1989 – The Fall of the Wall

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    Beyond the German-German Horizon
    1989 Around the World

    Students at the Tianmen-Square 1989; Photo: Sadayuki Mikami/APIn Berlin the year 1989 is associated with the fall of the Wall; in Germany as a whole with the reunification of the country. Yet in an age of intensive global cultural exchange, in which internationally integrated thinking plays an ever-increasing role, it seems absolutely essential that we extend our horizon on the events of 1989 and see them from a global perspective.

    The developments that took place in the year 1989 with central Europe as their focus have bequeathed a complex legacy to the non-European world. The Czech author and politician Václav Havel, one of the protagonists of the pro-democracy movement, sensed the far-reaching utopian potential of the time when he declared: ‘I believe that the world of ideologies and doctrines is coming to an irrevocable end. We are standing on the threshold of an age of globality, an age of open society.’ (Vaclav Havel, Summer Meditations). It swiftly became apparent that from now on no more proxy wars would be fought on behalf of the US or the Soviet Union. A bipolar world order was transforming itself into a multipolar order. Suddenly there was no more Eastern bloc to constitute an intellectual or actual haven for people persecuted for their political beliefs, such as those who fled to East Germany from Chile, or to act as a political benchmark for opponents of dictatorial regimes (in Turkey, for example) or the forces of opposition in the young, independent, newly-forming African states (e.g. Algeria). With its disappearance the points of reference of a utopia, an alternative model, a humanitarian socialism, a ‘Third Way’, no longer existed. The ‘countdown to the apocalypse’ atmosphere of the nuclear arms race between the two fronts came to an end. Prior to1989 millions of people across the whole of Europe had taken to the streets as part of the peace movement, driven by the fear that a third world war, a nuclear inferno, could occur on European soil. This fear could only be overcome by the era of glasnost and perestroika that was ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev. The end of the confrontation between the two blocs also accelerated the globalisation of the financial markets and the linking of the market economy to liberal democracies. The effects of the international financial crisis are currently being experienced across the globe.

    If, from the standpoint of central Europe, we now cast a glance back at the world of 1989, it is soon apparent that many events outside Europe have changed the world; they did so at the time, and the effects of the changes are still being felt today, not least in processes that are still ongoing and are global in extent. These events took place quite independently of the fall of the Wall, or perhaps are connected to it – at any rate, ‘global histories’ result that are sometimes even interwoven with one another. Today, twenty years after the fall of the Wall, these histories have arrived in the present day. This may at first sound like a paradox – yet the way the world looks today, politically and culturally, was to a huge extent determined by the developments of the past twenty years, and 1989 was the milestone that marked the beginning. This is why one can say that the year 1989 constitutes not just a German-German turning point, nor just a European one; it is a truly global and cultural caesura.

    Wirft man nun von Mitteleuropa aus einen Blick zurück in die Welt von 1989, so zeigt sich schnell, dass viele Ereignisse außerhalb Europas die Welt über den Tag hinaus bis heute und in aktuelle Prozesse von globaler Reichweite hinein verändert haben. Sie ereigneten sich ganz unabhängig vom Fall der Mauer, oder aber sie sind damit verbunden – in jedem Falle ergeben sich „globale Geschichten“, die manchmal sogar miteinander verflochten sind. Heute, 20 Jahre nach dem Mauerfall, sind diese Geschichten in der Gegenwart angekommen. Das klingt zunächst paradox – doch wie die Welt heute politisch und kulturell aussieht, wurde in enormem Maß durch die Entwicklung der letzten 20 Jahre bestimmt, an deren Anfang das Jahr 1989 als Wegmarke stand. Deshalb kann man wohl behaupten, dass das Jahr 1989 nicht nur eine deutsch-deutsche, nicht nur eine europäische, sondern eine wahrhaft globale und kulturelle Zäsur darstellt.

    The non-German perspective

    In order to demonstrate this, I would like first of all to place particular emphasis on the people from all over the world who were living in Germany in 1989. For them the fall of the Wall was an event of far-reaching significance – in both East and West Germany. The histories of the contractors who came to East Germany from the socialist ‘brotherlands’ can be traced back to Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique or Algeria; for the ‘guest workers’ and their children in West Germany the trail leads back to Turkey and the former Yugoslavia. In the space of just a few weeks, the workers who formed part of the quota from the socialist sister states, such as Vietnam, Mozambique or Angola, as well as students and intellectuals from the ‘non-capitalistic foreign country’ of Algeria found that their situation had changed utterly. For the immigrants, the positive dynamism that the fall of the Wall unleashed in the majority of people in Germany frequently turned into its opposite. For them, very often, the fall of the Wall signified stagnation: waiting to see what would happen next. With the same speed with which the mood of the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig changed from the motto ‘We are the people’ to ‘We are one people’, it swiftly became clear that the country with which the immigrant workers’ socialist countries of origin had signed contracts establishing their status would not exist for much longer. The ‘brotherland is broke’. But what was happening at the same time in the West? ‘The Wall fell out of our heads’: this is the answer of many guest workers from Turkey and their descendants in the western part of Germany. According to the migration researcher Nevim Çil, these people have simply been forgotten as protagonists in German historical thinking. The mood of 1989 created a dangerous illusion, ‘the idea of a people of ethnic homogeneity’. In building a new national identity based on people’s ethnic background, ‘new walls’ are created, according to the Caribbean cultural theoretician Edouard Glissant: in this instance between German and non-German society, meaning that with the fall of the Wall people were suddenly turned into foreigners. So it was that with the arson attacks in Hoyerswerda, Rostock-Lichtenhagen, Mölln and Solingen these stigmatised aliens became the first victims of reunification. Suddenly racist violence was the first test for the democracy of the freshly reunified Germany. The opportunity was missed to make a new start in defining what it means to belong. Outsiders were created, and since 1989 the country continues to be – according to the thesis of Mark Terkessidis – in collective ‘transit’.

    Visual memories

    Memory is always linked to a medium – and in the global age it functions primarily on a visual level. The year 1989 has been imprinted on our visual memory; the key scenes of that year have been communicated to us by numerous international photojournalists and television reporters. These are photographic moments defined by the philosopher Walter Benjamin as moments of an individual view. Some of these crystallisation moments from that year have embedded themselves like icons in the world’s collective visual memory: there is the clenched fist of Nelson Mandela, expressing the power of this extraordinary man and indicating the beginning of the triumph over a racist system in South Africa. There is the coffin with the body of Ayatollah Khomeini, encircled by thousands of people during his funeral procession on June 4th 1989, still shaping the consciousness of the Iranian people today, more than thirty years after the Islamic Revolution. And finally there is the image of the demonstrator confronting the tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 3rd 1989. Not without reason was this photo by Charlie Cole awarded the title of World Press Photo of the Year. Beyond these iconographic highlights, further research turns a spotlight on other ‘anniversaries’. The end of the dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and Venezuela resulted in comprehensive changes to the economic and political systems there, with drastic consequences for their populations. In Kashmir an insurgency began that still continues today.

    A global look at the commemorative year shows that there were many very different reactions to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th 1989. It makes clear that events were taking place independently of the fall of the Wall which radically altered people’s lives in their respective regions. In Iran people evidently sympathised with the destruction of this Wall; after all, as a writer or artist there – not least because of the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini on 14th February 1989 – one all too often found oneself shut away behind the walls of a prison, or behind other, symbolic walls, as the author Shahrnush Parsipour describes. In Iran, the burial of the Ayatollah Khomeini was a turning point. Don de Lillo describes this crowd scene in his 1991 novel Mao II as mourning of historical proportions, mourning around a corpse that the living absolutely do not want to surrender to the dead. The epoch ushered in by his death has lasted until today, according to the theory of Cologne-based author Navid Kermani. Today – although in a quite different way – a young generation is developing its own strategies in dealing with the regime, as was most recently demonstrated following the elections in June of this year.

    China and South America

    In China, and among the Chinese who emigrated after the bloody events in Tiananmen Square on the 3rd and 4th of July 1989, there was deep despondency after the fall of the Berlin Wall. China today is still marked by the events in Tiananmen Square, even if it is a taboo subject for public discussion, which is subject to censorship. Charta 08, an appeal published in 2008 by leading intellectuals calling for more democracy, explicitly follows up on 1989’s demands for more democracy. According to Wang Dan, the former protagonist of the pro-democracy student movement, it is a signal to Europe indicating a possible China of tomorrow. The current economic crisis also puts the period of the ‘two Chinas’ post-1989 – the socialist and the capitalist – in a new light. If you connect these histories from the year 1989, it becomes apparent that it was only against the backdrop of the bloody suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in June earlier that year that the Monday demonstrations on Karl-Marx-Platz in Leipzig were able to take place so peacefully, and were not suppressed by the police and the military.

    A member of the National Guard keeps watch over suspected looters during the ‘Caracazo’ uprising in Caracas, Venezuela, 2nd March 1989; Photo: John Hopper/AP In Chile, Argentina and Venezuela, on the other hand, the fall of the Berlin Wall was greeted with relative indifference in the light of the countries’ own problems. Here too insiders’ viewpoints reveal the extent to which Central and South America – according to the Argentinian Beatriz Sarlo, a critic of contemporary cultures – felt very far removed from the course of history. As a result of the devaluation of the currency and rocketing inflation, Argentina was following a different calendar to that of Europe. In Chile the Pinochet era had come to an end; the country found itself in a post-dictatorial transition phase and was embarking on a neo-liberal economic course. In Venezuela the people were rebelling in Caracazo’s populist rebellion against the economic policy of the new president. The US invaded Panama; and Peru was being swept by a wave of violence perpetrated by the Shining Path guerrillas.

    Africa and Afghanistan

    For Angola, Namibia and South Africa, the end of the Cold War was a new dawn for independence and democracy. A ‘global moment’, as described by Andreas Eckert, was Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, which appeared imminent in 1989 and actually took place in 1990. It signified the end of the racist regime in South Africa, the transition from apartheid to democracy. The disappearance of the Communist alternative in the form of the Soviet Union was an important framework for the formal recognition of the ANC. However, 1989 also meant that European ‘back door politics’ in the ‘zones of extended influence’ in Africa were gone for good. Here too in many countries people initially tended to show solidarity with the democracy movements, in the hope that people in their own land were also capable of taking their own destinies into their own hands. Angola after the withdrawal of Cuban troops could be described as a textbook example of the situation after the end of the Cold War in Africa. Here it once again becomes apparent that the history of the world cannot be reduced simply to a history of the West. References to the ‘short’ twentieth century can also be rebutted as a eurocentric viewpoint – the Malian professor of film Manthia Diawara sees it rather as a ‘long twentieth century of nightmares’: the genocide in Rwanda took place at the same time as the democratisation movement in central Europe, and as far as the politics of memory are concerned, the general public has to this day barely come to terms with what happened.

    In Afghanistan, people today are disappointed that their own efforts in the fight against the Soviet occupation went unacknowledged, and the Red Army withdrawal was regarded solely as the result of the triumph of Western ideology over Communism. The current situation in Afghanistan can be interpreted as the consequence of the events of 1989. There was fear about what might happen when the Soviets had withdrawn. Until 9/11, Europe showed no interest at all in the post-Soviet phase, during which the Taliban gained strength. The perspective of the post-dictatorship generation in Pakistan after General Zia ul-Haq is outlined by the journalist and author Mohamed Hanif, who devotes himself at length to the topic of press freedom in Pakistan after 1989. At this point in time it is still entirely unclear how the situation in the so-called ‘Af-Pak-Region’, as it is dubbed in the jargon of international politics, will develop. Closely interwoven with the nuclear states of Pakistan and India is the Kashmir conflict, which began in 1989 after a rigged election and is now regarded as one of the most dangerous conflict in the world.

    As well as these highlights, there are other events of the year 1989 across the world that certainly deserve a mention; I do not claim to be compiling a comprehensive overview. There are too many gaps, in respect of the Arabic-speaking world, for example, which is only touched upon in the case of Algeria: Jihan El-Tahri refers to the shift from the ‘Red Peril’ to the ‘Green Peril’ in her article, which traces the connections from the Algerian mujaheddin in Afghanistan back to Algeria. The dramatic developments in the Balkans after 1989, which represent a completely opposite development from the peaceful revolutions, would also constitute a whole topic in itself: Slobodan Miloseviç’s Memorial Day speech at Kosovo Field was de facto the declaration of war in former Yugoslavia and was thus the beginning of the lethal ideology of ‘ethnic cleansing’. The world after 1989 went not only in a democratic direction but also, from the early 1990s onwards, became caught up in a parallel spiral of ethno-nationalistic violence. The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai describes this, in his book of the same name, as the geography of anger (Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger).

    The manufacturing of memory

    If we ask who creates the memories of the year 1989, it becomes clear that this process is one of interaction, of individuals and groups, of contemporary witnesses, of writers, historians, photographers, filmmakers and others. Their memories are always subjective – so one cannot really portray what happened, but only ever follow particular views of it: the literary, the journalistic, the academic, the political, the contemporary historical and the photographic. Historical events have a temporality of their own, their own spaces; their significance can be unbelievably great for the individual, small for the world, and yet retrospectively they represent significant turning points whose ‘histoires croisées’ can sometimes only be recognised at this later point in time – and this in reference to an age in which globalisation was still an unfamiliar concept. The simultaneity of the events of 1989 and their consequences show how relative our standpoints are. We cannot therefore speak of a world history in the sense of a universal history, but only of a plurality of global histories. Presenting the polyphony of different regional centres also means breaking up the eurocentricity of the politics of memory now, in 2009, and emphasising the global dimension of the events of 1989.

    Susanne Stemmler
    is a scholar of literature and cultures, and has been director of the departments of literature, science, and society at the House of World Cultures in Berlin since 2008. In her dissertation Topografien des Blicks. Orientalismen in der französischen Literatur des 19. Jahrhunderts [Topographies of View: Orientalism in the French Literature of the Nineteenth Century] (Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2004), she examines the European view of the Orient.
    The seminars ‘1989 – Global Stories’, curated by Nevim Çil, Navid Kermani, Manthia Diawara, Yang Lian und Silvia Fehrmann, took place from 19th – 22nd February 2009 in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt [House of World Cultures] in Berlin. The book 1989 – Globale Geschichten [1989 – Global Histories], with the complete and expanded articles from the project, edited by Susanne Stemmler, Valerie Smith and Bernd M. Scherer, was published in 2009 by Wallstein Verlag.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    December 2009

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