Walls in the mind are hardest to abolish

Interview with Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to South Africa, Dieter W Haller

How do you remember the events of November 9?
The memories of that night still send thrills down the spines of many Germans, similar, I suppose, to the emotions that moved South Africans on the day Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990.
Everybody remembers what he or she was doing when the news broke — news that not everyone understood, in its far-reaching consequences, right away.
In Berlin the events were sparked by Günter Schabowski, then a member of the Politburo. In reply to a question at a press conference on when freedom to travel for all East Germans would come into effect he said: ”According to my information, immediately, without delay.”
Within two-and-a-half hours the first crowd had gathered at one of Berlin’s border crossings. Amazingly, East German border control officers, who themselves had been taken totally by surprise by the decision of the Politburo, did not stand in the way of those who wanted to put their freedom to the test.

Did anyone at the time realise the implications of the events?
No one could have imagined what consequences the chain of events of that night would bring about. During the summer of 1989 mass demonstrations all over East Germany and the thousands of people who fled the country via Hungary, Poland and what was then Czechoslovakia had increased the pressure on the East German regime enormously.
The peaceful revolution became unstoppable. And still nobody would have thought that history would accelerate so dramatically. Within less than a year, on October 3 1990, Germans celebrated reunification. To commemorate these historical events, Germany has made October 3 its national day.

Why did you not choose November 9 to be Germany’s national day?
By a twist of fate, the ninth day of November has seen many significant events in German history. On November 9 1918, after the end of World War I, Germany’s first republic was proclaimed in Berlin.
In 1923, in Munich, Adolf Hitler attempted a coup d’etat in Bavaria. November 9 1938 marks a dark chapter in German history, when synagogues all across Germany were set alight by Hitler and his regime. That is why we preferred the joyful day of reunification.

To what extent did the events of November 9 change the course of European politics?
The wall split Berlin in two, it separated East and West Germany and, like an iron curtain, divided Europe in half and became the frontier between Nato and the Warsaw Pact.
On the Western side of the wall, not only in West Germany, an ­economic miracle produced unprecedented prosperity for all. Democracy flourished. East of the wall, mass uprisings in East Berlin (1953) and Budapest (1956) — both before the wall was built in 1961 — in Prague (1968) and in Poland (1980) had to be forcefully put down, with the help of the Soviet Union, to maintain the repressive regimes.

After the fall of the wall, Eastern Europeans were able to catch up quickly. Since 1989 many of the states east of the former Berlin Wall have become an integral and indispensable part of the European Union and are rapidly narrowing the prosperity gap left after more than 40 years of separation.

But the effects did not stop at the borders of Europe; they had implications on a global scale, and in particular on South Africa.

How so?
Without the fall of the Berlin Wall, the history of South Africa would probably have taken a different course.

With the imminent disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, communism had lost much of its appeal, also among many South Africans.

At the same time the radical anti-communism of the apartheid regime had become nothing but hollow and unconvincing rhetoric. Pressure for change rose so quickly that history also began to accelerate on this side of the planet.

Barely three months after the triumph of freedom and the will of the people in Berlin, the world was to witness another great triumph: Nelson Mandela walking free on the soil of his mother country on February 11 1990 and then becoming the democratically elected president of a free South Africa on April 27 1994.

How did the historical events of 1989-1990 affect German society as a whole?
Within less than a year the fall of the Berlin Wall brought about the unification of both German states. Much has been achieved. Yet, even 20 years later, there are still tangible differences to be noticed — differences in economic and social development, in cultural and political preferences, in voting patterns. Our German once-in-a-lifetime experience also teaches us to be patient with each other.

One generation certainly is not enough time to heal all the wounds, to forgive all the perpetrators, to become one again. In that, I find many similarities with South Africa.

After initial joy among all Germans about regained unity, some disillusionment crept into many German minds and souls.

The economic situation in EastGermany was dire and demanded huge efforts by all Germans (from the East and the West alike) to make Germany the prosperous and peaceful society it is today. Many sacrifices had to be made on both sides of the former wall.
To this day the Wall still exists in the minds of some Germans.

It is those walls in the minds that take the longest time to be abolished, I believe.

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