Revisiting the revolutions

In the season marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Foreign Office and embassies across London have been hosting special events to commemorate the revolutions it sparked across the Eastern Bloc and former Soviet Union.

Where were you?

“In Bonn in bed!” joked German Ambassador Boomgaarden, when asked where he was when the Berlin Wall fell. Speaking at a reception to commemorate the momentous event, he went on to say just how delicate the situation was: “It was politically risky, we honestly did not know what would happen. One wrong step and it could have been a catastrophe, but in the end not a drop of blood was spilled.”

Austrian Ambassador Gabriele Matzner-Holzer was in Berlin as the Wall came down. As consul general, she had access to both East and West Berlin. “I knew that pressure was building, that something was going to have to give, but I never expected it to happen like that. It was sensational.”

In neighbouring Czechoslovakia the atmosphere was fevered. “It was very emotional for us,” said Czech Ambassador Michael Zantovsky, who at the time was the spokesman for the Civic Forum and Vaclav Havel’s right-hand man. “As the news filtered through it inspired us to have our own revolution eight days later!”

For Romania’s Deputy Ambassador, Carmen Podgorean, stuck in deep isolation in Ceausescu’s Romania, news took a little longer to percolate through. There was no mention of it on state television news and those listening to Radio Free Europe broadcasts could only talk about it in huddles among trusted friends.

“Yet, there was a widespread perception in Romania that the “oil stain” could not be prevented from expanding,” she said.

“I remember somebody telling me that, in one of the County Meetings organised across Romania to express “the unanimous support of the masses for Ceausescu’s re-election as Party Secretary General”, an un-vetted slogan had been shouted from the crowd – saying “Ceausescu, be generous, do the same as Honecker”. But no, he wouldn’t listen thus pushing his ousting to such an extreme and violent end by Christmas in the same year…”

Meanwhile those inside the Soviet Union had suspected from the mid-1980s that the system was unravelling.

“We weren’t nearly as shocked as the people in the West when the Berlin Wall fell,” said Estonian Ambassador Margus Laidre, “But you did have a sense that you could reach out and touch history with your hand,” added the one-time history professor. “Yet, to an extent, I think there is a mental Berlin Wall that still exists in the minds of those in the West.”

Ukraine Ambassador Ihor Kharchenko was also an academic at the time. “Things were changing so fast – it was like you were writing history with chalk on a moving train.” Suddenly everybody was interested in his views. “I remember giving a presentation to a hardline communist committee – oddly they wanted to know whether Cuba would follow suit. Afterwards an old Bolshevik came up to me and said: ‘Lenin made a mistake.’ Surprised, I asked him what he meant. He shurgged: ‘Because he allowed the Soviet Union to be made of republics.’ The old man knew even then in 1989 that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was inevitable.”

Those in communist Yugoslavia greeted the news with mixed feelings, sensing with dread the dissolution of their federation. “We were happy of course that our fellow pro-democratic movements had won the day,” said Montenegrin Ambassador Dragisa Burzan, who was a professor at the time, “but we sensed the end of Yugoslavia was imminent and that in our case, there would be blood.”

Serbian Ambassador Dejan Popovic remembers the nationalistic stirrings. “Milosevic was determined to do anything to remain in power, so he changed his ugly communist shirt for an ugly nationalistic one. The forces for democracy knew this was a mistake, but the train had already been set in motion and we didn’t know how to stop it.”

As the Wall crashed down, the shock waves reverberated across the world, to some parts still engaged in the Cold War’s proxy wars. Portugal’s Ambassador Antonio Santana Carlos was in Angola negotiating Namibia’s independence and the withdrawal of Cuban and South African troops, alongside Chester Crocker, then US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa.

“There was already movement in the right direction, but the fall of the Berlin Wall really accelerated things. The Cuban troops withdrew, Namibia achieved independence a few months later and Nelson Mandela was released from prison.”

The people’s revolutions

Recently, the Embassies of Germany, Hungary, Poland and the Czech and Slovak Republics hosted a seminar at the LSE at which some of the leaders of the Eastern Bloc’s people’s revolutions reflected on their dreams of a liberated Europe – and the realities that followed.

Leader of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, reminded the audience that the collapse of communism was only made possible through solidarity: “When the people of our countries tried to change the system in isolation, it didn’t work.” He said that lesson is true today: “A unified Europe must confront authoritarianism wherever it is in the world.”

Political activist in former East Germany Markus Meckel said the dream of a unified Germany and a unified Europe had come true, but was disappointed that the issue of disarmament and nuclear proliferation was neglected.

All the panellists regretted the economic hardship inflicted on their citizens following the end of communism, as well as reckless privatisation. “I wish we had ignored the bad advice we got from outsiders,” said former Polish Prime Minister Jan Krzysztof Bielecki.

Russia’s growing authoritarianism was a concern for all the panellists. “Our relations with Russia need to be based on openness and equality; we can’t be held hostage because of oil and energy,” stressed Havel.

Britain and the fall of the wall

The ornate surroundings of Lancaster House held court to a witness seminar on Britain’s foreign policy at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, opened by the new Minister for Europe Chris Bryant.

Organised by the Chief Historian Professor Patrick Salmon and his team in conjunction with the German Embassy in London, the seminar included high-profile politicians, diplomats, academics and journalists from both Britain and Germany who had been closely involved in the events leading up to the fall of the wall in 1989, many as eyewitnesses.

Declassified papers debunked the myth that Britain was opposed to German unification and showed how the UK was committed to German self-determination throughout the post-war period.

Panellists agreed that although the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was open about her reservations regarding unification, these did not detract from Britain’s fundamental support for Germany. Indeed, the UK played a crucial role in the Two plus Four negotiations which brought about Germany’s peaceful unification in 1990, with British officials bringing experience, expertise and precision to the table.

Main speakers included the former West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, former Foreign Office Minister William Waldegrave, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Private Secretary Charles Powell, former East German political opposition leader Markus Meckel and journalist and academic Timothy Garton-Ash.

The seminar publicised the launch of two new books, Britain and German Unification 1989-1990 and Berlin in the Cold War 1948-1990. These volumes, part of a regular series entitled Documents on British Policy Overseas, made public many official records detailing Britain’s relations with Germany.

The highlights of the FCO witness seminar can be viewed online in a special video at:

In addition, the full transcripts of the event will be made available on the web-sites of the FCO and the Margaret Thatcher Foundation

More information on the new DBPO books and details on how to buy them can be found at:

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