One of the great ironies of the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago is that the East German protest leaders who led the uprising did not want unification with West Germany.
It’s important on this anniversary to distinguish between two entirely different events: first, the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 9, 1989; and then German unification, on October 3, 1990. Americans often conflate the two into one process. But for Germans and those who were there, it’s a much more complicated story. The fall of the Berlin Wall became a poisoned memory for a certain set of Easterners, thanks to the events that followed that event.
The movement to overthrow the totalitarian regime in East Germany and tear down the wall was led by a relatively small number of activists and rejectionists whose aim wasn’t unification, but rather an independent, free, idealistic socialist East Germany. These people were very different from the institutional opposition that had success elsewhere in the East Bloc, which arose after Gorbachev eased Soviet pressure and allowed a kind of top-down reform in places like Hungary and Poland. But in East Germany, the government was too hardline and unwilling to reform, so opposition arose from underground operators.
The groups that got the ball rolling for the mass street protests that eventually convinced the ruling SED party to depose dictator Erich Honecker, install the more moderate Egon Krenz, and liberalize travel restrictions, largely operated from under the protective umbrella of the Lutheran church, which enjoyed special status in East Germany. These groups included human rights activists, environmental activists, peace activists, and underground artists and musicians–in other words, they were secular, but they still took refuge in the churches. Much of the church leadership itself was also heavily involved in the opposition.
Most of these people, the ones who did the legwork to bring down the wall, often paying a dear personal price, were too leftwing and idealistic for those Americans who were looking for self-affirmation in Germany’s revolution . They weren’t protesting for McDonald’s and Western pop music (not even David Hasselhoff’s “Looking for Freedom”), and they sure as hell weren’t inspired by Ronald Reagan. But our inability to distinguish the fall of the Berlin Wall from Germany’s unification means this awkward twist is lost in American coverage anyway.
Take Thomas Friedman writing about the fall of the wall a few weeks ago, celebrates a Dunkin Donuts branch at the Brandenburg Gate, which served as the backdrop for some of the most stirring images from November 9th: “Normally, I am horrified by American fast food brands near iconic sites, but in the case of this once open sore between East and West, I find it something of a balm. The war over Europe is indeed over. People power won. We can stand down–pass the doughnuts.”
Unfortunately for Friedman, the hamburgers-and-Hasselhoff set had fuck all to do with the fall of the wall. They did, however, bring about unification, much to the chagrin of the folks who facilitated the breach. The people who brought down the wall at the risk of being beaten, jailed, fired, sent off to military service, or expatriated lost control of the process as soon as the stakes for participation dropped to nil. At that point–and it was only days after the fall of the wall–the chant in the streets of the GDR changed from “we are the people” to “we are one people.”
It also turned out that many of the East German church leaders who had harbored the hardcore rejectionists and activists did not share their vision for post-wall East Germany, and quickly struck alliances with the West German Christian Democrats, Helmut Kohl’s right-of-center pro-unification party. Kohl’s party funded an Eastern sister party and literally passed out bananas to woo Eastern voters.
In hindsight, it’s often seen as inevitable that the two Germanys would reunite. But this, too, is a somewhat revisionist view. The territories that made up East and West Germany had previously been properly united for only a relatively brief period, from 1871 to 1945, from Kaiser Wilhelm’s consolidation following the Franco-Prussian War until the dissolution of Germany after World War II. (Nobody would advocate a Germany based on the Holy Roman Empire, another period when the two Germanys were under common rule-along with Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Holland, Belgium, Slovenia, and parts of Poland, France, and Italy.) The southern border of East Germany-with Bavaria-was also a religious fault line, with the Oktoberfest state traditionally Catholic and the GDR’s Thuringia mostly Protestant from a few years after the Reformation. So again, on the face of it, there was no overriding logical necessity for reunion.
Look at it this way: When Canada gained independence from Britain in 1931, nobody thought it inevitable that the US and Canada–nations that share a 3000-mile border, virtually integrated economies, a common language, and a common origin as British colonies–would unite.
Nevertheless, the 1990 election that determined East Germany’s path forward was indeed won with promises of BMWs and bananas (which, incidentally, isn’t the same as Dodges and doughnuts), as the reactionary hamburgers-and-Hasselhoff voters carried the day. But this is the ugly part of the story-the part where money buys elections, the part where shrill sloganeering drowns out nuanced discussion, the part where an abstract pleasant-sounding goal beats any platform detailing the nuts and bolts of how to get there. In short, the election that led to unification was rife with exactly the sorts of things we bemoan in our own country, but with unimaginably high stakes: the continued existence of the voters’ country.
It is a great disservice to the brave East Germans who brought down the wall to confuse its fall with unification and to see, for instance, the proliferation of American fast food joints at the Brandenburg Gate as somehow fitting tribute to the events of November 9. Doing so allows the perpetuation of some of the biggest lies we–we, as in Americans–tell ourselves. These lies-about the motivation of the people who brought down the wall, about the inevitability of their embrace of the West, about rock and roll and Coca Cola and fucking doughnuts-are so insidious because they inform our ideas about freedom and the ostensible US role in spreading it. Nothing could be more ignorant and ahistorical–except perhaps crediting Reagan, which much of the rest of the US media was busy doing this week.
Tim Mohr writes for the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post.
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