The Great Fall: A personal perspective, before and after

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Like many millions I watched the breaching of the Berlin Wall on TV in 1989. I’ve had two direct and brief encounters with East Germany before and after this historic event. I’m descended from a C19th German Jewish émigré family of musicians but I first visited East Germany in 1982 when we went on a camping holiday, a group of ten of us, including children.

We arrived at a campsite in Werder, near Potsdam at 3am and blundered about noisily setting up our tents on the playground, but no-one seemed too bothered. This was the first of a comedy of errors throughout the trip (we got as far as the Hartz mountains) and we have to say that to us East German officialdom was relaxed and friendly.

As tourists, we found the country old fashioned but in good working order — it wasn’t so much grey uniformity as a refreshing lack of consumer capitalism. Our young daughters were entranced by the double-decker train we boarded to the centre of Berlin.

We wandered around and waved to those waving from the Western side. On the way back to the campsite we veered off in the wrong direction from the station and ended up in the middle of a Russian army camp where we watched military manoeuvres before getting directions back to the bus stop from a group of Russian army wives.

Section of the Berlin Wall’s East Side Gallery

My second trip to East Berlin was in October 1990 shortly after the official reunification of Germany. I was invited to deliver two lectures at Humboldt University (on ancient literature and on teaching classics in the UK). I stayed with a retired professor of philosophy and aesthetics who lived in the leafy suburb of Grünewald. Walter, a veteran of the German resistance, talked in anxious terms about the boost the reunification was going to give to global capitalism. He’d also written a critique of what had gone wrong in East Germany and the challenges the socialist block faced from a hostile imperialist world.

But he recognised that there were internal stresses and strains as working class hegemony was derailed by the Stalinist model of socialism. Even though the systemic flaws and distortions had been serious, Walter grimly predicted huge losses in East Germany’s progressive social programmes now the Wall was down.

As we walked around what was East Berlin Walter, then in his 83rd year, talked about the need for a radical rethink of socialist strategies, so our children and grandchildren would grow up in a better world. Those of us on the Left could learn from his mixture of realism and revolutionary optimism!

Dr Paula James is a Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at The Open University.

This article was previously published on OpenLearn in November 2020 and can be viewed here.

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