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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Saturday 26 December 2009, by Jolly M. Kaul


The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961, was a concrete barrier which completely enclosed the city of West Berlin that thus became an enclave deep inside the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Although there had been severe restrictions on emigration to the West even before the Wall was erected—since there was a separate and much longer Inner German Border (IGB) separating East Germany from the West—a large number of East Germans, estimated around three-and-a-half million, had been able to cross over by just moving into West Berlin and from there to West Germany and other West European countries.

The Wall stopped all such emigration. Attempts made to illegally cross over the Wall or under it, through a tunnel, were dealt with severely and an estimated 200 persons were shot during the period the Wall was in existence, while making the attempt. GDR officially called it the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall”; the city of West Berlin, not surprisingly, referred to it as the “Wall of Shame”, a term coined by Willy Brandt.

Even though the justification for the Wall was “protection from the fascists (read West Germany and other Western countries in Europe)”, it is interesting to note that as early as in 1956 the Soviet Ambassador to East Germany had observed: “The presence in Berlin of an open and essentially uncontrolled border between the socialist and capitalist worlds unwittingly prompts the population to make a comparison between both parts of the city, which unfortunately does not always turn out in favour of the (German) Democratic Berlin.” This clearly indicates what the Soviet and the East German regime really feared: the comparison between the two parts of the city. It was the vast and ever-growing difference between the lifestyles and the living conditions of the people of the two parts, which motivated so many to attempt migration even at the cost of their lives.

As conditions in the East worsened and the gap between the Eastern part of Berlin and the Western continued to increase the urge of East Germans to flee to the West, when Hungary opened its borders to Austria, thousands crossed over through that country to Austria and thence to West Germany. Later, when the rush increased and thousands more tried to use this route, Hungary changed its policy and prevented them from doing so. However, a similar attempt was made through Czechoslavakia. Meanwhile, within East Germany, protest demonstrations began to take place, urging the government to open the borders. In October 1989, Erich Honecker, who had predicted in January that year that the “Wall” would stand “for hundred years more”, was forced to resign. His successor, Egon Krenz, decided to allow refugees to exit directly through crossing-points between East Germany and West Germany, including West Berlin. The new regulations regarding this were to take effect later but the spokesman of the party, who had not been briefed properly, when asked at a press conference on November 9 when the regulations would come into effect, said: “As far as I know, effective immediately.” West German television gleefully announced: “Ninth November is a historic day. East Germany has announced its borders are open to everyone.” November 9th is thus regarded as the day of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago not only changed the geography of Europe, it marked the beginning of a new chapter in modern history. Its consequences on the politics and economy of Europe were far-reaching and its repercussions are being felt even today. While it marked the end of the Cold War to the great relief of peace loving people all over, it also led to the emergence of a unipolar world that is again posing a threat to the peace of the world.

Even a few months before the event no one would have imagined that the Wall, backed up as it was by the mighty Soviet Union, would crumble so soon and so quickly. The Brezhnev Doctrine (although couched in terms that sounded ideologically correct and spelt out in a speech at the Fifth Congress of the Polish United Workers Party in November 1968 in the following words: “when forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned but a common problem of all socialist countries”) was used to retrospectively justify the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the invasion of Hungary in 1956.

The Doctrine had made it clear that any country within the Warsaw Pact that attempted to opt out would invite Soviet intervention. On the strength of this policy, Soviet intervention might have been expected in Germany in 1989 too. Earlier that year, however, Mikhail Gorbachev by refusing to use military force in Poland when Solidarity defeated the Communists in an election in Poland, had in effect repudiated that policy. To appreciate what led to the fall of the Berlin Wall it is, therefore, necessary to turn to developments in the Soviet Union and the almost U-turn in policies initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev.


With the end of World War II, two opposing blocs emerged, popularly referred to as the capitalist and the socialist blocs. Even before the hot war was completely over, a fierce cold war had developed between the two blocs—one led by the United States of America and the other by the Soviet Union. By the early fifties, the Soviet bloc extended over a vast area from Leipzig in East Germany in the West to Vladivostok in the East. However, even though referred to as the socialist bloc was it really one or was it a euphemism to cover what it really was—the Soviet Empire?

To answer that question one needs to go into how it came into being.

The first step was taken as early as in August 1939 when a 10-year non-aggression pact was signed by Molotov, on the one hand, representing the Soviet Government, and Ribbentrop, on the other, representing the Nazi German Government. Among its provisions were: consultation, arbitration if either party disagreed, neutrality if either went to war against a third power and also the provision not to enter into any group that was “directly or indirectly aimed at the other”. It was after this that Hitler, assured of the safety of his rear, attacked Poland, marking the beginning of World War II.

In addition, there was also a secret protocol to the pact revealed only after Germany’s defeat according to which the states of Northern and Eastern Europe were divided into German and Soviet spheres of influence. In the North, Finland, Estonia and Latvia were assigned to the Soviet sphere; Poland was to be partitioned between the two. Part of Finland was annexed by the Soviet Union followed by the annexation of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Northern Romania.

The existence of the secret protocol was vehemently denied by successive Soviet governments even though a copy from the German records had fallen into the hands of the British Government after the defeat of Germany and had been widely publicised in the Western media. It was only after massive demonstrations, referred to as the Baltic Way demonstrations, in August 1989, when two million people created a human chain on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the pact that the policy of denial changed. Gorbachev appointed a commission headed by Yakovlev to investigate that revealed the provisions of the secret protocols to the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies. The Congress passed a declaration admitting the existence of the secret protocols and condemning them.

The story of how Czechoslavakia and some of the other countries of the bloc were, by devious methods, made part of the bloc has often been told and needs no repeating. That communist regimes were foisted on them became absolutely plain when the Hungarian revolt of 1956 was crushed with the help of Soviet tanks. In Czechoslavakia too, as many as 600,000 Soviet troops were used in 1968 to crush the government established by Dubcek, who had tried to build socialism with a human face, even though his government had clearly stated that it was not planning to quit the Warsaw Pact.

Even more significant were the events in Poland that really marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire. As early as in 1980, the workers of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, under the leadership of Lech Walesa, formed an independent trade union around which was established Solidarity, a broad social platform, ranging from the independent Left to the Catholic Church. For the realisation of their goals they advocated a policy of non-violent action. In September 1981, Solidarity’s first national Congress elected Lech Walesa as its President and adopted a republican programme for the establishment of a “Self-governing Republic”.

The government attempted to destroy the trade union but despite years of repression had to start negotiations. Following the talks elections were held which resulted in the formation of a Solidarity-led coalition government. Unlike what had taken place in Hungary and Czechoslavakia earlier, there was no Soviet intervention. The inefficacy of the Brezhnev Doctrine had been proved and Gorbachev realised that military action would only flame the fires of revolt in all parts of the Soviet Empire, which were clearly seething with resentment. In fact, the revolt had already started and, as shown earlier, demonstrations in Berlin and Leipzig to bring down the Berlin Wall forced the government to open the borders.

Exactly two hundred years after the fall of the Bastille in 1789, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ushered in a new revolution. Some perhaps would insist on calling it a counter-revolution but then how would they reconcile that view with the fact that the movement was led by the working class of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland?

The author, an erstwhile Communist leader who was once the Secretary of the undivided CPI’s Calcutta District Committee, quit the party just before its formal split in the aftermath of the 1962 Chinese aggression.

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