Thirty years ago today, I wept and the world wept with me. The Berlin Wall’s collapse was a moment of raw joy.

Tears were the only possible response. The Iron Curtain, which had divided Germany and Europe for 28 years, was pulverised, and it was gorgeous to watch. On 9 November 1989, knowing nothing of Brexit or populists like Viktor Orbán, Europe fused back together. We were all Berliners.

But even as Champagne corks popped and East German border guards accepted kisses from citizens pouring across the once forbidden frontier, clouds were gathering in the clear, blue sky. For anyone, like me, who knew both Germanies – both Europes – the Wall’s fall was bittersweet. It spelt the end of repressive regimes that had robbed their citizens of freedom of expression and movement, but it was also the end – or so it seemed at the time – of an alternative to free-wheeling capitalism.

It was easy to see that there would be losers as well as winners. “We are the people,” East German demonstrators chanted during the pro-democracy demonstrations that preceded the Wall’s breach. For a few glorious weeks in the run-up to 9 November, they were ascendant, holding power to account and demanding their rightful freedoms. But even as they dismantled the concrete obscenity that had imprisoned an entire country, you feared for them.

For they weren’t just letting themselves out; they were letting the West in. These were people who knew all about the tyranny of the Stasi and the travel ban, but nothing about the tyranny of private pension plans, compulsory redundancy and soaring house prices.

The scruffy, fag-smoking activists who coordinated the peaceful revolution were quickly mashed in the shiny machine of West German democracy. Their dream of a better East Germany crumbled to dust. With exceptions – Angela Merkel is one – it was often the “wrong” people who flourished when the German Democratic Republic transmogrified into “new Federal states”: loyal Party members, Stasi collaborators, brown-nosers.

Stoor rises. Those who did least well in the new Germany had often suffered the most in the old East. Awkward dissidents were denied access to education and consequently couldn’t find the kinds of jobs that brought security in the new regime.

German unification proved painful. Ossis (East Germans) and Wessis (West Germans) discovered they couldn’t understand each other and didn’t like each other very much. The differences that 40 years apart had etched in their minds were harder to erase than anyone had foreseen.


In 1997, while on a British-German journalists’ exchange, I met an elderly woman at an event in East Berlin to mark today’s anniversary. “I expect you stay ‘druben’ (over there),” she said as we parted, meaning West Berlin. When I told her I stayed locally, she said, “Ah yes, of course, I remember now. You already told me you studied with us ‘damals’ (back then).”

That’s how it was – and sometimes still is. Us and them. Then and now.

Ossis felt Wessis looked down on them and they were not wrong. How many times have I gaped in horror as otherwise open-minded West German friends spoke of Ossis in terms I can only describe as racist? In Hungary and Czechoslovakia, meanwhile, people complained that they had fought for freedom, not to have banks from Austria – the old imperial master – on every street corner.

So, what are we celebrating today? Rather than the fall of the Berlin Wall, which, fittingly, was caused by a bureaucratic blunder, I like to remember the first mass demonstration in Leipzig a month previously, when 70,000 people confronted armed police, not knowing if they would face another Tiananmen Square.

With hindsight, it seems obvious that the demonstrators would prevail. Gorbachev had effectively withdrawn Soviet backing from the bankrupt Ostbloc regimes. Unlike today’s pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong or Extinction Rebellion, the peaceful revolution didn’t threaten Western interests and so it had the West’s unqualified support.

It was nonetheless a moment of civic courage with few peacetime parallels. By God, they really were the people. And they showed us all, not just that we can stand up to authority, but that we must.