Sunday, 9 November 2014

It was twenty-five years ago today, Gunther Schabowski allowed exit visas without delay ....

[Forgive the laboured Beatles pun!]

Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of die Wende - the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ending (until this year, maybe) of the Cold War between communist Russia and its satellites and the West. SED central committee spokesman Gunther Schabowski, announced changes that would allow GDR citizens to apply for visas to travel aboard, "immediate, without delay". The latter sentence was the key - there were no plans in place by the SED for immediate travel, but Berliners weren't worried and streamed across the border after demanding gates were opened

Europe has changed so much since then that it's easy to forget the continent was utterly divided by an barbed wire and concrete barrier, separating German from German.

It is the leitmotif running through much of the best Cold War fiction and continues to fascinate as history and fiction.

In Berlin Game, Len described it I thought very well:
"Spiked through both sectors, like a skewer through a shish kebab, ... the East-West Axis"


  1. I do remember the announcement, which East Berliners ignored. My only regret then was that having visited the divided Germany and Berlin, because of my work pressure I could not travel to Berlin to witness the breach of the Wall.

    Please see this in today's Daily Telegraph:

    I agree with Deighton quote there in substance- although as a pure vegetarian , I would not know about shish kebab.

    The Potsdamer Platz crossing- where I crossed to East Berlin in late 1970s and early 1980s when the Wall existed was a bit more civilised that say the Checkpoint Charlie, and can understand the reports in 1989 that here was where the first breach occured when the Gunther Schabowski annoucemnt was made. It was stark ugly when the Potsdamer Platz was so brutally divided then.
    As the Daily Telegraph article, the new Berlin has all but erased its ugly past.
    While Merkel celebrates this freedom today, she was raised in East Germany and worked in East Berlin when the Wall came down, and when she was spotted by Chancellor Kohl, he says in his recent biography that "she barely hold a knife and fork properly" which was not an exaggeration.

  2. I was in Berlin last week. I have to say that the city has still a way to go before it has the same energy as London or Paris. Despite such beauties as the Brandenburg gate the centre is dominated by tall workers apartments that were built during the DDR era and still the tallest building is the TV tower from the same time. (This thing puts me in mind of a concrete post with a 1980s disco ball half way up.) And at its foot is the Alexanderplatz shopping mall which is probably unrivalled for ugliness anywhere in the developed world.

    That said the Bundestag building is magnificent and representative of the transparency of todays German political constitution. (Thanks here to those American lawyers who crafted it in the immediate postwar years.) But today if I had to choose a German city to be capital it would have to be Munich. It really feels like a big city. But Berlin was trapped in amber for over 40 years and somehow the way it suffered during the 20th century still lingers.

    1. But for a very different take on Berlin see

      The book mentioned here, IBM and the Holocaust, by Edwin Black makes excellent reading. IBM, in defiance of the US trading with the enemy act, continued a business relationship with Nazi Germany through the war years. Significantly they also developed specific systems the identify German citizens of partial Jewish ancestry. The parallels with todays world where google and facebook are harvesting personal data that can be retrospectively analysed to develop political profiles, as well as ethnic data, of - well everyone on the electoral role - are, well bloody scary.