Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Twenty Years a Growing

November 10th 09

Twenty Years A Growing.

Twenty years ago today the Berlin Wall came down. This blog remembers
watching the scenes of jubilation on television in 1989. This evening’s
television news revisited those times and the scenes of euphoria and
jubilation. The great and the good are gathered at the Brandenburg Gate
for tonight’s formal celebrations.

It is interesting to see Mikhail Gorbachev, former Secretary General of the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union alongside other world leaders of that
period. Until his reign the Kremlin had intervened militarily to stifle
dissent, most famously in my memory in Prague in 1968.

At that time I was working in the Duke of York public house in downtown
Belfast. The Duke’s was the watering hole, and eating house, for Belfast
union leaders, Labour Party types, Communist Party leadership and a
scattering of Republican leaders. Our own civil rights struggle was
starting to assert itself but I have clear recollections of how
discussions among Belfast’s ‘Left’ or at least ‘the Left’ as represented
in the Duke’s was galvanised by the events on the streets of Prague. But
for all the soul searching and heated but intelligent debate no one was
predicting that a brief few decades later the Soviet Union would be no

Gorbachev certainly was about reforming and modernising the Soviet Union,
and not about ending it.

In the 1980s when Solidarity organised across Poland there was no repeat
of the Prague crack down. By the summer of 1988 hefty hikes in food prices
led to strikes across Poland. Before long negotiations dealt with political as well as social and economic matters. Hungary followed. My guess is that the bulk of the protestors, at the start at least, wanted only to improve their systems not to overthrow them. Though, and this is another guess, I’m sure many became more ambitious and more radical as they became more politicised. And more successful.

I am also sure the masses of people assembled in Berlin for the
celebrations include many of the people who participated in the momentous
events which led to the walls coming down. Of course young Germans - twenty somethings - will have no memory of the Wall. Maybe their parents
or grandparents were activists. Maybe they were reared on stories of what
things were like in a divided Germany and a separated Berlin. It must be
an extremely emotional event for an activist to be at the Brandenburg Gate
tonight with children or grandchildren and to be part of all that.

I wonder how history would have flowed if the border guards had opened
fire on those brave people who first pushed their way through the border
crossing that fateful day twenty years ago.

Or if Thatcher’s warnings against German unity had been heeded? But of
course she was wrong. Again. And not only on Ireland, though that is little consolation.

Then on October 3 1990 Germany was re-united, irony of ironies, under an
Irish presidency of the European Union. Charlie Haughey was EU President.

There have been acres of books written about why all this happened. It’s
simple stoopid. It’s called the human spirit. It has a way of overcoming
all the odds. It can even destroy empires. And knock down walls. And
re-unite people and countries.

And despite all the doomsday warnings and threats and concerns it seems
that Germans are glad to be united. And why wouldn’t they?

From the limited dip I did into international news agencies’ coverage of
the celebrations most young Germans are happy with their country. They
take unity for granted. That is clear from a series of polls to coincide
with the twentieth anniversary.

A bit like our own young people will be at the twentieth anniversary of
our own reunification


Paul Doran said...

A Chara

As as a socialist who tries to analyze history, I find it impossible to banish certain heretic recollections and doubts. For moments of mass euphoria, wonderful as they are for those involved, do not always explain history. And for me too many issues and questions remain unexplained or simply unasked.

Why does no one recall that it was Eastern Germany, the GDR, which pushed for reunification during the postwar years while Chancellor Adenauer brusquely rejected all proposals, even general elections. Only then, and after West Germany set up its own state, formed an army, joined NATO and insisted on regaining huge hunks of what was now Poland, were such attempts finally abandoned?

Why is it never mentioned that the GDR, though certainly undergoing an economic crisis, was in less of a crisis than all of Germany today, and that until its very end it had no unemployment, no homelessness, free medical care, child care, education and a sufficiently stable standard of living?

Why is it forgotten that many of its travel restrictions had been considerably eased in the two previous years, so that not only pensioners, who were always able to visit West Germany, but 1-2 million GDR citizens had been able to visit West Germany in 1987-1989. Young people wanted desperately to travel, it is true; but their chances of being able to were already improving.

Is Mise

Paddy Canuck said...

I've always found the example of Germany instructive. It's astounding how quickly, how easily it came about when the structures resisting the natural process fell away. But there've been milestones in recent Irish history that surprised me in the same ways and to pretty much the same degree as the fall of the Berlin Wall. I never, ever, thought I would see a Sinn Fein mayor of Belfast, or the PIRA officially and openly put its arms beyond use and commit to the peace process, or Ian Paisley sit in a government with the nationalists of Northern Ireland (that lasted longer than it took him to reach a microphone and bail out). Even though it's not as sudden or thorough as what happened in Germany, I've found the changes in Northern Ireland in the past decade breathtaking in how exciting and scarcely believable they are. There's real hope at last that the North can be the good, decent place it was meant to be for all its people. From there, who knows what's possible?

Timothy Dougherty said...

very good Gerry, I think history will show Thatcher’s warnings and leadership,that she had real error with the understanding of the human spirit. But Error. The word ERROR has different meanings and usages relative to how it is conceptually applied. The concrete meaning of the Latin word error is "wandering"or"straying". An ‘error' is a deviation from accuracy or correctness. A ‘mistake' is an error caused by a fault: the fault being misjudgment,
Germany was re-united,a past error or mistake of the past.Solidarity organised across Poland a consequences of change to come. Devolving policing and justice a straying from the social and economic truth or a wandering off from the path.Justice can not be in Error ,you have Truth and Justice not Truth or justice, as in the past of Ireland's history you find a Justice and not a Truth.

Anonymous said...

The fall of the Soviet Union has been good news for Germany but it is hard to see how things have improved in Russian given the horror of poverty and corruption the people of Russia now face. In many of the former Soviet Union countries people that worked all of their lives have a pension that they cannot live on and no access to affordable health care. The people of the former Soviet Union are paying a terrible price for 'democracy' and capitalism.

Micheal said...

I often thought that the wall was there to keep people out, in so far as it was there to keep people in. I have argued with germans in Germany that the wall was not watertight, as some believe it was.
It was actually porous to a certain extent.

It's something I find diconcerting when people express a feeling of victimhood based on beliefs that are not solid against disproof.It's something I find very offensive. God knows that victims of injustice deserve the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Very interesting comment analysis here.

Paddy Canuck said...

"The people of the former Soviet Union are paying a terrible price for 'democracy' and capitalism."

I feel that this is not a deep enough analysis of what's really going on there. It's a feel-good analysis that simply blames consumerism. I'm rather left-leaning myself, but I don't think that answer implies the right questions being asked.

I don't think the privations the peoples of the former Soviet Union are going through can fairly be attributed to the adoption of free-market, semi-planned economies. After all, the rest of us do fairly well under similar systems, and while we might like to change things about them, most of us would not give them up for pig-in-a-poke, untested theoretical utopian systems. I don't believe what happened to the Soviet Union necessarily can be laid at the feet of communism, either, though it's clear that it provided the means to implement really bad ideas and make them stick... though it had the potential to do the same for some really good ideas.

Fundamentally, the Soviet Union lived beyond its means. It probably could have done better, but for political reasons it maintained an inefficient system of distribution and didn't provide the people with the incentives to innovate or really invest their energies in their labour. It wouldn't really have mattered much what system they were living under; when they lost interest in it beyond subsistence, it was bound to fail eventually. Their society failed, and they regardless of the model they chose afterward (capitalism, feudalism, theocracy, what-have-you), they would now be "paying the price" for that and would be continuing to do so for a few generations. It wasn't, and isn't, the fault of the societal paradigm by which they live by the broad strokes... it was the corruption and cynicism in the society, the fetid small strokes of daily life, that ultimately are to blame. That's still going on, and while they willing all live in such a society and refuse to check its venality, they're going to have an uphill battle.