Newspapers love a good anniversary. And given that November 9, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, commemorates one of the great dramatic moments in history, as well as giving editors a chance to be uncharacteristically upbeat about Western society, it is little wonder they have gone to town with the story over the last week.
On Monday, the day of the anniversary itself, comment has fallen largely into one of two camps: ‘What is the “new wall”?’ and ‘I was there when…’.
In the fight for big names with which to add a certain gloss the comment pages, The Times and the FT appear to have come out on top.
In The Times, Mikhail Gorbachev, whose role in the fall of communism was rhapsodied by Rodric Braithwaite in the FT last week, is one of the ‘new wall’-ers, writing passionately and convincingly about the threat posed by global warming.
Former US presidential candidate John McCain in the FT also keeps his analysis rooted in current events, mentioning the struggle being fought for human rights in countries such as Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe and Burma. Interestingly, he did not include China on that list, choosing not to put the boot in to President Obama and Hillary Clinton, who have been accused of soft-pedalling on that country’s human rights violations. It will be interesting to see how far he raises the issue when he visits China next week.
Joschka Fischer, Germany’s former vice chancellor, writing in the Guardian, agrees with Gorbachev that the new threat to global stability is climate change. But the paper’s Timothy Garton Ash, writing a rather more personal account, mentions the Chinese government’s internet firewall as the next great wall in need of tearing down.
It is the personal stories that bring some of the most poignant and memorable details. For the Telegraph’s Adrian Bridge, the memories are largely joyous, but in the Guardian, former East-Berliner Bruni de la Motte reminds us that the consequences of the fall were not entirely positive, not least the sharp rise in unemployment. Amid the self-congratulation of Western politicians and diplomats that has marked much of the anniversary’s coverage, hers is too important a story to forget.
But amid the accounts from grandly-titled statesmen and individual agitators, one man’s story stands out as perhaps the most crucial in the dramatic events of November 9, 1989. That is the tale of Harold Jaeger, the border guard at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing. He was the first man to open the gate, and as the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen describes, had he chosen, amid confusion and a lack of leadership from the East German authorities, to fire on the crowd gathering at the crossing, rather than to open the gate, the history of Europe and the world could have been very different indeed.