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.
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.