When The Wall Came Down

Berlin Wall

Berlin, November 1989

Twenty years ago this Remembrance Week the Berlin Wall came down. It was a defining moment for a generation; an historical bookmark as significant to its time as the 9/11 attack has been to the early years of this century, or the assassination of John F. Kennedy was to the 1960s. Indeed, it was the Berlin Wall that provided the context to Kennedy’s famous 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech delivered in the German capital just months before his death. It was also the powerful physical symptom of the political and diplomatic failings of the victorious Allies in the wake of the 1918 Armistice, also commemorated this week.

First erected by the Soviets in 1961, the Wall surrounded an enclave of the former Western Allies’ post-war zones in Berlin, in the heart of Communist East Germany. It quickly became the symbol of the Cold War split between East and West. Looking back, it seems extraordinary that this kind of physical segregation took place in modern, industrialised Europe but at the time such division was all an entire generation had ever known.

1960s Berlin

When the Wall came down I was an eighteen year old History student, and I remember that dark period in Europe’s modern history very well. It seemed that we had all grown up under the threat of a devastating nuclear conflict between the Russians and the Americans, and as budding historians we could see that the roots of the Cold War could be traced back to the disastrous legacy of the First World War.

‘The Great War’ had changed everything. The old Imperial powers of Europe had bankrupted themselves paying for the relentless four-year slaughter of their young men in the trenches and, while Western Europe fell into the arms of America’s new-found economic might, Russia overthrew the absolute rule of the Tsars and (after the shortest of flirtations with democracy) replaced it with the absolute rule of the Bolsheviks.

The effect on Germany was even more profound. After the Armistice the victorious powers forced the Treaty of Versailles onto an exhausted nation. It was a Treaty which not only sought to bankrupt Germany through reparations, it also set out to humiliate its people through the so-called ‘War Guilt Clauses’ which tore away the last shreds of their national pride. The now exiled Kaiser Wilhelm said of this draconian humiliation: “After the war to end all war we have the peace to end all peace” and so it was that Germany was made angry and desperate enough to turn to Hitler.

The Second World War, Hitler’s genocidal war of revenge, left a destroyed Europe ripe for the taking and cemented the position of America and the Soviet Union as the two great ‘superpowers’ in world affairs. Perhaps the inevitable consequence of this new rivalry was the formation of the ‘Iron Curtain’ of which Winston Churchill spoke in 1946, and nothing symbolised this more starkly than the Berlin Wall.


1989 was an exciting year to be alive, especially if you were a history student. Soviet-style Communism was being swept away right across Europe and those images of the collapse of the Wall were met with joy all over the world as they marked the change we never thought we’d see. Twenty years on I’m reminded of the importance of those events, and it somehow seems fitting that the fall of the Berlin Wall is being commemorated in the same week as we remember the men and women who have been lost in all the conflicts since The Great War. Remembrance isn’t about glorying in war, or celebrating past victories. For me it’s about remembering that there is always a human cost and far-reaching historic consequences of the judgements of our leaders. It’s about trying to learn the lessons of history so that all those lives weren’t lost in vain.

So remember those men and women; remember why they were sent to lay down their lives; and remember that we have been given the chance to learn from history, to avoid the mistakes that, generations later, cause walls to be built and nations to be divided.

The Tories – There’s Something About Europe

EuropeWhat is it with Europe and the Tories? Like it or not, David Cameron appears to have succeeded in his project to ‘detoxify’ the Conservative brand and, if the polls are right, looks set to sweep into Downing Street next year. Granted this is as much to do with Gordon Brown’s seemingly natural aversion to any form of good luck rather than a genuine excitement for the Tory programme for government but, nevertheless, there’s more than a strong possibility that they’ll be back at the helm by next summer.

While this is not a state of affairs I’m particularly happy about, it’s one I’m forcing myself to become accustomed to. Those with slightly longer memories than the forty-ish per cent of the electorate who seem to have been charmed by Cameron will not need reminding why a Tory government is a bad thing. For those who do, here’s an abridged list: mass unemployment, the destruction of Britain’s manufacturing industries, increased crime, high interest rates, the Poll Tax, sleaze (far worse than anything we’ve seen from Labour – none of the current government have ended up in prison yet, after all), government sponsored intolerance, homophobia, that infuriating born-to-rule arrogance and, of course, the endless bloodletting over Europe. All of these were features of the Tories’ last stint in government and, for all the image massage from David Cameron, I’ve seen nothing to convince me that this won’t be their programme for next time around.

Strangely, considering the public never seem to put it at the top of their list, Europe is the issue that worries the Conservative Party more than any other, and this has come to the fore once again as the leadership ties itself in knots over the Lisbon Treaty and the referendum that was never going to happen anyway. They can live quite comfortably with the wilful destruction of communities brought about by senselessly dismantling British industry, as they did in the eighties. There’s not a whiff of embarrassment about their instinct to protect their rich friends at the expense of the majority. Massed queues at job centres are arrogantly dismissed as ‘a price worth paying’ (for what, we never really found out). But the slightest whiff of accommodation with Johnny Foreigner in Brussels, and his evil plan to bring peace and the benefits of economic co-operation to the ordinary people of Europe, and the Tory anger really rises.

So what is it about Europe that needles the Tory psyche in the way it does? Is it the fear of the hysterical coverage in the Daily Mail, The Sun and the rest of the (largely) Europhobic press? Is it a form of appeasement to the visceral xenophobic mania of the Tory grassroots? Is it a lasting homage to the teary-eyed memory of Margaret’s ‘glorious’ term of office? Are they simply wary of UKIP on their right flank? Who knows? What doesn’t seem to be behind the Conservatives’ Euro-paranoia is any form of reasoned argument. Perhaps if there was, people would actually listen beyond the dog-whistle soundbites about sovereignty and national identity, and Britain might even end up having a mature, informed debate on the nature of our engagement with Europe. Of course, what’s much more likely is that a Tory government will pick up where it left off, with a reactive approach to Europe and the numerous vested interests who will no doubt pull a Cameron administration in all directions.

This process seems to have already begun with today’s shuffling of Cameron’s position on Europe in the face of ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. While many in his party (William Hague, for example) may see this as a pragmatic sticking plaster to get them through to the General Election, there can be little doubt that the Europhobe wing of the Tory party will expect more once they have their hands on the levers of power. Faced with the reality of being a European leader and the demands of the inner baying mob, which way will Cameron jump? Already it starts to look like John Major all over again.