Friday, 7 November 2014

The fall of the Wall, Russell Brand and the 89ers

Twenty-five years ago, on 9 November 1989, I was on shift at The World Tonight as a newly-arrived presenter. It was the night the Berlin Wall was breached and history was made.

I don't need to try to remember what I felt that night because I kept a recording of the programme. So here's what I said at 10pm on the night the Cold War finally ended.

"Tonight's announcement from East Berlin [that east Germans would in future be allowed to travel directly to west Germany] must surely spell the end of the Berlin Wall. How long, I wonder, before the bulldozers move in to tear down that ugliest of eyesores which has disfigured Berlin for the past 28 years?

"Perhaps it's all too much to take in  -- the changes have come so fast that it's hard to keep up with the new realities of an eastern Europe in which a 40-year-old political dam has finally burst."

I do remember feeling as I spoke the words on air that perhaps I was over-egging it a bit -- I didn't really believe that the bulldozers would soon be moving in and that the wall would be literally torn down.

I have visited Berlin several times over the past quarter century, and I was back there last month -- 25 years on, you have to look hard to see where the wall once was. In most places, its existence is marked only by a barely-visible line of cobbles snaking through the city.

My 95-year-old father was born and raised in Berlin, but to him, 9 November represents an entirely different anniversary. It was on that same date in 1938 that Nazi mobs rampaged through Germany in an orchestrated orgy of anti-Jewish violence that became known as Kristallnacht. It was the moment when my father's family and many others finally concluded that there would be no future for them in Germany.

So 9 November is one of those rare dates that mark two entirely separate turning points in history. What would Europe look like if there had been no Kristallnacht? What would it look like if the Berlin Wall, by a mixture of accident and design, hadn't crumbled in 1989?

The historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a fascinating Guardian essay yesterday: "1989 has become the new 1789: at once a turning point and a reference point. Twenty-five years on, it has given us what is, politically, the best Germany we have ever had ... It has made possible the Europe we have today, with all its freedoms and all its faults. There is no corner of the world its consequences have not touched."

And he raised an interesting question: if Europe's two other major turning points in 20th century history, 1939 and 1968, produced their own, distinctive generations -- the 39ers who were formed by the Second World War, and the 68ers whose dominant reference points are the cultural, social and political upheavals of the 60s -- where are the 89ers?

Garton Ash suggested one possible answer: "I believe that the 89ers may not be those who were active then, or youthful witnesses at the time, but those who were born in or around 1989, and are only now moving from the university of learning to that of life."

In other words, they are the Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and others who are now in their mid to late 20s -- the young Europeans who barely recognise the existence of borders, who criss-cross their continent at will, seeking educational and employment opportunities wherever they may find them.

People like the high-flying young Bulgarian whom I met recently and who works in London as a strategist for one of the world's biggest banks. To her parents, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain and who still live in Bulgaria, the life she leads is simply beyond imagining.

Some of Europe's 89ers are also what we might call the Russell Brand generation, who regard traditional politics with contempt. They are the generation for whom jobs are scarce, often insecure and poorly paid, and for whom home ownership is an unattainable dream, thanks to the lunacies of the property market. For them, the freedoms that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War -- freedom, among other things, from the fear of a thermo-nuclear war -- have brought few obvious benefits.

Yes, they can travel freely, if they have the money. Yes, they can buy trainers, jeans and T-shirts to their hearts' content, if they have the money. But the hopes of those who were in their 20s in 1989 have turned into the disillusion, and anger, of those who are in their 20s now.

Let us not forget that the events of 1989 were also a triumph for free-market capitalism, enabling a rapid process of globalisation to gather pace. Multi-national corporations were able to cut their labour costs by opening factories in low-wage eastern Europe, and the power of organised labour was greatly weakened. Capitalism creates losers as well as winners -- and some of the losers are 89ers. 

The 39ers were scarred by the horrors of a world war. The 68ers (yes, I'm one of them) were starry-eyed idealists who believed they would change the world. The 89ers? They look at those images from the night the Wall was breached, and they wonder. What did that historic night really mean for them?

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