Hugh Riminton: What The Fall Of The Berlin Wall Taught Me
I was a young TV reporter in Melbourne when the Berlin Wall fell, on November 9, 1989.
Too junior to be sent, I did the next best thing, racing to the Communist East German consulate just behind the Victoria Police Headquarters to beg for a visa.
The trip I then made changed my life, educated me, and deepened a loathing for totalitarian socialism.
When Germany was split after the Nazi defeat in 1945, it delivered a matchless political experiment. Germans, East and West, shared history, language and genealogy. Like the North/South division of Korea, the only difference was politics.
And what a difference that made.
The first thing I noticed in East Germany was the environmental damage.
Heading to Berlin, I crossed into East Germany and made my way to the city of Erfurt, where my visa conditions required me to stay. I presumed a winter fog had descended on this industrial town city. Winding down the window to peer at a street sign, the stinging in my eyes announced a city sunk in a dense cloud of industrial smog.
In the cold winter air, every East German village had its own toxic haze.
This surprised me. The mythology I had grown up with was that western industrialisation had brought wealth at the expense of environmental damage. The workers’ paradises under socialism were supposed to more sensitive.
That was plainly not true.
I mused on this as I drove. Such pollution, I figured, would not have been tolerated in the west because citizens would demand better of their leaders. Those who failed to improve air quality would simply be voted out. Citizens could also challenge governments through the courts.
Without those options, East Germans had to tolerate degraded air and waterways. I would see it on an even larger scale years later when I lived in China.
I made it to Berlin with the Wall still physically standing. People young and old were still swinging at it with sledgehammers. I borrowed one and had a go. It was hard work. They’d built it to last.
Slipping through a gap I came upon a machine gun tower on the eastern side. It was late at night. The structure was abandoned. Shimmying up, I took my place behind its bullet-proof glass and gazed out at a free fire zone of concrete and barriers. Anyone trying to make a run for freedom would not have stood a chance.
I headed south for Dresden, still scarred by the Allied firebombing that destroyed the city in the final weeks of the war. Here I learned another lesson.
On a suburban street, I saw men gathering strangely, in clusters loose but alert. Suddenly a sedan pulled up, the boot was lifted, and newspapers tied up in packages were grabbed by many hands. Within seconds, everyone had disappeared.
These were West German newspapers smuggled in from Frankfurt. The Wall might have fallen, but the countries were still separate legal entities. The risks being taken were a sharp reminder that journalism is valued by people who have none. Again, China would reinforce that lesson.
There were many other experiences and lessons but one – unexpectedly – was to do with the value of a market economy.
Returning to Dresden after a drive to the Czech border, I saw three young people with daypacks trying to thumb a lift back into town. I picked them up. One spoke some English.
As we chatted, he asked if he could look at my camera.
It was a then-current Pentax SLR 35mm film camera with a Sigma telephoto lens.
The young man, an engineering student, was incredibly excited by the lens.
“I have read about these in technical journals,” he told me. “I have never seen one.”
This struck me deeply. Germany was the home of the great lens-makers like Leica and Zeiss. German optical equipment was far better than that available to British pilots and mariners during the war.
40-years on and this young student could only read about a technology that was available to every amateur snapper in the western world. Without a consumer-driven economy, there was no incentive or justification to keep innovating – except perhaps for secret, military purposes.
There are many failings in our democracies. We doubtless over-consume and needlessly exhaust resources. Our systems are increasingly easily manipulated by digital falsehoods and secret money.
Few people believe we are led by the best among us.
But as Taiwan and Hong Kong demonstrate, as does South Korea, there is no culture were people prefer communism once a democratic alternative is available.
You’re going to hear a bit this weekend from people reflecting on the fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago on November 9, 1989
European Communism ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the coming days you’ll hear misplaced nostalgia for lives spent under the hammer and sickle.
Don’t fall for it.
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Listen to Hugh Riminton and Peter Van Onselen discuss the bushfire situation and the government's reaction on the latest episode of The Professor and The Hack.