Monday, November 09, 2009

It was Twenty Years Ago Today, David Hasselhoff Told His Band to Play...

Okay, so a riff on Sgt. Peppers segueing into the Fall of the Berlin Wall doesn't work so well...

November 9th. It was indeed 20 years ago, this day when the East German government made the announcement that they would be easing travel restrictions between East and West. Try to remember, but after 1945 when the Allies crushed Hitler's evil we had divided control of Germany into four parts: American, British, French, and Russian (the Poles should have been included but thanks to Stalin they got squat, actually worse than squat over the next 40 years). By 1947 it became clear Stalin and the Soviets weren't going to honor agreements about freeing Eastern Europe and the dividing lines formed in Germany. In 1948, the Berlin Blockade and the subsequent Airlift essentially solidified West Germany and East Germany. Well into the early 1960s, West Berlin was like a funnel out of the Soviet-controlled Eastern Block, thousands of people fleeing the oppression, but outside of military invasion there was little the Soviets could do.

So they built a Wall. They said it was to keep us out of Eastern Europe but in truth it was to keep the rest of their people in. And ironically the Berlin Wall helped keep the peace, although it came at the cost of tens of people dying while trying to cross over (and under, and around) it.

For 20-plus years the Wall stood. When I was born in 1970 the Wall was 9 years old and already covered on the Western side with legal graffiti. There had also been numerous escape attempts across it, even with the East German guards ordered to shoot. By the 1980s, the we'd gotten used to the Wall. Even as Reagan became the first President to openly call on the Soviet leadership to "Tear Down This Wall," it seemed like a permanent feature on the political landscape.

But by the 1980s, the Soviets were flailing. As utopian ideals Communism and Socialism looked nice on paper, but in real-world application those -isms fell apart real effing quick. The paradoxes of one-party rule (a 'pure' party is still corrupted from within by greed, paranoia, obsession with bureaucratic power and calcification) was finally taking its toll. The Soviet leader of the day, Gorbachev, was doing what he could to 'open up' the Soviet system, to bring about market reforms and also freedom of thought reforms. But in truth the system - calcified during the 1970s during the Breshnev years - was dying...

The Polish Solidarity movement had, from the 1980s on, given the Eastern European nations the tools needed to begin causing rifts within the control structure of the Soviet hegemone. By 1989, Gorbachev tried giving the satellite states more local autonomy, perhaps as part of a process of 'demilitarizing' the East so he could cut back on Soviet military expenses, or on the bureaucracy consuming so many resources. For whatever reason, the Russian Soviets would no longer directly intervene in their puppet regimes the way they did in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Domino Effect quickly took action. Poland quickly legalized the Solidarity party by April 1989. Hungary began tearing down their border fence with Austria by May, and by October, Hungarian Communists changed labels to Socialists (as a way of presenting themselves as 'less evil'). And with East Germany... well, with that Hungary/Austria border now open, thousands began fleeing into the West through Hungary, forcing the East German government to begin restricting their peoples' travels to other Eastern states. By October, the issue had come to a boiling point, with refugees camped out in West German embassies in Prague.

So, by November 9th, the East German government relented, deciding to allow some (not open) movement between East and West Germany. Especially at checkpoints along the Berlin Wall.

But, in football parlance, the East Germans proceeded to muff the snap, the punt, the punt recovery and even the whole fourth quarter offense.

The announcement came quick and unexpected. The government's intent was to have their travel program begin the next day, when they would be prepared for the overflow. However, their spokesman didn't get clear instructions on that, and when asked for when the program would start, he assumed it was immediate.

The media, mostly the West German media (which the Eastern Block could still see and hear), jumped on this as meaning the East German borders were 'open to everyone'.

Checkpoints were quickly swamped with mobs chanting for their freedom. The guards were completely unprepared. After an hour or three of frantic phone calls where no one wanted the horrible responsbility of using lethal force, the guards relented and let people pass even without papers or procedure.

It was akin to opening the floodgates for both sides. The biggest party in human history just began as East and West Berliners joined up at the Wall to hug, dance, drink, dance, drink, and drink some more. This was at the early beginnings of global cable news: CNN began showing nonstop images of Germans getting up on the Wall itself to celebrate. Pickaxes and shovels suddenly appeared as people began hacking away at the symbol of the Iron Curtain.

And oh yeah, David Hasselhoff played at the remains of the Berlin Wall on New Years' Eve. By then nearly every Eastern European nation once over Soviet rule had fallen (Czechslovakia by peaceful means, Romania by violent overthrow, and the Balkan states beginning their rumblings to break free of the Soviet Union itself) and the Cold War nearly done (in two years the Soviet Union would suffer a failed coup against Gorbachev and that would be that).

And now, it's twenty years later, celebrations afoot across Germany and in some respects around the world. For a good while you couldn't imagine the Wall gone. Now, you can't imagine a Wall had ever gone up. Except for the memorials for those who died trying to cross it...

Oh, and I'm pretty sure the Hoff will show up and lip-sync some more. :)

1 comment:

Chuck said...

Thanks, there has not been enough celebration and remembering of this important event.