Page last updated at 10:06 GMT, Saturday, 14 November 2009

Celebrating the fall of the Wall

Monday marked the 20th anniversary of Berliners freely being allowed to cross the Wall, built in 1961 to divide their city.

BBC Radio Scotland's reporter Huw Williams was in Berlin to see the celebrations and reflect on the consequences.

Now he's moving on to see what happened in other parts of central and eastern Europe.

He is keeping a diary about his trip through the week:


Jozsef Torley must have been quite a guy.

After learning how to make champagne, at Reims in France, at the end of the nineteenth century, he set up a champagne house on the outskirts of Budapest in Hungary.

Laszlo Ruszina and Maria Torley
Laszlo Ruszina and Maria Torley told of their struggles under the old regime

The business survived the World War One unscathed.

But the plant was badly bombed in the World War Two. The family repaired and rebuilt it.

But in 1950, as soon as the work was finished, the communists took it into state ownership.

And the government confiscated all the family's property, and sent them into internal exile, near Hungary's border with what was then the USSR.

Jozsef Torley's great grand-daughter, Maria Torley, told me the story as we sat, surrounded by sculptures that she's made, in her home.

She's an elegant figure, wearing a simple necklace, and a stylish black dress. But at the time the family was banished, as enemies of the people, she was a little girl.

And the events she's describing seem almost incredible.

"My father was a lawyer. He spoke five languages," she tells me. "But he wasn't allowed to practise. He had to take a job as a brick-layer."

"And my mother could have been a talented painter. But she was forced to work as an x-ray assistant in a hospital."

"But we never complained. We just knew that we had to survive, while that dirty gang was in power."

And, she says, the suffering she and her family went through has made her the artist that she is today.

"Every artist needs a certain amount of pain, to make them a mature person", she tells me.

But as if all that wasn't enough, Maria Torley's husband - Laszlo Ruszina - has his own story to tell.

In 1983 he was imprisoned.

"It was a terrible experience," he says.

"It's true that I had been active against the Communist regime. I helped to publish and distribute illegal underground literature. And I supported people who went on hunger strike."

He accepts, then, it's not surprising that Hungary's secret police were watching him.

"They started collecting information on me from the age of 14. In fact, when they opened up the secret archives I went to see what they'd got on me, and there was a pile of files about 2ft high."

But - he says - when the state acted against him, it wasn't for any of the things he'd really been doing.

A crowd celebrates the declaration of the fourth Hungarian Republic in 1989
A crowd celebrates the declaration of the fourth Hungarian Republic in 1989

Instead, they got him on trumped-up charges of buying stolen silver for the workshop where he made jewellery.

"Their main purpose was to get me to co-operate with them. They wanted me as an informer. The first day I was in prison, a senior secret policeman came to see me. He told me they'd release me straight away if I'd help them. But I refused."

So they kept him for four and a half years.

"My son was just three months old when they took me away. He was almost five when I was set free."

That son - Istvan - is in his mid-twenties now.

He sat in silence, listening, as his mum and dad told their stories.

Then he explained that he knows his parents suffered a lot, and everything they went through has changed them as people.

But, he goes on, "I think all that is the reason I am who I am."

"Their stories have taught me to live in the moment, and to try and value everything in my life."

"Of course," he laughs, "I'm sorry we don't own that champagne factory any more".

"But on the other hand if all that hadn't happened, I wouldn't be the same person. I wouldn't have the same friends. I might not even have been born, if my mother and father hadn't been through everything they endured."

"So, luckily, life happened as it happened. And that's okay."

In the taxi back to my hotel, I ask Bea the producer who translated the Hungarian for me about the stories we'd been hearing.

"Every family in Hungary could tell you stories like that", she says.


When Communism fell, people in East Germany - the former GDR - lost their country.

And many people in the rest of central and eastern Europe felt their world had fallen apart.

They had to start again, building a new life, and living according to a totally new set of rules.

Lajosh Kovaes
Lajosh Kovaes said policing was easier before the wall came down

I've had an insight into just how difficult that is, since I've been in Budapest, the capital of Hungary.

Take the police, for example.

Suddenly, they weren't accountable just to the Communist Party, but to the public as a whole.

They had to learn what we in the West call "policing by consent".

Lajosh Kovaes served as a police officer for almost 40 years.

He joined the force in his twenties, because he hadn't done well enough at school to become an architect.

He quickly became a detective, specialising in solving murders.

In the course of his career, he's worked on hundreds of cases.

Recently, he was a senior advisor to investigating officers.

He reached the rank of Colonel, before retiring.

Now he works on the files of cold cases - trying to see if he can find leads earlier officers missed.

He says his job was never political.

In Communist Hungary, most murders were domestic; the result of rows between friends; or of robberies that went wrong. Just like in the rest of the world.

But he knows only too well that some other people who called themselves policemen did unspeakable, shameful things.

"In the old days" he tells me "officers thought they were above the law."

So, yes, they used force and violence when they interrogated suspects.

But since the fall of Communist, he insists, "there is more corruption than there used to be, and policemen and women are involved in more serious crimes."

Hungarian Parliament is lighted by national tricolor lights to commemorate the 1956 uprising
Budapest emerged from behind the Iron Curtain in 1989

"Such as?" I ask.

"There are examples of officers getting involved in robberies, or even murders," he tells me.

"Of course" he adds "the number of such cases is very small, and we always take them very seriously, and investigate them thoroughly."

He goes on "it was much easier to be a policeman before the change of regime."

"As everything got more liberal, crime too became more difficult to control. The economy changed; society changed; the poor got poorer, and the rich got richer."

"Also, after regime change there were wars in the Balkans, which brought military men and their weapons into Hungary."

"And we have much more of a problem now with organised economic crime. So in the 1990s we had five years of explosions and killings, as rival gangs battled for control of territory."

So, he tells me, the crime rate went up dramatically after the fall of Communism.

It's starting to go down now, but it's still not as low as it was.

All this, he says, as the police are learning to cope with the strains of working in a democracy.

"It's difficult. We get pressure in the media. They sometimes get it wrong, and accuse us of working for the government even though we're determined to work without politics."

"And they put pressure on us to get results. Sometimes that means we get it wrong. We arrest and prosecute the wrong people just to get a result - any result - to keep the public, and the press happy."


"I love Scotland."

My new friend's face shone with enthusiasm.

We were talking in a fantastic, bizarre, bar in a replica Alpine skiing lodge, built on a man-made beach in the centre of Berlin.

Outside, although we were between the main railway station and the Reichstag, there were tonnes of sand. And palm trees.

Prague demonstration for reform - 1989
Demonstrations in Prague led to the overthrow of the government

Inside, there was good company; excellent beer; and delicious sausages and dumplings.

The girl I was talking to looked rueful, for a moment.

"I've never been there," she admitted, "but I love the landscape, and the art. I love Sean Connery. And I love Braveheart."

But, she said, she wasn't sure if she ever wanted to actually visit Scotland.

What if the reality didn't live up to her dreams?

I remembered that conversation, when I got to Prague.

The former Czechoslovakia, like all the Communist states, portrayed itself as a workers' paradise.

It was supposed to be a place where everyone would be equal. Where each would contribute, according to their abilities. And receive, according to their needs.

What they ended up with was a system that crushed debate. A secret police that spied on citizens, and tortured those who wouldn't conform. A place where importing literature or music deemed subversive meant you'd end up in prison.

And - I learned - a security apparatus that was even capable of intercepting the post, to stop a young boy being offered a part in a film because his parents were prominent dissidents.

After 20 years of repression people began to demonstrate.

A few hundred at first. Then a few thousand. Then tens of thousands.

Many fled to Czechoslovakia from the former East Germany
Many fled to Czechoslovakia from the former East Germany

I talked to Martin Klima, one of the organisers of the crucial student demonstration held in Prague on 17th November 1989.

"We wanted to start an independent students union," he told me.

"Under socialism the students union we had was part of the state."

That was all they planned to do.

But they ended up toppling the entire regime.

It's called Prague's "Velvet Revolution".

But now, Martin Klima says, he wishes they been "a bit less Velvet".

In other words, that the new democratic government had done more to pursue and punish those guilty of the worst excesses of the past.

He says he's baffled that, in elections, the Communists continue to get about 15% of the vote.

But, Martin Klima laughed, "it's easy with hindsight to wish that we'd had more foresight."

If my friend from the bar in Berlin ever does come to Scotland, she'll find the reality may be different from her dreams.

But that isn't a reason not to come.

I hope, though, that she won't be too disappointed if she doesn't meet Sir Sean.

Or if not many Scots have accents exactly like Mel Gibson's.


Funny things, borders.

When I was in Berlin, someone showed me a map produced in the old East Germany at the time when the Berlin Wall was still standing.

About 200,000 people gather on Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czechoslovakia on Nov. 21, 1989
Thousands gathered in Wenceslas Square after the Berlin Wall fell.

It was a street map of east Berlin.

The border with the west was marked clearly enough.

But on the other side of the border, the map showed forest and park-land, criss-crossed by a few random roads.

No sign at all of the rest of the city.

Frank Wahlig is a correspondent with German television. A West German, he now lives in east Berlin.

But, he told me: "When my wife goes shopping in what used to be West Berlin, she talks about going over to the West. And whenever we go to see her parents we still ring them and say 'We've just crossed the border'."

The border he's talking about disappeared at the re-unification of Germany, in 1990.

But it lives on in Frank's head.

"It's partly just habit," he explained.

"It's partly a bit romantic, but it's also because these things get engrained in your brain."

I was thinking about borders on the fast, efficient train that took me from Berlin to Prague.

It's hard to know when you've crossed from Germany into the Czech Republic.

czechs attack soviet tank 1968
The Prague Spring uprising was crushed 20 years before the wall fell

The scenery stays the same.

The buildings look the same. Plenty of those onion domes that are so typical of central and eastern Europe.

The people look the same.

But after a while I noticed that the language had changed on station signboards.

The clincher was when I saw that my mobile phone had found a new service provider. One that ends with "CZ", instead of the one that ended "DE" for Deutschland.

But, of course, borders matter.

Our tickets had been checked by a German train guard. But now we were in another country. So another man, in a different uniform, came to check again.

When Alexander Dubcek - former First Secretary of the Czech Communist Party - tried an experiment in glasnost and perestroika almost 20 years ahead of Mikhail Gorbachev, he found Warsaw Pact tanks crossing the borders, in what was claimed to be an act of "fraternal assistance".

So the "Prague Spring" was crushed.

Then in 1989, dissidents in Prague saw and heard news from the demonstrations being organised across the border in Leipzig and Dresden, as East Germans protested against their government.

Just days after the Berlin Wall was breached, tens of thousands of students and young people protested in Prague.

And just days after that, the communist regime fell; the playwright Vaclav Havel became President; and the country - still at that time Czechoslovakia - became a democracy.

Three years later, of course, the country split apart.

Then there was a new border - between the Czech republic, and Slovakia.


We will get to the Brandenburg Gate, the fireworks, and the festivities, I promise.

But I'm starting at the wheel of a Trabant - one of the best known brands produced by East Germany's motor industry.

Huw Williams driving a Trabant
Finding first gear proved a major task for the intrepid Mr Williams

They are small, cramped, noisy cars, which belch out incredible quantities of thick, oily smoke.

But they've found a new life in one of Berlin's most unusual tourist attractions - the Trabant Safari.

A convoy of Trabbies sets off on a tour round the city.

A few people point and smile.

But Berlin's taxi drivers know better. Most overtake us as soon as they can.

They know that, like me, the people driving the cars have never been behind the wheel of a Trabant before.

So, frankly, we're struggling.

At a short break in the trip, I tackle the guide who's been giving instructions via a walkie-talkie on the dashboard.

"They are hideous cars, aren't they?" I demand, rather petulantly.

To be honest, I'm still smarting because I couldn't find first gear as we pulled out of a tunnel, and I nearly reversed into the car behind.

But our guide bristles, defensively.

Okay, he concedes, it could take 18 years from the time that you ordered a Trabant until you actually got it.

The story goes that parents used to put their children's names down for a new car as soon as they were born.

With any luck, by the time they were old enough for a driving licence, their car might actually have been delivered.

But you have to understand, he explains, what having a car at all meant to citizens of East Germany.

It meant freedom; the open road; the ability to travel.

An iconic Trabant in front of a replica section of the Berlin Wall

And anyway, he claims, when they were first built - in the 1950s - they were very advanced cars.

And - just as some people claim to love the Trabant - some people at Monday night's "Festival of Freedom" in Berlin were sad that East Germany is no more.

One woman told me there were winners and losers, in the re-unification of Germany.

"I'm one of the losers," she said.

She finds herself - 20 years on - still without a job, and unable to afford to put her heating on.

Her children have all had to move away, to find work.

"What is my quality of life?" she asked me.

And 19-year-old Maria was also keen to point out that there were good and bad things about the old GDR.

"Education was very cheap," she explains. "And my grandparents tell me that goods were very cheap, and everyone had a job."

But even Maria says she would never want to see East and West Germany split apart again, or the Wall re-built.

And most people watching the speeches by world leaders, and enjoying the fireworks, and the music, told me they thought the opening of borders was a cause for celebration.

"This was a good remembering," 75-year-old Dennis tells me. "We are happy that all these things happened."

And a woman in the crowd declares "freedom is the most important thing on earth."


Waiting in Heathrow for the flight to Berlin, I heard a German man talking in English to his young son.

Perhaps they'd been looking at one of the articles in just about every newspaper or magazine.

"That Wall came down 20 years ago," the father said.

His son replied, as young children always do: "Why?"

Brandenburg Gate
The Brandenburg Gate was a famous landmark along the Wall's route

As dad replied, I could hear the vitriol in his voice.

"Because we hated that Wall," he said.

And of course many many East Berliners feel the same.

Selke was just 16 when the Wall was breached.

Her family lived on one of the streets that ran up to the Wall, and she gets very emotional whenever she talks about it.

"It's like an explosion in my heart," she told me.

"Before I had no chances. After the Wall came down, I had every chance."

She'd been being groomed as a gymnast for the old East Germany.

If the Wall had stayed, she could have been representing the GDR at international level.

But she wanted to be an artist.

Now she can make her art. Very abstract, action paintings.

Not the sort of thing that the East German regime would have encouraged.

But there is another view.

Marko is 46 - some 10 years older than Selke.

Dominos along the Berlin Wall
Some 1,000 giant dominos will be toppled during the official ceremony

He told me that when he heard people were being allowed to cross the Wall, he didn't believe it.

But after two months, he decided to go and see for himself.

The West Berlin government paid people visiting from the East money, because the costs were so much higher.

Marko laughed, as he remembered that some people found a way to wipe the stamp from their passport, so they could get the grant several times.

But even then, he said, he didn't think re-unification of Germany would make any difference to him, personally.

"Not until I lost my job," he says.

"My company was bought by a West German company, and they wanted me to move 120km, but I refused to go."

Then things got tough.

"It was hard," he told me.

"There was no work, and the cattle we raised on the family farm were worth nothing. They didn't meet European rules, so we couldn't sell them."

Despite years of training as a chef, he couldn't find work in a kitchen, so he had to take a job managing a team of security guards.

"It's okay, but I'd really like to be running a kitchen again."

Perhaps that kind of nostalgia, mixed with West Germans' resentment at the costs of re-unification, explain why a recent poll found one in seven Berliners wish the Wall was back.

One man I was talking to warned me not to read too much into that statistic.

"People say everything was wonderful then," he told me.

"The weather was better, the girls were prettier, and everyone had a job. But it's never going to happen. It doesn't matter how many people say it. The Wall isn't coming back."

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