer exemplars of Hitler’s pre-nascent Germania (the Fuehrer Bunker remains, sealed, the subject of intense controversy); and Stalin’s grotesquely large socialist-realist Soviet embassy.