25 years ago today the Berlin Wall fell, and the process of the reunification of Germany and Europe began. It’s a good time to look back at what happened, and what it meant for the continent. And with tensions high between the West and Russia, is the time of division really over?
The fall of the wall on the 9th of November was the culmination of a month of mass protests and tension, which some see as starting off in Leipzig. Despite anti-religious pressure by the East German government, prayer meetings had been held in the St. Nicholas Church for years, which eventually became a gathering place for all types of people, from Christians to atheists. Following arrests and threats by the government, the pastor of the church decided to still go ahead with a meeting on the 9th of October, which turned into a 70 000 strong peaceful demonstration against the regime. Despite pressure from the central government, local police decided not to intervene. A massacre was averted, and images of the protests electrified East Germany. Other mass protests followed, and pressure on the government grew.
Despite this growing tension, the actual spark for the fall of the wall was a mistake. At a 9th of November press conference to announce a decision to allow East Germans to leave the country freely for the first time, an official accidently said that the decision was effective immediately. This wasn’t the case, and meant that the border guards had no time to prepare. He then finished the conference by casually announcing that the border between East and West Berlin was also open. The stunned East Berliners turned up at the crossing through the wall in their thousands. While at first the guards tried to hold them back, eventually they gave up. In scenes of pure joy, Berliners crossed the border freely for the first time in decades. The events of the 9th of November quickly led to the complete breakdown of the wall, and the reunification of Germany.
While most Europeans were overjoyed at the beginning of the end for the division of their continent, their leaders were less happy. Thatcher and Mitterrand of Britain and France were the most edgy, concerned that a reunified Germany would once again come to dominate Europe. The Italian PM even said “I love Germany so much that I prefer to see two of them!” It might seem crazy now, but the idea of one Germany seems to have immediately revived memories of the First and Second World Wars. To the leaders of that era though, this was a fair concern. Many of them had grown up during the Second World War, and the reunification of Germany did deeply change Europe. Germany was also seen as a supporter of greater unification in Europe, something the UK was and is afraid of.
However, in the end Germany has proved to be a force for stability in Europe. While pushing for greater EU unification like the UK feared, they have been the economic motor of Europe, and now support much of Southern Europe – not that those countries are happy about the conditions of this support. Germany has stayed in NATO, but remains a country that is unsure about nationalist feelings and using military power. The world cup in 2006 was the first time that many Germans felt proud about waving the German flag. Despite the economic issues that remain in the reintegration of East Germany, it has been a great success story for Germany and Europe.
One party to this though is still not happy – Russia. Having suffered incredibly due to Germany in the 20th century, their leaders were not eager at all to see a strong Germany joining the West. While agreements were made about NATO forces being posted in East Germany, NATO doesn’t seem to have taken these too seriously. And while Russia got the impression from discussions on the future of Europe that NATO would not expand too far east, that is exactly what happened – which is one aspect of the crisis in Ukraine today.
While Europe may not seem to be so clearly divided between West and East anymore, the boundary has simply shifted East. It now falls along the borders of Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, and Russia is determined to keep it there. This week more convoys of unmarked military vehicles crossed into Donetsk from Russia, more support to the separatists, and another sign that Putin will not allow Ukraine to refocus to the West. While it might seem that this is a losing battle, the people of Donetsk and Luhansk will still pay the price.