Why the Wall was Built.
The Berlin wall is the symbol most often evoked by anti communist propaganda, and it is therefore worth briefly looking at why the Berlin Wall was built before discussing its fall.
In a system where everything is nationalized, planning requires a semi-static labor force; the labor market is effectively eliminated. Labor force allocation posed severe challenges for the administrative bureaucracy under the centralized planning system, but this was exacerbated in Berlin by the open border to the West between1949-1961.
In the Electro-Machine Works in Treptow, the largest factory in East Berlin in 1961, of over 1000 workers in 1960, only 600 remained in 1961. Many had emigrated to the West. Others were working in West Berlin earning hard currency. Such income, when changed on the black market, was much higher than they could earn from work in the East. This undermined all attempts to bureaucratically plan and risked economic collapse unless something was done to stop people leaving, and that something was the building of the Berlin Wall.
In fact, the open border to West Berlin and Western Germany could have been used to the advantage of the East German and Soviet economies by creating special economic zones along the model later successfully implemented in China. In the 1950s, technology in the East was only slightly behind the West. The sealed economy closed behind the Wall acted as a spur to independent development and 'peaceful competition' but it closed off all normal commercial channels to facilitate technology transfer, and also created typical bureaucratic planning errors.
But instead of implementing successful economic reforms similar to those later adopted in China under Deng Xiaoping, the Soviet leader Khrushchev was blinded by Yuri Gagarin's earth-shaking space voyage into a costly arms and space race with the USA. He believed, and US leaders feared, that victory in the space race would set the USSR on the path to economic victory over the west. In these circumstances Khrushchev presented a 20-year plan to catch up with and overtake the West, and implement Marx's definition of communism, 'from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs' by 1980.
Why the Wall Fell.
In May 1989 the Hungarian Government cut barbed wire on their western border, the Iron Curtain was open and East Germany's severe restrictions on foreign travel became unworkable.
In East Germany the stagnation caused by bureaucratic centralism and excessive nationalization, combined with the inability of the ruling Socialist Unity Party to respond quickly and effectively to social unrest and mass incidents, meant the Party lost the initiative in shaping events.
The sight of East Germans fleeing to the West provoked profound self-reflection amongst the people and within the Party and an attempt was made to find ways reduce the internal contradictions in East German society.
From September to December 1989 all the political groups were committed to the continued prevalence of public ownership and the democratization of power and the media. All advocated change within the socialist system. People participated in mass demonstrations and rallies under the slogans "Wir Sind Das Volk" (we are the people) demanding deep going reform of their society.
The ruling Socialist Unity Party gave permission for a march and rally in East Berlin on November 4th 1989, where Party officials, intellectuals and opposition forces would address the issues of concern. About half a million people attended this meeting which raised the idea of a new reformed East German society.
The East German socialist and author Stephan Heym spoke to the rally. "Dear friends, fellow citizens, it is as if someone had thrown open the window after all the years of stagnation, spiritual, economic, political, The years of dullness and stench, of phrase-mongering and bureaucratic arbitrariness, of official blindness and deafness. What a change! Only four weeks ago were not wooden tribunes erected around the corner here, on the parade, of the summoned before the Nobility! And today! Here today you have gathered each of you out of your own free will, for freedom and democracy and for a socialism worthy of the name."
Steffie Spira an actress and Communist Party member since 1931, recalled the words of Bertolt Brecht,
"In praise of dialectics
The way things are, they will not remain
He, who is alive, never says never
He who has recognized his condition cannot be held back
And from never, will come on this very day."
The plenary session of the Central Committee of November 9th 1989 agreed regulations allowing full freedom to travel, but the press officer Gunter Schabowski foolishly announced that the Wall was open before the border troops or police were informed. The consequence was a dangerous standoff at border control points where permission to allow unhindered travel was eventually granted at 23.30. The way the border was opened undermined Party and state authority and was
presented by the Western media as the defining point in the 'end of the Cold War' and the victory of capitalism.
Indeed within weeks of the opening of the Berlin Wall the differences in work-productivity between West and East appeared to overwhelm all good arguments against capitalism.
In the East consumer goods were generally limited in variety and of poor quality compared with those available in West Berlin. On the basis of the market-exchange rate an unemployed worker in West Berlin had a higher purchasing power than a skilled worker in the East. One consequence of restrictive and narrow trade policy was that in East Berlin there were hardly any Chinese goods and only one Chinese restaurant, yet in West Berlin there were dozens of Chinese restaurants and Chinese goods were freely available in the shops.
The West German leader Chancellor Kohl proposed to get rid of the Eastern German currency and swap it for the West Mark as a way to stabilize the East and reunify the country. The exchange rate of the East Mark on the black market fluctuated wildly for several months. Uncertainty and unrest shifted the popular mood in favor of German unification as the quickest means to bring about material improvement and social stability.
The power vacuum was one of the foremost problems in the minds of the Four Powers, Britain, France, the USSR, and the USA, as they watched the regime disintegrate with alarm. It was with equal foreboding that they observed Chancellor Kohl carry out a fundamental shift in the European balance of forces by unifying Germany under West German law.
After the opening of the Wall the workers kept factories running, and hoped that investors from the West would come and retool the factories in order to acquire modern technology and secure employment. But, in fact public property was sold off below value and many felt betrayed by the results of unification. Economic transformation led to mass unemployment and widespread discontent in the 1990s. Now over 90% of East Germany belongs to West Germans. In the East there is a feeling of having been colonized. As a result the reformed former Socialist Unity Party has regained a significant foothold in the East. Now under a new name, the 'Left Party', it won 11.9% of the votes in the 2009 all-German elections and is the largest party in much of Eastern Germany.
Today's global economic crisis has led many in Germany to ponder whether Marx was right after all. Although few want East Germany back, the Left Party is gaining support for its radical stance, expressed in the words of its Party Chairman Oskar Lafontaine. "We want to overthrow capitalism."
Heiko Khoo writes for Rotdorn the magazine of the youth section of the Left Party in Berlin and was an eyewitness to the Fall of the Wall in 1989 email@example.com