It was a Thursday. I couldn’t remember but just checked it, thanks to the magic of the Internet – something that certainly did not exist in its current omnipresent form those thirty years ago.
It may be difficult to imagine for all those born since then how different the world of news used to be in that era before websites, the social media and even the 24-hour news channels (CNN really only came of age the following year, with the Gulf War). Back then, you either had to pick up a newspaper in the morning or wait until the nightly news in the evening. If something really big was unfolding, newsflashes would pop up every hour or so during the day. There was no need for that in this case, however; the Wall was first breached while we peacefully slept in Australia.
I got my first iconic visuals over breakfast, while watching the “Today” show – now I checked the Internet again, and Steve Liebmann did not rejoin until 1990, so my memory association is faulty here; a matter of the future casting a shadow back on the past and filling in the blanks. After, apparently, George Negus told me all about the dramatic events taking place in Berlin, I raced to school and to the school library to photocopy the front page and the continuing coverage in “The Courier Mail”. It was coming towards the end of my first year of school in Australia, in Grade 10, and by that stage I have already made my reputation as that weird Polish nerd with no friends, so my pre-Thursday classes activity at the library would not have surprised anyone, on the oft-chance anyone actually noticed and wondered.
Did I expect it? It was a year of tumultuous change in the Soviet empire, starting with the first semi-free and semi-democratic election in post-war Poland back in June; coincidentally, on the same day as the Chinese Communist Party sent in the tanks to crash the student protests and the student bodies at Tiananmen Square. One date, two communist countries, two radically different responses to the opposition, two diverging paths ever since. Freedom was certainly in the air in Europe throughout 1989 so anything was possible. But a year or two prior? No, I did not expect it. In my defence as a future pundit, neither did most other people who should have known better and certainly knew more than my 17-year old self did at that time.
In fact, I left the communist Poland with my parents almost two and a half years earlier, in summer of 1987, never expecting the historical changes to come so soon. Poland, and the rest of the eastern European communist club, appeared as unstably stable – or as stably unstable – in 1987 as it has at any other time in its previous several decades. It might all collapse next month, or it might last well into the new millennium. Solidarity has come and gone (into the underground), the black sunglasses fan General Wojciech Jaruzelski was still in charge, the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl rained on us unaware a year earlier, and everything continued to be a surreal mess. So, situation normal. Even the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet leader, while interesting – it was a novelty to have a communist party boss who was alive and coherent – did not actually raise any expectations among the general population of the captive nations. It all makes sense in hindsight; in plain sight at the time it was anything but.
Living now on the other side of the world certainly made me feel like I was missing out on all the excitement in the Old World (less so by the time Yugoslavia, through which we have driven on the way to Italy in 1987, collapsed in a bloody heap a few year later). My only experience of East Germany thus far was a day trip across the border from Swinoujscie (formerly Swinemunde) on the Baltic coast when I was 3; one of my very first clear memories, probably thanks to a first encounter with a warship in the Szczecin (Stettin) Lagoon. We all had a fair idea of life in the German People’s Republic – it was just like Poland, only German, so even more than 50 shades of grey. It was good to see them swinging sledgehammers at the wall; East Germans were both cursed and blessed with having such a famous and visible symbol of their oppression. It was dreary while it stood; but spectacular when it was falling. You knew you would always remember, a bit like the JFK assassination a generation before, except less “Ich bin ein Berliner” and more “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”.
Three years ago I got to finally walk the streets of the former East Berlin, including the only two places where large sections of the wall are still standing, in memoriam. Away from Unter den Linden, you could still feel the miasma of communism lingering in the air all those years later. Even Dunkin Donuts at Alexanderplatz had an ancien regime amount of flies about its wares. At Karl Marx Park, Asian tourists were taking photos with the life-sized bronze sculptures of Marx and Engels; I gave them the finger. Berlin struck my a melancholy place, cursed with too much recent history. Odd pieces of land still remain empty of their former building, old tenements sport a mixture of Red Army and Wehrmacht bullet holes pockmarking their facades. But now, melancholy – if it existed outside of my mind – was a choice, not the destiny. The sun was shining and what was left of the wall was now a museum. The future is working, as I was reminded by this just-released Pew poll:
But the fight never ends. Socialism is a cuddly idea now, warmly embraced mostly by generations who can’t remember the original version. The new left hates the walls, and borders in general, but it’s still as detached from reality as ever, record grain harvests replaced with equally fictitious numbers in green new deals and other equalitarian schemes. Maybe by the time they will stuff it all up again, next generations will remember the day when the protesters started erecting their own walls. As Marx said, history repeats itself, first time as a tragedy, second time as a farce. Let’s hope he’s right, for once.