History is often best told by the people who witnessed it. At the beginning of 1989, no one could have predicted that by the end of the year the Berlin Wall will fall down. In June of that year, the Solidarity movement in Poland toppled the Communist regime, and set off a chain of events that altered the face of Europe.
The Solidarity movement was a social movement that started with the Solidarity Union founded on 17 September 1980 at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, under the leadership of Lech Walesa. Through the next two decades, the demands of the Union galvanised the society to challenge the despotism of the single party rule of the Communist regime supported by the Kremlin.
‘I Received a Piece of Brick From the Berlin Wall’
By 1989, the smell of freedom was in the air. But so was the fear of brutal repression. The memories of the Martial Law imposed by Poland’s military dictator, General Jaruzelski, in 1981, ostensibly to protect Poland from invasion by the USSR – always a real and present danger – had not yet evaporated.
The broad anti-Soviet social movement, with Lech Walesa at its helm had a strong support of the Catholic Church as well as the anti-Soviet Left. Solidarity advocated non-violence in its members’ activities, and by June, the round table conference led to semi-free elections that saw Solidarity come to power.
We exulted in the bloodless political coup.
Five months later on the evening of 9 November 1989, the telephone rang in my grandmother’s Warsaw apartment. At the other end, there was a breathless voice, of a friend from Warsaw University, “The Wall is falling down. Are you coming?”
“The Berlin Wall???”
Soon, we were in a car, a group of five friends, racing to the border at 10 PM. By 12 PM, we were in a massive traffic jam. People were hanging out of the cars and trucks, waving flags, shirts, mufflers in the air, weeping and laughing, and guzzling beer.
As the Berlin Wall was dismantled brick by brick, an unusual phenomenon occurred. People were picking up pieces of the wall and passing it on.
It was people’s mass dismantlement of a structure that symbolised decades of Cold War apparatus. And there, sitting in traffic jam, I received a piece of one brick. I was holding history in my hands.
Yalta Deal With Stalin: ‘An Attempt to Sacrifice Freedom for the Sake of Stability’
Back in Warsaw, a few days later, a relative who had survived four years in a concentration camp at Auschwitz, came for a visit. She was visibly disturbed. Having survived the years of inhuman incarceration, Kristyna Kalmann’s health was not always even. I showed her the brick. She grew deathly pale. Her eyes swelled with deep anguish.
“Throw it away. This should not have happened.”
In the spring of 1945, the Soviet Army reached Berlin. On 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler killed himself in his bunker. It is estimated that nearly 60 million people were killed in this War. The World War II was over but a new confrontation was taking place between the United States and the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin, taking advantage of the War, seized control of the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. He stretched the Soviet sphere of political intervention and domination from Poland in the north, to Romania in the south. The West looked the other way. It took 60 years for this betrayal to be officially stated. On 7 May 2005, US President, George W Bush, in a speech given in Latvia, described the Yalta Deal with Stalin as “an attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability”.
‘Wir Sind Ein Volk’
The city of Berlin was divided into Soviet Berlin, and portions held by American, British and the French. The latter were subsequently merged into West Berlin. The US poured aid and funds into West Germany.
By mid-1949, it was no longer one Germany occupied by its conquerors, but two Germanys separately occupied by the West and the East.
For the people in the Eastern Bloc, a new era of Soviet age dictatorship dawned. In divided Berlin, people till 1960 crossed from East Berlin to West Berlin as easily as crossing the street. Professionals left in droves as East Germany economy deteriorated. It is estimated that as many as 200,000 escaped to West Germany in those days. On 17 August 1961, Berliners woke up to find coils of barbed wire down the middle of the city. When the Wall came up, it stretched through 154 km of the city’s radial circumference. Over the years from 1961 to 1989, nearly 5,000 people tried to escape over the Wall.
The formal reunification of the two Germanys in the October of 1990 was welcomed with trepidation. While the defining cry of the fall of the Berlin Wall had been “Wir sind ein Volk” – “we are one people” – the idea of the re-emergence of a united powerful Germany once again played on the fears of people like my aunt Kalmann.
Anti-Semitism and Re-writing Polish History
The Nazis had been defeated, but anti-Semitism survived. Last month, on 10 October 2019, a lone gunman tried to enter a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle in Germany, and killed two people. The incident has heightened fears of more anti-Semitic violence in Germany, witnessing the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Jews and German politicians have been particularly worried by comments of Bjoern Hoecke, the AfD leader of eastern Thuringia state, who is reported to have said that the Holocaust memorial in Berlin is a “monument to shame”, and that schools should highlight German suffering during WW II.
In Poland, the Law and Justice Party, a national conservative party, is in the process of rewriting Polish history.
There is antipathy towards accepting the bitter truth, that its history is replete with Polish anti-Semitism and instances of collaboration with the Nazi occupational force, and later, at the behest of the Communist regime. Last year in fact, the government brought in a law that criminalises mentioning the complicity of the Polish nation in the crimes of the Holocaust.
My aunt Kristyna Kalmann, through the years of Communism from 1945 to 1989, was not able to access her account in Switzerland, where recompense for the victims of Nazi crimes, post the Nuremberg Trials, was deposited.
In November 1989, the month the Berlin Wall came down, she got official intimation from the newly-formed Polish government. She was now free to withdraw her compensation. And I was cradling the Berlin Wall brick in my hands.
(The writer of Indo-Polish origin, is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)