Can Europe Make It?

Revisiting the Brandenburg Gate

"If I had been planning last weekend¹s celebration, I would have tried in some way to capture that hard won freedom of movement of crossing over from East to the West."

Henry Porter
13 November 2019, 4.20pm
30th anniversary celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate
Author's photograph. All rights reserved.

Thinking about why the celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed so inadequate, I remembered a story told to me over lunch 20 years ago by a British spy, who I shall call Jim.

In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany, the British Secret Intelligence service was tasked by the British government to track down and reward the agents and informants who had worked for them during the Cold War. According to my lunching companion, who was in charge of the operation, there were about 30 and each was to be paid 30,000 Deutsch Marks – about $17,000.

It was a gesture of gratitude rather than compensation for all the suffering that the individuals and their families had endured, which included long prison sentences and sometimes death. It took a while to trace all the individuals and the families of the deceased. Jim made sure that all young British Intelligence officers, now working in the Berlin Station on the famous boulevard Unter der Linden in East Berlin, went along to hear for themselves the stories of sacrifice and courage when handing over the money.

There was one man they couldn¹t find. SIS left messages all over for him and eventually he turned up at the offices in Under Der Linden. Jim explained that the British government wished to reward him. The man refused to take the cheque and rushed out of the building pursued by Jim. He caught him up in the street. The man whipped round and pointed to Brandenburg Gate at the end of Unter den Linden, where the Berlin Wall had bulged into the West to lock the monument into the East, and said words to the effect, “Don¹t you understand – I didn¹t do it all for money. I did it so my children could walk through the Gate.”

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This story has always moved me, and clearly it did Jim – as he came to the end, he put an index finger to the corner of his eye to suppress a tear. People forget what dissidents in the East went through – those who worked for and believed in freedom without ever having much hope of achieving it.

The point is that walking through the Brandenburg Gate still has great significance for those who lived in the East. Even on the night the Wall came down, the one thing that remained protected by the East German Border guards, and effectively sealed off, was the Gate. Which is why it is mystifying that in choosing a way to mark the 30th anniversary last weekend the organisers took the decision to erect barriers in the East and make the wide, open space – the Pariser Platz – the service yard for a concert stage that faced into the West.

It is unlikely to have been a conscious decision to snub the East, but, given the differences that still exist between the two halves of Germany, it seemed tactless and possibly a bit triumphalist, particularly as Angela Merkel grew up in East Germany and went to university in Leipzig, which was later to become the inspiration and crucible of the German revolution in 1989. Employment prospects in the East are not nearly as good as in the West; recent figures show there is 0.4% difference between growth in the East and West; there are more people at risk of poverty in the East and more single parent families. Thirty years on, resentment among the generation brought up in the GDR is displayed in greater mistrust for democratic institutions and sharper hostility towards immigration, both of which the AfD party has exploited very effectively. As in the UK, the far right have leveraged these grievances in an on-going attack against liberal democracy.

None of these things could have been solved by last weekend¹s celebrations and, of course there was absolutely no prospect of rekindling the extraordinary scenes of 30 years ago, when, I recalled in a recent article, people on both sides wore the unguarded joy of childhood as they greeted each other at the checkpoints. But if I had been planning last weekend¹s celebration, I would have tried in some way to capture that hard won freedom of movement of crossing over from East to the West.

And what could be better than allowing people to make that journey through the gate and onwards to cross the thin cobbled line that traces the length of the Berlin Wall through most of the city?

Obviously, there were concerns about security – Germany has suffered a number of attacks from extremists recently. But to block access from the East and to erect a spherical structure and stage, which largely obscured the gate from the West, was to greatly miss the import of the occasion. Yes, there were speeches and a ceremony with leaders from Germany, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia where the wall still stands, but a succession of deejays and pulsing lights eventually reduced the event to little more than rock concert.

It¹s true that the rock music played a huge part in energizing the protestors in East Germany and nurturing dissent all over the Warsaw Pact countries, but most of the celebrations fell short of honouring the extraordinary night in 1989, and it was crass to block access to the gate and to make those people coming from the East walk half way round the Tiergarten park to join the festivities in Strasse des 17 Juni.

After all, it was their revolution and they made the sacrifices to walk through the Brandenburg Gate and it is they who still suffer inequalities between East and West.

30th anniversary celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate.
30th anniversary celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate.
Author's photograph. All rights reserved.

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