Berlin Diary

Onora O’Neill

‘Empires may rise and fall; Liberty and Slavery succeed alternately; Ignorance and Knowledge give place to each other; but the Cherry-tree will still remain in the Woods of Greece, Spain and Italy, and will never be affected by the Revolutions of Human Society.’ Hume may have been a bit too confident: in Eastern Europe the Revolutions of Human Society have been threatening even the cherry trees for years. Now we can see with relief that in spite of all the horror stories about polluted wastelands – hugely documented – the cherry trees have made it. The hidden DDR is a beautiful as well as a damaged country.

I’ve noticed that it is the survivals which really move first visitors to the lost country-side of the DDR. Whether they are West Berliners, West Germans or just assorted Westerners, they return chatting about industrial pollution and urban decay, about symptoms of economic fear and political change: but they dwell on an overpowering sense of recognition. As the empire falls, liberty advances, and a knowledge of former secrets swirls around us, it isn’t the changes but the continuities that overwhelm. The newly-visited world is deeply familiar. For many West Germans this is literally a return to primal scenes – unseen for decades, and touchingly intact in the midst of decay. Even those who do not have the special pain-and-pleasure of retracing their way to school, or looking as strangers at a childhood home (which anxious inhabitants fear they may reclaim) have a sense of return. In the Mark Brandenburg they find a country-side without commercial gloss, of crumbling barns and crooked houses in cobbled villages. The Elbe may be Europe’s biggest sewer, but the cherry trees flower in the pine woods. Towns seem reassuring as well as strange; one can walk the dark streets in safety. A few steps out of West Berlin over the Glienicke Brücke (where spies crossed when they came in from the cold) lead onto a Potsdam Street of grand and mouldering buildings that cannot have looked much different at the time of the Potsdam Conference: from technicolor to black-and-white, from 1990 to 1945 – like watching The Wizard of Oz backwards. Everywhere visitors are assailed by the smell of coal smoke and struck by the quiet. Explorers in the DDR are confounded less by novelties and surprises than by a sense of meeting the past, of having travelled not in space but in time. Any Northern European over forty knows this landscape intimately.

Is it, I keep wondering, only nostalgia and private memories that make what is past or permanent more prominent than revolutionary change in these travellers’ tales? Or is a grasp of the changeless the indispensable frame for our perception of change? Do we need to remind ourselves of revolutions in the old sense – Hume’s sense – of cycles of recurrence, in order to grasp revolutions in the new sense – the political sense – of hiatus and disruption, of discontinuity and novelty?

In the last couple of months in Berlin I’ve heard a lot of doubts whether the events of 1989, especially those in the DDR, are revolutions at all. The most confident sceptics are would-be realists about international affairs. They insist that we have witnessed not revolutions but inexorable power politics, specifically the decline in Soviet power; it’s not clear whether they would count anything as a revolution. Then there are sceptics of the Left. Some take a rather generous view of the progressive quality of really depressing socialism, and say that recent events can’t be revolutions because they point in the wrong direction, so are counter-revolutionary. Others insist that 1789 and 1917 are the paradigms for genuine revolution, so recent events don’t count because there wasn’t enough action from below or blood in the streets, or there wasn’t a self-conscious revolutionary vanguard which plotted and led the masses towards a chosen destination.

Still, I don’t meet anybody who doubts that these are the greatest changes of our lives: the end of the war that has lasted since before most of us can remember. Another way of tallying what we’re living through might be, not to hunt for crucial revolutionary events or movements, but to note how we have had to re-draw the background against which we chart those changes.

For years we’ve heard it said that, of all the Eastern Bloc countries, the DDR would resist change most. Months of relentless investigative journalism – above all by the indefatigable teams from Der Spiegel – have painted a picture of such grim decay and moral grime in the DDR that I now find it hard to remember how solid the system and how uncertain the changes seemed. Gorbachev’s policies may have made change inevitable – but which changes? Last August – an age ago now – I was at the World Conference of Legal and Social Philosophy in Edinburgh. At the plenary session on the morning when large numbers from the DDR first poured West through Hungary, jurisprudes from East and West Germany fought a complex, bitter dual over the proper interpretation of human rights. Nobody mentioned current events on the conference floor; everyone could sense the extra urgency with which the DDR speaker maintained that socialist rights were the ‘true completion of bourgeois rights’ but did not include a right to travel. Evidently a society that did not lack sophisticated defenders.

I arrived in West Berlin only six weeks later, in the last days of the Ancien Régime of the DDR. The 40th anniversary had been celebrated with plenty of pomp and fraternal socialist circumstance. Even Gorbachev came to the party. His ambiguous gift was an oracular warning that life punishes those who are too late. Was it already too late? Had it been too late when the Soviet Union made it clear that no fraternal force would maintain the status quo? Or when the Hungarians allowed holidaying East Germans to exit westwards? Too late for what? In October that was not clear. Western television here was showing East Germans squeezing into West German embassies in Warsaw Bloc capitals and DDR television was showing long hours of soothing gymnastic competition between Warsaw Bloc countries, interspersed with minimal news and condemnation of the departers. Nobody was thinking about German unity; they were thinking about the Wall and the right to travel.

It takes – or rather, in the world that used to be, it took – a few weeks to realise that the Wall was also life-defining for West Berliners who were enclosed (yet paradoxically not imprisoned) by it. Last October nothing had changed along the stretches of wall that all the world came to know so well, and which one half of the world has since chipped into little concrete relics and sold to the other half. A few tourists visited the flimsy wooden crosses that commemorate the victims, and remembered Kennedy. Only later did I sense what it is like if your world comes to an end just beyond a leafy suburban garden, or you never visit the countryside next to your own city. The popular rock musical, Linie 1, whose mock-serenade praises Berlin, wo alle Richtungen ost sind! was acid political truth. It seemed convincing enough when West Berliners told me that freedom to travel was the heart of the crisis: if the regime conceded that, there’d be little reason for the exodus to go on. DDR life might be dull and drab, but it was secure and accepted. No doubt, Honecker would have to go, and reform would begin, but nothing like the speed of change in Hungary or Poland was to be expected. Really existing socialism worked – more or less – in the DDR because it didn’t simply repress but incorporated. About one in eight of the population – hence virtually everybody who was anybody – were party members. The informal opposition of the DDR, such as it was allowed to be, was fundamentally a loyal opposition; serious resistance was systematically depleted by the forced departure of more radical opponents, who became West Germans as soon as the Federal Government ransomed them from political prisons.

The foreground events of my first month here were dramatic enough. Honecker was forced to go. Krenz condemned less and moralised more: ‘Citizens! You are each of you needed!’ More and more people were moving onto the streets and out of the country. Concessions were in the air: but nobody imagined that without plan or forethought the regime would simply open the Wall. On the heady night when it was breached nobody who wandered the city knew what else had happened or where it pointed. Berliners mingled in the warm autumn night. For a brief moment the world seemed transformed. One young West Berliner told us that the Vopos had turned into smiling sweeties. Later another told me that he spent the night marking new turf by bicycling to and fro a dozen times from West to East. A couple from East Berlin explained that when they reached the forbidden West they walked their own street, counting the house-numbers and counting them back on the other side.

An unforgettable night: but no revolution. Yet the resolution of the seemingly limited issue of freedom to travel changed everything. The issues became, not closed borders, but struggles for the future of the DDR; reunification still lay on the very periphery of the possible. In the West, social democrats repeated Brandt’s vague and comfortable words: what belongs together will grow together. Even Kohl spoke not of reunification but of confederation. And the reformers of the DDR were speaking of socialism with a human face, of preserving the achievements and the identity of the DDR.

As the background shifted, freedom to travel came to seem banally obvious and unalterable. I heard Egon Krenz being interviewed live by a West German TV journalist in early December. He blandly remarked that the border would remain open because ‘the right to travel is a human right’ – as though he had already lost sight of all the years in which his party dubbed the Wall ‘protective’ and made Republikflucht a serious crime. The Wall had been built, he said, in ‘a quite different time’.

Looking back, I can see that moments of constitutional crisis or innovation – abolition of the leading role of the Party in December, the emergence of a makeshift polity that acknowledged opposition when Modrow the decent caretaker worked with the Knights of the Round Table – were responses to deeper changes. Somewhere between the ‘turn’ in November and the elections of March, every fixed point had shifted. Did the map of the possible change because of pressure on the streets and in the organisations? It would fit some conceptions of revolution to say so: and to see revolution epitomised by the citizen committees who occupied Staasi headquarters, to guard the dreaded archives. Others might counter that the real pressure for change was not exerted by activists who stayed, but was the unintended consequence of thousands of private decisions to leave. Irony indeed for Germany if when everyone spoke of civil courage – and many showed it – change owed most to those who vamoosed. Will they one day boast Ich war nicht dabeil?

Friends from Britain point out how lucky the DDR is to have the BRD eager to transform its economy; they contrast this with the fate of Poland and the Soviet Union, and note that once again losing a war appears to bring advantage. For individuals in the DDR the months since the turn brought, first, huge anxieties about the past and now huge fears about the future. Anxieties about the past filled discussions of the stagnant winter months. Both Germanies were flooded with forgotten truths and secrets. Could this tale of corruption, pollution, economic catastrophe, and even falling life-expectations, be a true likeness of the strongest of socialist economies? Citizens of the DDR were invited to see the achievements of socialism in the cruel mirror of Western investigative journalism and to condemn themselves by the measure of Europe’s strongest economy. From time to time I point out that most of the EC countries are poorer than the BRD: irrelevant, for nobody cares how the DDR compares with Newcastle or with Northern Spain. Feelings of inadequacy are guaranteed by assuming that only the best will do. In January I heard a senior DDR economist explain that central planning had indeed been a mistake, that markets were necessary. Still, he did not like to think that the problems of capitalism – so recently dignified as ‘internal contradictions’ – were inevitable, like childhood illnesses. In the DDR the market was to bring prosperity without inflation or unemployment: really-awaited capitalism was to fulfil all the dreams of nearly-abandoned socialism.

In the months before legitimated politics could shape the future, there was time for accusations and regrets about the dismaying complicities of the past. In the autumn the retreating SED still had a head start in matters of interpretation: the problem had been Stalinism – so the remedy could be a return to Leninism. Only a very, very few had been at fault! The old leaders were duly accused of treason and abuse of office. Vast publicity was given to a life-style more ludicrous than grand: the old men had hunting lodges, and shot at deer from hochsitze nicely done up with central heating.

Analogies with the end of the Third Reich and Bundesrepublik failure to purge Nazis from the institutions were often evoked. The analogy was unfair – despite all violations of human rights there have been no crimes against humanity in the DDR – but its power to shake and depress people who had been taught to pride themselves as the vanguard of anti-fascism was huge. The explosive January revelation that the Staasi had 200,000 employees – and who knew how many other ‘voluntary’ informants – provided a smouldering core for guilt and fear about the past. But guilt and accusation can be spread far beyond the Staasi – to judges and public prosecutors who subverted justice, to professors and teachers who hinged academic opportunity to party loyalty; to youth leaders who indoctrinated; to managers and scientists who endorsed the fictions of The Plan and pushed economic growth at the expense of human health and industrial safety; to journalists who lied and avoided; to doctors who hid the truth about what pollution was doing. In the DDR this winter there was no Vaclav Havel to insist that the power to co-opt had been the secret of the system rather than the guilt of the individual. There were moral purists who advocated opening all secret archives to the public, moral realists who thought the lot should be blamed, and moral opportunists who acquired (or fabricated) snippets of information to damage others. My own favourite solution would be to send the archives to the Swiss banks (by sealed train, of course) to be kept utterly secret for fifty years, and to send the archives of the Swiss banks to the DDR for publication.