Looking at Berlin Wall's fall 20 years later

Friday, November 6, 2009 | 11:38 a.m. CST; updated 2:40 p.m. CST, Friday, November 20, 2009

Byron Scott, Professor Emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, was a symbolic event that was followed quite rapidly within a couple of years by the fall of the Soviet Union and 20th century communism. Our discussion tonight, with a bit of nostalgia as well as a bit of projection, is the approaching 20th anniversary of that event. What are your memories of that day and the time going into it?

Michael Meyer, director of communications for the secretary-general, United Nations, author of "The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall," New York:  I was there that night, at the east side of the wall at Checkpoint Charlie. I watched the famous press conference where the new party spokesman botched his announcement. He was supposed to announce that East Germans would be free to travel the next day, but instead, said it took effect immediately. People flooded the checkpoints, the border guards had to take decisions into their own hands, and they opened up the gates and history was written.


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Scott: What was going on in Baku at that point?

Kenan Aliyev, Azerbaijani service director, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Baku, Azerbaijan: Azerbaijan was still part of the Soviet Union, but the national independence movement was one of the strongest in the former Soviet Union. People were energized by Gorbachev’s calls for more freedom and openness, “Glasnost.” The Soviet government was in a difficult situation. If you give more freedom to people in a society, which never had freedom, that will show your demise and loss of power. I was attending endless rallies, gatherings and meetings demanding more independence. In the end, it came in 1991, but everyone was energized by the events in Eastern Europe and especially Germany.

Scott: In addition to a U2 concert at the Brandenburg Gate, what is happening to celebrate the 20th anniversary?

Marc Young, editor, The Local, Berlin, Germany: The actual festivities will happen on Monday; they are expecting 100,000 people at the Brandenburg Gate. The Germans do large parties quite well. Chancellor Angela Merkel will be there with some of the leaders from the time. They’re doing lots of lighthearted activities such as setting up life-sized domino stones that look like the wall. Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader from Poland, will be the first to push the wall over. The events that happened in Eastern Europe started long before 1989. This is the culmination of widespread media coverage for the past month, building up to this Monday.

Scott: In your book, you mention quite a few names like Walesa and make a good case for the role of individuals, as opposed to social movements, in the events of that year.

Meyer: The revolutions of ’89 sprang from many different quarters and forces. It is a dangerous mistake to mythologize them or take them too simply; for example that the people rose up and democracy bloomed. In Poland, Walesa precipitated the uprising that resulted in the declaration of martial law in the early ‘80s and the dark days that followed. His movement put so much force in motion. When 1989 came though, Solidarity was relatively quiet. It was the Communist Party chief who offered a round table negotiation with Solidarity leading to elections. Democracy came first, then revolution, because after the ballots were cast, Solidarity won and formed a government to the surprise of everybody, Solidarity included. In Hungary, solidarity was a synonym for a whole nation at odds with communism. A small number of Communist reformers took aim on the Berlin Wall and mounted a plot to bring it down. The leader of this was the Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth, who I would argue along with Walesa, should have the right to push over the first domino. Nemeth is the man who really made them fall in 1989.

Scott: What was going on in the Caucasus in the wake of this?

Aliyev: The Caucasus were drawn into conflict. We didn’t have a peaceful transition from being part of the Soviet Union to an independent state. There were internal conflicts in Georgia, and conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia, despite the fact that they were part of the Soviet Union. Everyone was looking towards Moscow to resolve these issues, but people realized that Moscow was providing weapons to both sides, fueling this conflict, trying to keep the Soviet Union together by “divide and rule.” In the end, all these republics became independent, in a similar way and at the same time, but the conflicts between these nations still remain. Moscow is still playing a central role.

Scott:  From the perspective of the U.N., have we come a ways in these 20 years that we can talk about positively?

Meyer: The end the Cold War, which the fall of the wall is the great symbol, ushered in our whole era of globalization. The world before was divided between blocs, a geopolitical standoff overshadowed by the specter of nuclear Armageddon. Instead of conflict, is a whole sphere of integration and collaboration. Instead of a world being defined by national security challenges, from the perspective of the U.N., are challenges that cannot be dealt with singularly and certainly not by military might: climate change, the global financial meltdown, the flu pandemic, extraordinary issues of poverty. Twenty years later, we are only waking up to the end of the Cold War and the issues that confront us in a more modern world.

Scott: Where are the Caucasus nations now and where are they going?

Aliyev: The Caucasus nations are in trouble. The fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t bring democracy to this region. Aside from Georgia, which had some democratic reforms and movement towards NATO and the European Union, Azerbaijan and Armenia are ruled by authoritarian regimes. Azerbaijan is a petro-state, which is actively involved in the oil business with the Western world, Russia, and Iran. At the same time, there is no institutional building of a democratic state. The country is ruled by basically the same political elite from 20 years ago, it is no better than the Communist Party, perhaps worse. The country is corrupt, completely absent of rule of law, and the oil money which people hoped would bring some benefits to them are instead going to Swiss banks. People are losing the belief in the values that they were struggling for.

Scott: What is today’s Berlin like? What is the mood in Germany?

Young: The initial euphoria is long gone. There has been a lot of disappointment, but at the same time, it is important to see what has been achieved and where Germany is. Germany is anchored at the heart of a peaceful and democratic Europe. Twenty years ago, it was a vastly different world.

Scott: A section of the Berlin Wall is in Fulton, Missouri, set up as a memorial where Winston Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain speech.

Meyer: Churchill’s famous words were: “an iron curtain descends across Europe.” But, Churchill also predicted that these regimes would collapse of their own weight. He said you need to contain this, perhaps, but you needn’t fight it because it would collapse of its own. Prophetic.

Scott: Give a prediction, perhaps twenty years from now, how will the Caucasus look?

Aliyev: I hope Azerbaijan will be without oil because it is a curse. It has corrupted the government, which has refused to share with the people and build a democratic future for this society. Unless they change their minds, which I doubt, this country will be less democratic, more closed and more oppressive towards its own people. It will be challenging for the West to build relations on an equal basis. This is a Muslim state with a growing influence of Islam, if things do not change, things will be much more difficult for Azerbaijan.

Scott: How about Germany?

Young: East Germany survived for 40 years and it will take another 20 before the legacy is totally reconciled. Right now, a lot of people feel there is still justice to be done for victims of the East Communist regime. It will be a matter of another generation moving on.

Scott: Perhaps the new call will not be “tear down that wall,” but, “turn off that pipeline.” 

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, Melissa Ulbricht, and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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