? bas les barricades!

Claudia and Scott have already noted that this day marks the breach of the Berlin Wall (and, as Claudia notes, a lot of other important events in German history). Let me chime in with my felicitations to the German people, and a couple of thoughts.

In 1989, the German Democratic Republic saw a revolution. The citizens of a state that claimed to be run for and in the name of the People took to the streets to remind their government that ‘We are the People!’ At first the state responded in the usual way (truncheons to the head, etc.) But in the end it surrendered, and down came the wall. The breaching of the wall is surely one of the great icons of revolution, worthy to stand next to the storming of the Bastille, the ‘shot heard round the world’, the arrival of Willem van Oranje and subsequent flight of James Stewart.

Like any revolution, it had its precursors. Other Soviet bloc nations were up to the same thing in those days, and the Poles in particular deserve a lot of credit for being first off the blocks.

Like any revolution, its partisans were a hodgepodge. The masses in the streets included democratic socialists, Lutheran pastors, even conservatives. And when the wall fell, lots of the people crossing for the first time into the West wanted nothing more than a bit of what their Western cousins enjoyed — material prosperity to be sure, but even more importantly, the freedom to go where they wanted without a wall in their way. As years went by, many of these groups would find themselves opposing each other. But in that moment they were one; they were the People.

Like any revolution, it was to some extent a revolution betrayed. Seduced by Helmut Kohl’s baseless promises of ‘blossoming landscapes’ and an irresponsible DM/Ostmark exchange rate that shocked the Bundesbank to its core, easterners allowed themselves to be used by the CDU for partisan political gain. I have less than no time for Oskar Lafontaine. But when he said that unification would be painful, expensive, and take a long time, he was right. It’s hardly fair to blame the Easterners for letting themselves be taken in by Kohl’s blandishments; it’s hardly unfair to blame him for taking them in.

And, like any revolution, it has not quite worked out as planned. Politically, yes, Germany is now a unified federal state. Despite the willingness of some Easterners to give their votes to the PDS (or worse), and despite the resentful mutterings of some Westerners about wanting the wall back, German unity is a done deal and there is no going back. But only a fool can fail to acknowledge that there is still a lot of going forward that needs to be done.

Every revolution, as I say, has its problems. But it’s fitting today to turn our attention, for a spell, away from the problems of German unification and remember that glorious moment 15 years ago when the people of the GDR took power back from their state and punched a hole through the wall built to keep them in.

3 thoughts on “? bas les barricades!

  1. I still have some small pieces of The Wall that I chiseled off at Checkpoint Charlie in 1990!

    >but even more importantly, the freedom to go
    >where they wanted without a wall in their way.

    Initially, sure. But border-crosser quote I remember best is ” I want Marlboros, a Video tape recorder, and a Golf GTI”.

    Oskar Lafontaine was right, yet I’m sure he would have proclaimed blossoming landscapes had Kohl pronounced the difficulties. He’s just one of the people who declare their opposition first, then ask what the issue is.

  2. Great post, thank you!

    It still gives me goosebumps to think back to those days. People hugging strangers in the streets, everybody was so full of happiness, so full of hope.

    I grew up at the border and my hometown was flooded with East Germans for months. Shops were sold out, a sight never seen before. My parents took in strangers to stay overnight. The line for the welcome money snaked down the main street and almost out of town (I come from a small town).

    Visiting East Germany in those days, Westerners got free Bratwurst at the little snack stands along the road. It was… I can’t describe it. A feeling of elation, for weeks and months. Like being in love. It was great.

    We’ll get the job done. One day.

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