Tuesday, November 10, 2009


For many of the younger people walking the planet today, it is hard to imagine that, once upon a time, a wall separated East and West.

Actually, there were many walls, most of them philosophical and political: the walls that divided the centrally planned economies and authoritarian governments of the East with the captialist, free-market economies and representative democracies of the West. But I refer to a physical wall, the wall that separated East and West Berlin.

The Wall was forbidding, surrounded by No-Man’s Land, topped by barbed wire, illuminated by searchlights, guarded by machine-gun nests. It was not built for defense or protection. It was no shield. It was, rather, like the walls of a prison... for those on the eastern side were trapped, unable to cross to the other side. Even family visits were forbidden, lest the good citizens of the East be exposed to dangerous alien ideologies.

The Berlin Wall came down twenty years ago this week... but the events that set that fall in motion started with Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization of Soviet communism. The glasnost and perestroika movements - latter-day attempts to create a more “human” communism - inevitably doomed it... for communism, as an economic system, can only be enforced by a heavy-handed, iron-fisted government. As the atmosphere of reform spread throughout Eastern Europe, riots and unrest struck East Germany.

I was in West Germany on October 18 1989, the day Erich Honecker - the leader of East Germany and the man who built the Wall - was forced to resign. We were on the Autobahn, enroute from Frankfurt to Worms-am-Rhein, when we heard the news on the radio. It was a little like hearing the rumble of a distant earthquake, one that would eventually swell to world-shattering proportions... reminiscent of that moment in Lord of the Rings when the evil Lord Sauron realizes, too late, that his Ring of Power is about to be tossed into the Crack of Doom and that he is well and truly fucked.

My German colleagues were ecstatic; they knew that with Honecker gone, reunification was just a matter of time. Just how little time it would take, of course, nobody could imagine.

Within two years, the Soviet Union itself would be history... and the Wall, the hated Wall, would be in the form of little chunks, all peddled to people interested in owning a piece of history.

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