Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down is a reminder of the importance of a strong Europe

Germany's democratic transformation can't be taken for granted and needs to be protected, says Alban Maginness

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

Berlin, like Belfast, was a divided city for decades. Whereas we divided Belfast ourselves, through sectarian hate and conflict, Berlin's division was imposed upon it by outsiders. Its division was agreed among the victorious Allies, who decided to maintain a presence in the city and to give each great power a sector.

As a result, the city became divided into East and West Berlin. The Western Allies - the USA, Britain and France - exercised nominal control in West Berlin and the Soviet-backed communists did so in East Berlin.

West Berlin enjoyed the remarkable economic recovery of West Germany and became a magnet for people throughout Germany.

So successful was the revitalised West German economy in the 1950s that it drew large numbers of people from East Germany (officially entitled the German Democratic Republic).

That, in turn, put a huge strain on the GDR, as it continued to lose many of its citizens to the West, as they could freely migrate in their thousands to West Germany through Berlin.

West Berlin, it should be remembered, was like a Western outpost, deep in the heartland of East Germany.

The communist East, with all its political oppression and economic depression, was further undermined by the flight of so many of its citizens to the West.

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In order to halt this constant outflow of people, the East German communist government, in 1961, unilaterally decided to close all links with West Berlin and to construct a physical wall across the city to keep its own citizens from crossing over.

This meant building miles of wall across and around the city and closing streets and the underground railway that still connected the two sides of the city.

But, in the summer of 1989, East Germans flooded out of the GDR through Hungary, which had opened its borders with Austria.

Preceding that extraordinary exodus, there was a series of peaceful mass demonstrations within East Germany, demanding reforms and freedom from communist rule.

Eventually, on November 9, 1989, in response to the massive strength and determination of its own angry citizens, an overwhelmed East German government caved in and lifted travel restrictions between East and West Germany, including, crucially, within Berlin itself.

In a couple of hours, crowds of determined people gathered at the wall, demanding to be let through from East to West Berlin.

The East German border guards, swamped by the vast size of the crowds, simply opened the wall and let the people walk through to the West. In three days, it was estimated that a massive three million people crossed over from East to West.

Within about a year after the wall had fallen, the German Democratic Republic itself had been demolished and Germany was reunited as a federal state - despite, it must be said, opposition from an impotent USSR and Britain's then-Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The fall of the wall was an exciting and unexpected political event three decades ago. Joyfully, it surprised the whole world that ordinary people, through peaceful protest, could overthrow the tyranny of the powerful Soviet communist system and allow for the establishment of democracy throughout Eastern Europe.

The fall was unplanned, being a peaceful, spontaneous outburst of alienated citizens against an oppressive communist regime.

It was not just symbolic of the fall of Soviet-style communism, but was, in itself, an agent of change, bringing down the Iron Curtain and reshaping Eastern Europe.

Such priceless gains should be thoughtfully remembered and carefully taught to a younger generation of people in Europe, who may be ignorant of, or indifferent to, that important history.

Nor should we be complacent when, today, we see extremist politicians try to undermine those precious gains.

It is too easy and, ultimately, too dangerous to take democratic norms for granted.

One of those who witnessed the many thousands of people that breached the wall on that eventful night in November 1989 was a woman called Angela Merkel. She understood that fateful night had transformed everything.

Subsequently, Angela Merkel became more deeply involved in politics and eventually became Chancellor of a united Germany, putting her distinctive stamp on contemporary German and European politics.

Speaking about that dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall, at its official 30th anniversary in Berlin, she warned: "The values upon which Europe was founded are not self-evident, but must always be lived out and defended anew."

She innately understands that the democratic transformation that occurred in Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe some 30 years ago is not something that can be taken for granted, but must be protected and enhanced.

Therefore, we should learn from that East German woman, Angela Merkel, who, through her personal experience as a citizen of East Germany, anxiously realises the need for a strong, democratic Europe.

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