Twenty-five years ago today, November 9, the first brave souls crossed the Berlin Wall openly from east to west without dying in the attempt. I remember watching it on TV with a sense of wonder and a little fear, fear because I’d never known a world without the closed borders of the Iron Curtain. Everyone knew that something had changed, and I for one don’t like major changes to my world. After all, there had always been a Soviet Union, and two Germanies, and an Iron Curtain behind which everything was grey unless it had a red star on it. And Yugoslavia was odd, and Albania? It and the Shining Path were the only Maoists left in the world. But the Wall was forever. Or so I thought. Looking back, what I don’t remember was what came first. In part we, that is TV watchers in the US, didn’t see the coverage of the picnic arranged between Austrians (neutral) and Hungarians on their mutual border near Sopron, and how the Hungarian border guards stood back as East Germans in their Trabis rushed through the border crossing. At least, not that I recall. Nor could we have seen the small groups that had been gathering in Leipzig for several years, even after the Communist authorities destroyed their church, to pray for the peaceful return of freedom of conscience. We didn’t know about the phone calls, and Gorbachev’s decision not to send in troops to stop the opening of borders and the exodus that followed.
I do remember my parents almost holding their breaths as we watched video of the first West Berliners daring to climb up on top of the Wall. And nothing happened. The (rightfully) feared border guards did nothing. And more people got on the Wall. And the West Berlin government told people to come back down, and they did, to return with hammers and chisels, as the gates opened for a few hours and people could pass through without the usual checks and threats. And then the gates opened forever. And then came the Velvet Revolution and jangling keys and chants of “Havel to the castle!” in Prague. And amazingly, astoundingly, only in Romania did bullets fly. And then came the culmination of the “Singing Revolution” in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia that led to their peaceful departure from the Soviet Union, along with Finland, in 1991.
I’m not sure I can recall a November-December as joyful as 1989. The lights came on again in Europe. Freedom exploded across the Iron Curtain, tearing its rusty shreds to tatters that melted away. People of good will, be they believers or not, could say together that indeed, “A light shined in the darkness and the darkness overcame it not.” To this day I can’t recall that time, let alone try to write about it, without tearing up. Especially now that I know better what happened before, and how dark the shadows had truly been.
All has not been sweetness and light since then. We all know that. But for six weeks, a series of seeming miracles blazed out and freedom rang from the Carpathians to the Adriatic to the Baltic and beyond. ” . . . And it was very good.”