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FALL OF WALL SAW birth of new europe

AT FIRST there was incredulity. It soon gave way to wild jubilation and tears of unbridled, wholly unexpected joy. The fall of the Berlin Wall, 25 years ago next Sunday, changed our world: it ended the Cold War and it remains the most seismic political event in Europe since the Second World War.

It fell just a few minutes short of midnight on 9 November 1989. At the Bornholmer Strasse crossing point, East Germany's border guards faced a huge and increasingly angry 20,000-strong crowd of East Berliners chanting, "Open the gate." The guards feared for their lives.

After trying to contact his superior, but getting no response, the officer in charge finally succumbed and ordered that the barriers be flung open. "We're opening the floodgates now," he announced. A human tide of East Berliners poured into West Berlin.

Within the hour, all seven of the wall's crossing points had been thrown open and a giant party was in full swing on the streets of West Berlin. The collapse of Communism in Europe had begun.

The wall was both a monster and, at the same time, Communism's worst advertisement from the outset. It was a signal that East German socialism had failed. Before it was put up in the early hours of 13 August 1961, more than 3.5 million East Germans had voted with their feet and left for West Germany. That summer, East Germany did not even have enough farm labourers to bring in the harvest.

Many argue that the regime had to build the wall; its only other option would have been to admit to its own moral, political and economic bankruptcy and resign. That was something the Kremlin was anxious to prevent at all costs.

PRECARIOUS

Western leaders grudgingly accepted it, too: 1961 was the height of the Cold War. The wall stabilised a precarious situation in Europe and kept at bay the prospect of a third world war.

It began as barbed wire; then came breeze blocks and, subsequently, a 13ft-high concrete barrier topped with a round pipe to make scaling it difficult. It was manned round the clock by Kalashnikov-toting guards.

It encircled West Berlin, while its ugly sister - East Germany's heavily fortified Iron Curtain border - separated the Communist state from capitalist West Germany.

The wall bought Cold War stability at a ghastly human price. It is estimated that 718 people died either at the wall or at the inner German border, trying to escape to the West.

Hundreds were shot dead; others suffered horrible injuries from shrapnel-spraying automatic firing devices that lined the border.

The last person to die at the wall was the 21-year-old East German Chris Gueffroy. He was shot through the heart by a border guard's bullet as he tried to escape to West Berlin on 5 February 1989 - only nine months before the wall disappeared into history.

The fall of the wall reunited Germans and their families, but it did so at a price. Many East Germans still see their country's subsequent reunification in 1990 both as a Western takeover and as an example of capitalism at its worst. Tens of thousands lost their jobs as Communist state collectives were disbanded.

Two million East Germans have emigrated to the West since reunification, the vast majority in search of jobs (a migration that came to a halt only last year, when the numbers returning equalled those leaving) - resulting in the demolition of tens of thousands of empty homes in the East.

And economic data released this year shows that the East still has a lot of catching up to do. Its GDP still lags some 44pc behind that of the West, although a slow recovery is under way.

But among East Germans who experienced the Berlin Wall, there are very few who would want it back.

Most cherish the democracy they have won and take pride in the fact that their current Chancellor is not only an Easterner like them but also one of Germany's most popular leaders ever. For a whole new generation, the wall is history.

Hans-Peter Spitzner - whose story as the last East German to flee across the wall can be read overleaf - maintains that today's reunited Germany is "the best Germany the Germans have ever had".

Few would disagree.

hnews@herald.ie


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