A fragment of the Berlin Wall in Los Angeles. There it was repainted by artists. Bild: Schapowalow
While my country is about to build new walls, Germany looks back on the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago. But some things remain unsaid.
The debate in these pages about the causes of the Mauerfall recently has reminded me of a conversation in 1971 in which US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger supposedly asked Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai his view of the impact of the French Revolution. Zhou reportedly responded that it was “too soon to know.” Although Kissinger’s translator has since corrected the record and pointed out that they were in fact discussing the 1968 demonstrations in France and not the Revolution, the sentiment about needing time to assess historical events still holds.
From the perspective of a historian and a non-German, it is good to see a lively debate in Germany about the causes and results of the Peaceful Revolution and the Mauerfall 30 years ago. After all, Germans and others have previously argued about the causes of the First and Second World Wars and the Holocaust. Discussing the dramatic events of the fall of 1989 is a much nicer topic, although that is also why so many people want to take credit for the peaceful toppling of the Wall, a desire Thomas Brussig used to great effect in 1995 in his satirical and award-winning novel Helden wie wir.
Finally a positive founding myth
As with all significant moments in history, multiple factors led to the toppling of the Wall: Bürgerrechtler and other East German citizens calling for change whether by staying and taking to the streets or by leaving the country, Gorbachev’s reforms, Poland’s Solidarity, the opening of Hungary’s border with Austria, the weak East German economy, and the unwillingness of most of those in power in the GDR (including Harald Jäger in charge of the Bornholmer Strasse Checkpoint on the night of 9 November 1989) to hold onto their power by force. It is not just former East Germans and Zeitzeugen who have been involved in efforts to define and extract meaning from what happened in 1989; politicians have been as well and still are. The belated and controversial creation of a government commission to formulate plans for the 30th anniversaries of the opening of the Wall in 2019 and the unification of Germany in 2020 is one example of this.
All nations and national leaders look to aspects of their country’s past to hold up as models for the present and to establish a sense of national identity. Anniversaries of significant historical events are particularly useful in this regard, but they come with risks. The effort to unite people around one master narrative (Meistererzählung) of the past can provoke counternarratives.
Gaps in the master narrative
I would argue that ten years ago with the 20th anniversary of the toppling of the Wall in 2009, German leaders adopted a Meistererzählung: East Germans (both the Bürgerrechtler and the many others who took part in large public protests) carried out the first successful democratic revolution in German history, and Germans should celebrate this and be proud of the heroes of 1989-90. By taking to the streets and peacefully demanding change, the citizens brought down the Berlin Wall and the communist regime behind it, a process which culminated in the reunification of a democratic Germany. In essence, this has become the founding myth of (re-) united Germany, one that puts Germany in the community of nations with democratic revolutions as their founding moments, a community Germany has long wanted to be part of. It is the newer, positive counterpart to the Holocaust, which Aleida Assmann has called the negative founding myth of reunited Germany.
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