Tag Archives: berlin wall

Government confirms new 20 year rule for official documents

The National Archives website has confirmed that the long-standing 30 year rule for the release of official documents will be reduced to a new 20 year rule from 2013 onwards. From 2013, two years worth of documents will be released each year, until the ‘backlog’ is cleared by 2023.

The change follows a review of the 30 year rule that I covered way back in 2009. We can look forward to important documents being released on key events in history, much sooner after they actually happened – it should be a real bonus for historians and researchers.

Some of the records that we should get to see early in the next few years include Northern Ireland in the 1980’s, the miners strike, Lockerbie, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the first Gulf War.

Traditionally the 30 year rule had given protection to politicians and civil servants, that there actions would not be scrutinised too closely in the immediate aftermath of events. Of course, there is a fine balancing act between confidentiality on the one hand, and transparency and probity on the other.

One restrictive rule that is still in place is the 100 year rule for the release of census information. However, the 1911 census was released a couple of years early in 2009, and there is a Freedom of Information appeal ongoing for the wartime ‘mini-census’ to be released early.

I would also like to see a radical shift from the shortsighted British practice of charging for access to records, compared to countries such as Canada and Australia who make many documents available online for free. It stifles historic research to a degree that the mandarins and accountants could never understand.

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Matt Frei’s ‘Berlin’

Matt Frei

Matt Frei

Regular readers will know that I have a bit of a soft spot for Berlin, where historical cities are concerned. Therefore I was excited to see Matt Frei’s recent series on the German Capital, which was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As his name suggests, Frei is is of German ancestry. Born in 1963 in Essen, West Germany, he left Germany at the age of 10, studied at Oxford and became the BBC’s Washington correspondent. As such he is ideally placed to commentate on the complex and unique story of Berlin. This isnt somebody commenting on Berlin from the outside, but from the inside.

Rather than taking a purely chronological approach – as Andrew Marr has done recently in his ‘Making of Modern Britain’ – Frei quite wisely avoids this easy but confusing option. Berlin has such a twisted and complex history that it makes much more sense explained thematically. That is, to take a theme, and follow it through the ages. As such, the three programmes in the series are each themed on Politics, Architecture and Society. And it makes for quite a balanced and well structured approach.

Frei makes use of some very interesting eyewitness accounts, and some moving interviews. Overall it is very watchable indeed. I hope this isnt his last attempt at history-making. Although a political correspondent, he doesnt dwell too much on high politics. The statesmen and ordinary people do not compete for air time, their experiences complement each other – as seen in JFK’s famous speech in Berlin in 1963.

Like perhaps no other city on earth, Berlin WAS the 20th Century in case study. It is incredible how much change, tension, bloodshed, division, but also creativity and freedom can fill one city in such a short space of time. Its quite a unique place with a character all of its own, and this is something that Matt Frei puts across very well.

The series is still available to view on BBC iplayer, and you can also obtain a free acompanying guide to Berlin from the Open University.

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Filed under Architecture, News, On TV, politics, social history, World War One, World War Two

The Berlin Wall: 20 years on

the fall of the Berlin Wall

the fall of the Berlin Wall

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989. I can remember my mum and dad waking me up to watch it on tv, and not really being sure what it was about. My how things change, now its me explaining things to them!

The fall of the Berlin wall, in hindsight, seems to have been inevitable, with Reagan’s ‘tear down this wall’, Lech Walesa’s soliarity in Poland, and Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies. But it was anything but inevitable. While there was a growing movement for change in Eastern Europe, the East German regime was still relatively Stalinist in outlook. But communism had always sat uneasily in Germany. Although it was the most prosperous communist state in eastern europe – not that that is saying much – there was widespread discontent at living conditions, archaic restrictions and the arbitrary division of a country.

Matters came to a head in 1989. Widespread protests gave the regime a dilemma. Refugees had found a way of escaping to the west via Czechoslovakia. To ease the complications and attempt to stop the flood the politburo agreed to lift restrictions on the border crossings with West Germany, including in Berlin. The Govenrment spokesman making the announcement made a critical error, and informed the media that this was with immediate effect. This unleashed a tide of humanity, East German citizens who flocked to the wall and eventually crossed over to the west. The Border Guards, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and the situation, were ordered to let them pass.

Within a year, East and West Germany were reunified once more.

But how did the wall come about in the first place?

Since its inception shortly after the end of the second world war, the east had suffered a flood of people leaving to go to the better living conditions in the west. Millions of people fled. It was estimated that in a short time there would be hardly anyone left in the east. In particular, most of the refugees were young, skilled and educated people – exactly the kind of people the east could ill afford to lose.

The regime in the east were faced with a dilemma. The situation could not continue, but could they risk appearing so draconian under the worlds gaze? Berlin was already a miscroscopic view of the wider Cold War. In June 1961 the East German Leader Walter Ulbricht said ‘No one has any intention of building a wall’. Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, this was giving the game away.

In August 1961 construction of the Berlin wall started. Miles and miles of barbed wire were installed, and eventually transformed into a three metre high concrete wall, with wide killing zones, look out towers and anti-personnel mines. Although the East would call it an ‘anti-fascist barrier’, they were not fooling anyone. It was to keep people IN, not OUT. However, it also effectively sealed West Berlin inside East Germany.

There was little the West could do. In 1961 American tanks faced down their Russian counterparts at Checkpoint Charlie, before both sides withdrew diplomatically. Kennedy visited in 1963 to lend his moral support, and spoke those famous words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. But he was also pragmatic about the wall, saying ‘its not a nice solution, but a wall is sure better than a war’.

136 people died attempting to cross the wall, out of around 5,000 escape attempts. Among them were Peter Fechter, who was caught in no mans land, shot and left to bleed to death in full view of the worlds media. Conrad Schumann, an east German border guard, found his moment to escape across the wire, and was captured in one of the most famous photographs of all time.

In the end, the Berlin Wall was probably one of the events that put a nail in the coffin of global communism. If you need to build a wall to keep people in because they are so unhappy, it says a lot about the life you are making them live.

Berlin is one of my favourite places in the world to visit, and the Berlin Wall is such a fascinating story in world history. But, I have to stress, anyone who goes to Berlin and buys what they think is a piece of the Berlin wall, congratulations, you’ve just purchased a piece of the Tricorn!

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Book Review – the Berlin wall by Frederick Taylor

The Berlin Wall - Frederick Taylor

The Berlin Wall - Frederick Taylor

One of my favourite memories of College – and to be fair, there arent many of them – has to be travelling round Central and Eastern Europe in 10 days. Out of all the places in Europe, I think perhaps the most fascinating city for me has to be Berlin. History wise, its got something of everything – some classic ancient history museums, the legacy of Frederick the Great, the stunning Bismarck era buildings, the sights of two world wars, and of course no other city captures the absurd conflict that was the cold war better than Berlin. Berlin really was the 20th Century under a microscope.

Frederick Taylor’s masterful book serves as an ideal chronological history on the Berlin Wall, but also covers such a complex subject by delving into broader themes along the way – the end of the war, soviet control, the lifestyles of the East German leaders and their people. Perhaps most fascinating is the story of Lyndon Johnsons visit to West Berlin around the time of the building of the Wall. We all know the names, the dates, the soundbites. But these just form a skeleton, and the depth that Taylor deploys adds flesh to the bones, in the shape of extensive research in East German archives and countless interviews, brings this story to life.

Too often history is written blandly, about people far away, in long forgotten times. How then, are we supposed to associate with it, to empathise? But here, you cannot help but feel that Conrad Schumann, the East German border Guard, or Peter Fechter, the East German boy who was left to die on barbed wire after being shot, could have been anyone. It was just their fate to be born in a city divided. How consuming, and overbearing, must it have been to live in the shadow of the wall.

I cant think of many places I would reccomend more for a city break than Berlin,and having a look at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. But in the meantime, this book does the job nicely.

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