1989 in World History: An Interview

By Yasmine Hung

2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, one of the first events in a chain reaction that would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The significance of the year 1989 within the larger context of the Cold War has been hotly debated among historians – the dissolution of the Soviet Union only came in 1991, and Communist regimes elsewhere prevailed – but it was undeniably a turning point in the lives of the many Germans on both sides of the Iron Curtain who had been separated for nearly half the century.

The recency of this event means that there is a relative abundance of sources that one can draw on in comparison to the study of earlier events and periods. The opportunity for historians to interact directly with people who have lived through certain events is a boon that adds a certain authenticity to counter or fortify mainstream narratives, expanding on the subjective experiences and memories of people whose lived experiences are overlooked in the course of the writing of history. In particular, the question of a historian’s own role in reflecting upon their own experiences while aiming to achieve a relatively objective distance from their subject of study is the topic of lively debate and unresolved questions.

At the Institute, we are lucky to have a student who was one of many first-hand witnesses and participants in the events at the Berlin Wall when it came down, physically and metaphorically. Achim Merlo is a second-year PhD student at the Graduate Institute specializing in European history, who has been willing to share his personal reflections on his experience of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

The following interview is a conversation between Achim and Amza Adam, a student of the International History department. This article was adapted from the transcript of a podcast entitled “1989 in World History,” produced as part of a course offered by the International History department at IHEID, which can be found here. Credit for the content should be attributed to the original producers of the podcast episode. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

When one thinks about the end of the Cold War, a series of events and dates come to mind, which can vary considerably depending on academic affinity, nationality, and especially personal experience.

In my case, I was born at the cusp of the end of Cold War in 1988. When I reflect upon this period, the memories of what I learned in school emerge. I think, for example, of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, I think about all the different documentaries I have seen on the fall of the Berlin Wall. In other words, I have a very bookish and detached memory of that moment. But for you, Achim, it is very different, right?  

Yes, you are right. For me the end of the Cold War is not only an abstract historical period that I have knowledge of, but it is also something I have experienced.

Could you tell us what you mean by that?

I was in Berlin when the fall of the Berlin Wall took place. I was one among many who had participated in pulling down the wall – I was there with a hammer and a chisel in hand.

So you were part of history! Please tell us more about your personal encounter with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As a German youngster, I became invested in the idea of contributing to unify the country. The pressure was rising on a daily basis, and I personally liked the German chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl. He was a great man able to manage a difficult process not only between the superpowers, but also with the old hostility and preoccupations from France and Britain. At home, we spoke every day about what was going on in Berlin, but also in Hungary first, on the border with Austria, and in other neighbouring Eastern European countries. In the evening daily “Tagesschau,” at 8pm, we could see from home the events coming upon us. The overall mood in West Germany was exciting, but also puzzled, and then, at a certain point, I decided to leave home and move to Berlin, to take part in the protests, which were happening in the western part.

My grandmother had served as a frontline nurse during the war and was in what was then a very different Berlin. She was particularly proud of the idea of a reunification of Germany, so she blessed my journey. I took with me a hammer and a big screwdriver from home that I used as a chisel to break chips out of the wall in the following days. With thousands of other young people gathering there in Berlin, I became then what was nicknamed at the time a “Mauerspechte” – a wall woodpecker. That is, in a nutshell, how I think about the year 1989 up until 31st December that year. That was when I saw for the last time the Soviet Union flag waving at the Brandenburg Gate until exactly at midnight, when it was taken down and stripped into pieces by the multitudes of surrounding celebrators, including myself.

Thank you very much for sharing such a personal story. By listening to you, I think that we can get an idea of the atmosphere of Germany during that period, and in particular, this need to participate in the reunification of the country.

Achim, your position as an “actor” of history puts you in a very original position – you understand this event as both a participant with subjective experiences, while at the same time, you contend with it on the level of a professional historian. How do you think a historian such as yourself should deal with personal experience? Should you detach yourself from it? Or should you rather plunge into your feelings and memories?

Thank you. Perhaps it is too gratifying to be called an “historical actor.” I think that as a student of history, one should keep a distance from that “micro” experience in order to better grasp the events – if you want to zoom out and have a bird’s eye view.

I think you should neither detach yourself nor plunge into your feelings and memories. It is in combining the memories and the literature that you will have the whole picture. In this sense, the only difference is that you have lived during that time, and the closer it remains, the more accurate could it become. At the end of the day we are limited generational human beings. Moreover, we tend to interpret events in a context that is always different from the past. That is why I think we do not know better, for example the history of the Roman Empire, today than perhaps our scholar ancestors thousand years ago, when the first universities appeared and when Latin was the lingua-franca used among them.

So Achim, let’s continue and dig further into your experience to extract the main concerns of the German people were in 1989. How would you describe your perception of the socio-political changes that were happening in Germany? Were you aware of the historical impact of the Fall of the Berlin Wall?

At the time I was just a teenager, and all the fuzz of the cold war politics and the Soviet Union itself were a distant story that I did not consider. At the time, the main priority was to take down the Berlin wall; it was the reunification of Germany. The concept of “Einheit und Freiheit,” (Unity and Freedom) the historical German question of the German people was still on the table for many years, since basically the partition of Germany after WWII. Even West Germany’s first chancellor Konrad Adenauer in reality never thought that Bonn was really the capital of Germany; it was considered as a provisory seat. The wall represented, therefore, that physical impediment dictated from the two superpowers over Germany, against that German concept of unity and freedom. One needs to understand that in the context of the previous historical settings, before WWII, in the German mind the Weimar Republic represented indeed an achievement compared to the imperial period, but. It was the dichotomy between cultural flowering and the political disorder which also characterized Weimar that led to the immoderate politics of the thirties. Hitler therefore came on a specific time and with a particular mission to establish unity of the Germans, at home and with those abroad, and reply to the Versailles humiliation with a “Grössdeutsch lösung.” Hitler’s geopolitical ideas and policies, from a German point of view, tried in preserving the European balance of powers, while extra-European powers were condemning Germany to mediocrity and, ultimately, all of Europe to external domination, which in fact, after WWII, really happened.

Connecting this situation during 1939-1941 to the situation of the Cold War and the agitations of the last months of 1989, it was beyond my scope of just hammering down the wall. Frankly, it was not even about democracy in the GDR. In fact, if you look back, whether the GDR was a democracy is a controversial issue, and that is why several “Ossis” (Germans originating from the Eastern part) still today feel nostalgic about the GDR, and even about the social system.

Anyway, as I said, in 1989 I was in Berlin just for freedom and unity, and that was clearly wished for and shared on both sides of the wall. In other words, yes, there was a wish to change and destroy that chain that was represented by the Berlin wall. But that this later went on so far to change the whole international context, the collapse of the Warsaw pact, the Soviet Union and even the end of the Cold War – I was not really thinking about it. This can only be seen now, from a distance.

How about now? How do you understand your experience after almost 3 decades have passed?

Now, after all these years, I feel I was indeed part of that popular enthusiasm that was able to challenge a rigid geopolitical system, at least for Germany, but at the same time, we should not forget that the ground was prepared for that. The “wind of change” was already blowing in the previous years, and I remember Gorbachev with his Perestroika program to rescue what was basically left of the Soviet Union. Right or wrong, many people in Russia have accused Gorbachev to have been the instigator of the collapse. Perhaps Perestroika and Glasnost were just a solution to postpone an evident disintegration of the Soviet system, but instead helped to accelerate it. But it was part of a longer process that can be seen by looking into the internal political struggles within the Soviet Union itself.

This interview has also been republished as “The Fall of the Berlin Wall 30 Years On: A student’s first-hand account” on The Graduate Institute official website.

This article was released in the first print publication of the Graduate Press. Download the Spring 2019 print edition here.

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