Germany: Memories of a Nation

Germany: Memories of a Nation

This week Neil MacGregor’s superb series for BBC Radio 4, Germany: Memories of a Nation, reaches its conclusion – fittingly timed to coincide with Germany’s Schicksalstag, or Fateful Day, the ninth of November. In our lifetime it’s the opening of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989 that we all remember. But, strangely, a succession of significant events in German history have occurred on 9 November. In 1938, in the Kristallnacht, synagogues and Jewish property were burned and destroyed on a large scale; in 1923 it was Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch, marking the early emergence of his Nazi Party on Germany’s political landscape; in Berlin on 9 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and two German republics were proclaimed – the social democratic one that was eventually known as the Weimar Republic, and Karl Liebknecht’s Free Socialist Republic; further back, in 1848, the year of revolutions, on 9 November Robert Blum, the democratic left liberal leader was executed by Austrian troops, leading to hopes for a united, democratic Germany being extinguished for another half century. Continue reading “Germany: Memories of a Nation”

Visiting Berlin on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Wall

Brandenburg Gate - 10th anniversary celebration clear-up

Clearing up at the Brandenburg Gate after the 10th anniversary celebration

Ten years ago today I flew into Berlin on the inaugural flight of Virgin’s budget route from Manchester, landing at Schonefeld Airport. I wanted to be in Berlin on the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and arrived just as they were clearing up after the previous night’s festivities. So today I thought I’d post a few photos I took on that visit, supplemented by one or two others. Continue reading “Visiting Berlin on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Wall”

9 November 1989: ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’

Though nothing will drive them away
We can be heroes just for one day
We can be us, just for one day

I can remember
Standing by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall

And the shame was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes just for one day
We can be heroes
We can be heroes just for one day

– Heroes, David Bowie

On 9 November 1989, three days before this iconic photograph was taken, the East German government – amid some confusion – announced that anyone wishing to visit the West would be granted a visa. Ecstatic crowds surged at the Berlin Wall and guards were left with no choice but to open the various gates and checkpoints. That night ended  forty years of division between East and West Berlin. I was born three months into the Berlin blockade and airlift; on the night of 9 November 1989 I watched as Newsnight broadcast the amazing scenes from Berlin, a five-year old daughter asleep upstairs, dreaming, perhaps, of a brave new world. Continue reading “9 November 1989: ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’”

A kiss seals Honecker’s fate

A kiss seals Honecker’s fate

Twenty years ago today, massive demonstrations in East Germany finally bore fruit when Erich Honecker was forced to step down as party leader. Tension had been building in East Germany for weeks. In August Hungary had removed its physical border defences with Austria, and in September more than 13,000 East German tourists in Hungary escaped to Austria.  This set began chain of events.  East Germans flooded the West German embassy in Budapest and refused to leave. This triggered  similar events in Czechoslovakia. The East German authorities allowed the East Germans in the Prague embassy  to leave for West Germany, providing that they used a train which crossed East Germany on the way. Continue reading “A kiss seals Honecker’s fate”

Plastic People

The Second Festival of the Second Culture, organised by the Plastic People of the Universe (most of whom are on the far right) in Bojanovice on 21 February 1976. Within a month, 27 of the musicians pictured here had been arrested.

An interesting feature in today’s Observer in which Ed Vulliamy tells the story of Plastic People and the part they played in the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia. A few extracts here from a long and detailed article:

Many rock musicians have preached revolution, although few can claim to have sparked one – but Brabenec, saxophonist and clarinettist for the Plastic People of the Universe, did. Indeed, of all the revolutions against communism that felled the Iron Curtain and transformed Europe 20 years ago, only one could claim rock’n’roll as its catalyst: that in Czechoslovakia, called the “Velvet Revolution”, partly because it was peaceful – the clenched fist wearing a velvet glove – but also because the band that unwittingly lit the fuse, the Plastic People, were heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground…

“We were not political,” says Josef Janicek, whose keyboard and synthesiser playing gave the Plastics a direct link to bands like Hawkwind and the early Pink Floyd. “But we insisted on playing a certain kind of music, dressing and performing in a certain way.” And in Prague in 1968 and 1969, if you wanted to tell your own story, and play your own music, you became political, whether you intended it or not, because the authorities deemed you a threat to their “official” culture…

“They feared us,” says Brabenec, “because it wasn’t an organisation we were part of, more like a circus of a few thousand people, and they could not manage us. They could lock students out of school, but what could they do to us? The worst part was in ’77, the never-ending interrogations, the constant battering, just making our daily lives hell. We would sometimes sit for two or three interrogations a day. They would carry on from three to 10 hours. They wanted to wear us down.”

In the wake of these events, Jirous wrote a manifesto entitled A Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival – an intentional reference to the 19th-century Czech nationalist romantic movement led by Dvorak, entwining music and underground politics. He wrote: “One of the highest aims of art has been the creation of unrest. The aim of the underground here in Bohemia is the creation of a second culture, a culture that will not be dependent on the official channels of communication, social recognition, and the hierarchy of values laid down by the establishment.”

At almost exactly the same time, another document – an open letter to the general secretary of the Czech Communist party, Gustav Husak – was published by the samizdat playwright, Vaclav Havel. Havel considered what he called “the hidden intentions of life” that cannot be stopped by neutralising the creative riptides that cut beneath society…

The outcome was, thanks to Havel’s seizure of the band’s cause, the celebrated Charter 77 of signatories demanding their freedom, which sowed the seeds for the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The trial of the musical underground, wrote Havel, “was something that aroused me, a challenge that was all the more urgent for being unintentional. It was the challenge of example”…

“Everyone understands,” wrote Havel, “that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on the most elementary and important thing, something that bound everyone together… The freedom to play rock music was understood as a human freedom and thus as essentially the same as the freedom to engage in philosophical and political reflection, the freedom to write, to express and defend the social and political interests of society.”…

Brabenec insists two decades later, as the world prepares to salute the heroes of 1989: “I hate it when people talk about that year as a ‘revolution’ in Czechoslovakia. A revolution is supposed to change things. But what has changed? I don’t consider myself any less subversive now than I was back then. I am no less a dissident in a society of shopping, shopping and shopping than I was in a society of socialism, socialism and socialism. It’s all still shit, only different shit. Communist party, Nokia mobile phone party – what’s the fucking difference? It doesn’t matter whether the system is communist, fascist or capitalist: the creative people are the creative people and the shits are the shits. The poets remain the poets, and the politicians are fucking politicians. So you see: the Plastic People are still the Plastic People.

1989: The Baltic Way

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Baltic Way, a peaceful political protest on 23 August 1989 in which two million people joined hands to form a human chain nearly 400 miles long across the three Baltic republics of the Soviet Union to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 which handed the Baltic states to the Soviet Union and destroyed their independence.  The chain connected the three Baltic capitals – Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn – and perhaps a quarter of the entire Baltic population joined it.

The Baltic Way was part of the larger struggle known as the ‘Singing Revolution’, a group of protests between 1987 and 1990, which helped regain independence for the Baltic states in August 1991. It got its name because, during many of the peaceful protests that took place during those years, protestors would gather in town squares to sing national songs that had been banned during Soviet rule.

In December 1989, the Congress of People’s Deputies accepted and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the report of a commission condemning the secret protocols of the 1939 Pact. In February 1990, the first free democratic elections to the Supreme Soviets took place in all three Baltic states and pro-independence candidates won majorities. On March 11, 1990, within six months of the Baltic Way, Lithuania became the first Soviet state to declare independence. The independence of all three Baltic states was recognized by most western countries by the end of 1991.

Footage of the human chain was this year inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, a list of 193 moments of global significance.

1989: the PanEuropean Picnic

Today marks the 20th anniversary of an event that symbolises the hopes of that European year of miracles, 1989 – the Pan-European Picnic at the Austro-Hungarian border.  “It was in Hungary that the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall,” said the former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. On Wednesday, Angela Merkel went to the Hungarian town of Sopron to thank the country for opening its border 20 years ago. That decision led to the fall of the Wall three months later.

After Hungary had begun dismantling its border installations on the Austrian side on May 2, 1989, the Pan-European Union, a European unity movement founded in 1922, organized the Pan-European Picnic at the Austro-Hungarian border near Sopron on August 19, 1989. The idea was to spread the notion of a common Europe without borders.

During the event, one of the frontier barriers was symbolically opened. About 600 GDR citizens who had traveled to Hungary availed themselves of this opportunity to cross the border into Austria unhindered and thus reach the West. The photo above shows two Hungarian frontier officials opening the barrier.

Originally the organisers thought the event would be a small-scale affair. But on 19 August, 1989 truly enormous crowds appeared at the site (according to contemporary estimates 15-20,000) and took part with enthusiasm in  pulling down a section of the Iron Curtain. Disguised as holidaymakers, hundreds of East Germans made their way to the town.  Several hundred East-Germans broke through the barrier and streamed into Austria. This unforeseen event made the Pan-European Picnic an event of world history; newspapers around the world covered the story.

Dietmar Poguntke was 26 years old at the time. He learnt about the protest in Budapest and came in the hope of making it across the border into Austria. “I crossed through this hole and there is this Austrian who says: “Welcome to Freedom”, holding a piece of barbed wire like a rose. I couldn’t believe it,” he says.

Bela Arpad was the border guard in charge. He had received a vaguely worded warning about the possibility of East German refugees arriving, but had no instructions as to how to deal with them. His decision led to the first mass exodus towards the West since the Wall went up. “What I saw on the other side was amazing. There were people who in their panic kept running further even though they were on Austrian land. There were people who just sat down on the other side of the border and just cried or laughed.. So there was an incredible range of emotions bursting out.”

By autumn 1989 there were about 60,000 GDR citizens in Hungary according to official estimates. Several thousand people were housed in temporary refugee camps. Although the mass border-breakthrough at the Pan-European Picnic was an isolated case, East-German citizens tried to get over the  border several hundred times in smaller groups or on their own – mostly with success.

By the end of the summer, thousands of East German ‘tourists’ were living in tents on the grounds of the West German embassy in Budapest and in several other locations around the city, including church yards and the site of a communist youth camp. After allowing some East Germans to leave for West Germany via Austria in August and then some more a few weeks later, Hungary finally decided to let all East Germans out from September 11, 1989.

Within two months, on Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall fell and Germany’s reunification was formalized in October 1990.

The place where the Iron Curtain first fell: Hungarian video 2009