First, a personal recollection. On the evening af November 9, 1989 I was – of all places you could be in Denmark – at Christiansborg Castle, the seat of the Danish Folketing. The meeting I attended had nothing to do with the events going on in Central and Eastern Europe but was about documenting a 1963 crisis agreement. Still, it was Christiansborg, it was in the middle of the political season and the place was completely devoid of rumours or news about what was happening in Berlin. So at around 10 pm I caught a bus and a commuter train home and decided to turn on the radio and listen to the midnight news on Danish Radio.
Obviously, November 9, 1989 is one of the major days in European history but the question is what significance the opening of the East German borders had in a larger perspective. Some would argue that November 9 was just a consequence of major events taking place elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, the fall of the Berlin Wall now stand as the major symbolic event in the dissolution of the Soviet empire.
The Palast der Republik, November 2004.
My take on this is that 1989 is closely linked with the decline and fall of the Soviet Union: None of the communist regimes in Eastern European would ever have been established without the direct intervention of the Soviet Union and they lived and died with the USSR. Less than ten years earlier, the USSR was still strong enough to stop political and economic liberalisation in Poland. In 1989 it was a case of controlling the collapse. Considering how messy the fall of empires can be, this was managed incredibly well by all parties. But essentially 1989 was the culmination of a process which had started some time during the late 1970s or early 1980s and the fall of the Berlin Wall was the symbolic culmination of 1989. The descent of Yugoslavia into civil war during the 1990s was the final act of the post-World War II era.
If we then look at the GDR it is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight that by November 1989 the SED regime was a dead man walking. The final collapse of the communist regime in Poland earlier that year was the mortal blow to the East Bloc that we had known for most of the post-war era. At the end of October it was also obvious that the GDR government was unable to control the wave of emigration from the country – this also had to do with decisions made by the Hungarian and Czechoslovak governments who had given up defending the East Bloc. The historical significance of 1989 was that in the end the SED surrendered to popular pressure without a fight and that the GDR managed a peaceful transition from a communist regime and command economy to a liberal democratic regime and market economy.
Going back 25 years we should also remember that the position of Germany (FRG) in the international system was a cause for major concern for a number of actors. Would a united Germany be too big for the existing European institutions? Would Germany – by its own will or pushed by the Soviet Union – pull out of existing military and economic treaties and opt for a status as an independent great power? These concerns initially led the UK and France to oppose any ideas of a German unification and it took a massive diplomatic effort by US President George H.W. Bush and the West German government led by Helmut Kohl and Hans Dietrich Genscher to convince France, the UK and the Soviet Union that a solution which made the FRG a fully sovereign country, integrated the GDR into the FRG and which kept the FRG integrated in the EC (now the EU) and NATO was indeed viable. Mikhail Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 but George HW Bush also deserves a place in the history books.
All of this doesn’t mean that the process and its outcomes were flawless. The East German Länder would probably have been better off with a settlement which saw two DDR-Mark exchanged to one D-Mark instead of the 1:1 exchange agreed in the treaty on the currency union but the short-term symbolism would have been too obvious. The Kohl government generally underestimated the state of the East German economy and promised too much too soon. The lack of an elite familiar with the workings of liberal democracy and market economy also haunted the Eastern Länder. Nobody in 1989, though, would have expected the Federal Republic to have both a President and a Chancellor coming out of the former GDR by 2014.
The future Berliner Stadtschloss, building site. March 2014.