Wall's collapse set off era of change

10 years on, Germans struggle with perils, promise of new order

November 07, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BERLIN -- Andrej Heinke remembers the clinking of hammers smashing concrete and the line of honking Trabant cars heading out of East Germany.

He recalls a first trip to freedom in Bavaria, where he slept under the stars and was awakened by a smiling police officer who gave him breakfast. He describes living a life filled with once-unimaginable opportunities, of attending college in America and working for a multinational automaker.

But it's the daily ride across the old line on the No. 100 bus that reminds the soft-spoken 31-year-old political scientist how far he and the world have come in the decade since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"When we were younger, we could see the Brandenburg Gate, but we couldn't go through it," he says. "Now, we can go through it on a bus. I still think how special this is."

Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people are still coping with the consequences of the epic events ignited when East Germans began pouring through the breach Nov. 9, 1989.

An old order forged by two world wars and the Cold War was torn asunder as old conflicts of West vs. East, capitalism vs. communism, evaporated nearly overnight. When Berlin broke open, the long, bloody drama of the 20th century reached a turning point.

The Berlin Wall's fall touched off a giant wave that changed nearly everything in its path, from maps to economics, wars to politics, transforming the improbable into the seemingly inevitable.

One look at the decade's dizzying pace of change shows starkly the realignment of a continent and its people.

Two Germanys were made into one country, the colossus of central Europe. Czechs and Slovaks divorced amicably. Yugoslavia disintegrated.

The Soviet Union, born in revolution in 1917, grown to maturity as a post-World War II superpower, died in 1991, freeing a polyglot of new republics to venture into the world of free-market economies.

The Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact collapsed, while NATO expanded, taking in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Free-market capitalism, with all its benefits and perils, galloped across the continent. Where once there were lines for daily necessities such as bread and milk, there now seemed to be a McDonald's on every corner, and Sony stereos and Levi jeans in the shops. Media censorship was lifted, and information leaped across the region. The Internet was embraced by the young, who found that with the click of a mouse they could tell the world what was happening in war zones.

Overwhelming change

But a generation of older workers was left behind as inefficiently run factories were shut down. Those who had been guaranteed jobs for life could not cope in the new fast-buck world.

One symbol of the changing times is the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, seat of the Solidarity worker rebellion that helped drag down communism. The yard has endured hard times under a free-market economy, including bankruptcy and the loss of thousands of jobs. One of the disused warehouses served as a disco.

Even Solidarity's former leader, Lech Walesa, looks back on the decade with a mixture of pride and sorrow. In a recent interview with Radio Free Europe, he said, "My observation is that we actually had won the war, but we have not won the peace."

With all the dreams unleashed by the Berlin Wall's fall came nightmares, too.

Who could have predicted the spread of the Russian mob into Western Europe? Who foresaw the rise of neo-Nazism among disaffected youth from the old East Germany? And whatever happened to the peace dividend that was to be gained after the Cold War ended?

For decades, the certainties of East-West confrontation kept ethnic hatreds from bubbling to the surface. Without the wall and tight political discipline imposed by potential superpower confrontation, long-suppressed ethnic hatreds caused bloodshed.

From Sarajevo to Grozny, the Balkans to the Caucasus, conflict the like of which hasn't been seen in Europe since World War II swept through the continent's harshest terrain, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and old antagonisms unsettled. The 10 years that began with the Berlin Wall's fall is ending after NATO warplanes bombed Belgrade, a European capital city.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes the great perils and promises of the wall's fall as much as this: In the Serbian province of Kosovo, an armed multinational peace-keeping force -- which includes Americans, French, British and Russians -- is commanded by a German general.

"It has been 10 years since the end of the Cold War. We know that era has ended. We're not in the new era yet," says Steve Szabo of the Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

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