On a balmy July evening in a field by a cycle track outside East Berlin, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band played to a heaving crowd of 300,000. After thumping out his classics to the adoring masses, he delivered in rehearsed German, “I’m not here for any government. I’ve come to play rock and roll for you.” Unwittingly he was fanning the flames of revolution; it was the sort of moment that Bono could only dream of. Just over a year later the Berlin Wall tumbled down in a cloud of peaceful popular protest. It is tempting to picture Bruce watching the news on 9th November 1989 with a knowing smile and smug chuckle. That was me.
Tempting as it is to get swept away by the theory that the Berlin Wall was brought down by rock and roll; let us remember that it was created in 1963 by a cunning move in the chess-like stand off of the Cold War and it eventually crumbled under the noses of the two old foes. However by 1989 one was bruised, bloody and broke while the other carried a smug swagger that only recently has relapsed into more of a shuffle.
On Christmas day ten years before the Soviet Union’s Red Army had stormed into Afghanistan fearful for their own security in the face of an Islamist government in Kabul. Amid the crocodile tears and fury of Olympic protests, America couldn’t have hoped for a better Christmas present. For the next ten years Stinger missiles and CIA-led training were delivered in huge quantities to the Mujahedeen led by wealthy theocrats such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Red Army was dying a death of one thousand cuts in a mirror reversal of the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile in Moscow decades of a nuclear arms and space race coupled with pulling the strings of puppet governments around the globe had bled the coffers dry. What had been the strongest economy on the planet throughout the Great Depression was coughing and spluttering. Ronald Reagan’s brilliantly foolhardy brainchild of the Star Wars missile defence system bluff certainly cost the Kremlin a fortune in both rubles and prestige. But what did this have to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall?
During sporadic revolutions behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary each Soviet Premier since Stalin was able to flex their muscles by sending in tanks and troops to quell disturbances. But in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and began a period of economic, social and political reform. Unlike in the intense period of fervour after Stalin’s death in 1953, the push for freedom in Eastern Europe spread slowly almost with a patient knowledge of inevitability. This was only spurred on by Reagan’s inspiring call for the Soviet Premier to ‘tear down this wall!’
Suddenly on 19th August 1989 Hungary dismantled it’s border defences with Austria. These had been erected in 1955 to stop thousands upon thousands of refugees fleeing west for freedom. After over thirty years the barbed wire had begun to rust. The fuse had been lit. Within weeks 13,000 East Germans had defected to the west. However the old guard would not give up without a fight. The Hungarian government closed the border so the East Germans occupied the West German embassy demanding travel visas. Similar protests began in the Prague embassy. Word spread and weekly Christian demonstrations began on Monday evenings in Leipzig which culminated in early November with half a million people gathering in East Berlin. The tired and out-dated East German leader Honeker permitted some to go west in secret trains and stripped them of their citizenship while secretly ordering a shoot to kill policy for the military during future protests. His days were clearly numbered and the Kremlin sanctioned his fall from grace.
The more liberal Egon Krenz was now the leader of East Germany. Under the intense pressure of popular reform, he secretly agreed to open the wall for the first time in 26 years. However this was to be a slow and controlled process. Nobody told the party boss in East Berlin who held a clumsy press conference in which he told reporters that the gates would open immediately, “As far as I know.”
Berliners either side of the wall flocked to the old gates in the wall. Frantic phone calls were made to Moscow for instruction and many expected troops to storm the streets. But Gorbachev was not cut from the same cloth as Kruschev or Brezhnev and refused to stand in the way of the people. Families and friends were reunited after years living so close but so far from one another. The physical dismantling of the wall began the next day and continued for months by those eager to symbolically destroy the great division of their city or simply to take a souvenir from the ‘Anti-fascist protection rampart’ as it was originally known.
Revolutions soon followed across Eastern Europe and the shackles of an old and frail institution were thrown off just as they had been 200 years earlier in France. Those in the White House were euphoric yet possibly a little disappointed that after all of their graft throughout the Cold War, Berliners decided their own fate without any direct help or guidance from Washington.
Within two years the once powerful Soviet Union fell apart and the great experiment of European communism crumbled. Twenty five years on however an elderly Mr Gorbachev has warned of a new Cold War developing as a resurgent Russia flexes it’s muscles over the rusty remains of the Iron Curtain. One thing can be stated for certain though; Berliners will not allow their city to again be used a pawn in a chess match of superpowers.