The President of Malta

Speech by His Excellency George Vella, President of Malta on the occasion of the commemorative forum entitled: The Fall of the Wall – 30 years later: understanding the meaning of freedom, then, today and tomorrow

Honourable Ministers

Members of The European Parliament Dr Elena Grech

Prof. Joe Pirotta Ladies and Gentlemen

For many of you here, the Berlin Wall simply brings to mind the extreme measures Communist rule went to, to define its own boundaries and to exert control on freedom of movement.

The Berlin Wall was the physical wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin.

However, the whole of Berlin itself was situated in East German territory and besides the wall, there was also a continuous electrified and well-guarded meter-high fence all along the border between East and West Germany.

It was the physical embodiment of the virtual ‘iron curtain’ which Churchill had described as dividing Europe from soviet Russian republics.

The setting up of the construction of the Berlin wall in September 1961, was intended to go beyond the physical restrictions of movements of persons from East to West Berlin or vice versa.

There were also considerations of limiting trade exchanges, job opportunities and eventually, the protection of the weak Ost Deutsch mark from the strong West German mark.

Families were separated. East Berliners who had experienced the growing affluence on the West side, could compare the big differences in quality of life, standard of living, as well as in freedom of expression.

It is no wonder that throughout the 28 years the wall stood, there were practically daily attempts by desperate people on the East side to escape, be smuggled, dig tunnels or swim across the divide.

The museum on Friedrichstrasse, where the notorious Checkpoint Charlie used to be, today, provides vivid recollections of the thousands and one ways people used to try to escape…not always successfully; many paid with their lives.

The situation was desperate, and it got worse as time passed, especially in view of the ever- widening gap of economic disparities between the two Germanies and the two Berlins.

Resentment and anger piled up over the years. but so was the iron grip the Communist authorities had on the situation. However, Berliners are tough. enough to recall the way they resisted and endured the famous 1947 siege where about 2 million West Berliners managed to survive on supplies airlifted from West Germany by hordes of aircrafts creating terrible ‘luftbrücke’ (air bridge).

In 1962, exactly on the first anniversary of the building of the wall, I spent a month in this divided city while on a clerkship in a hospital in West Berlin. during that month, in our free time as students we toured all of Berlin, both East and West and passed frequently through the scrutiny of police officials in Checkpoint Charlie, to experience and compare the huge differences in the cosmopolitan life in the West against the traffic-free, monotonous Alexander Platz, Karl Marx Allee and Frankfurter Allee with their soviet style architecture in East Berlin.

I was there when huge demonstrations took place in West Berlin on the Kurfürstendamm, on the evening when Peter Fechter was left bleeding to death in no man’s land near the wall while trying to escape. I kept these memories with me as I kept following all the political changes that culminated in the breach of the wall on that fateful night in November 1989, returning again to a united Berlin for a meeting in the new parliament house in 1992.

It was a turning point in recent European history. However, it had long been coming and eventually was more a question of ‘‘when’’, rather than ‘‘whether’’ it would happen or not.

Hieko Maas, the minister for foreign affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany puts it very succinctly when he wrote ‘we Germans know whom we have to thank for this good fortune, namely the hundreds of thousands of East Germans who took to the streets to protest for freedom. We also owe this to the Gdansk shipyard workers, the singing revolutionaries in the

Baltic countries, the Hungarians who were the first to cut through the iron curtain. we are indebted to the pioneers of charter 77 in Prague, those who took part in the candle demonstrations in Bratislava, the revolutionaries of Timișoara.’

In other words, all the women and men whose desire for freedom swept away walls and barbed wire. and we have our friends and alliance partners in the West, as well as Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and perestroika to thank for this, paving the way to reunification.’’

The actual breaching of the wall with people streaming into the West took everyone by surprise. Helmut Kohl himself was planning to coordinate with the authorities on the East side to have the dismantling happening gradually over a number of years (5-10 years) even to give time for the economic imbalances to righten themselves.

All his plans went berserk on November 9th.

Many of us have seen images of that fateful day when swarms of jubilant people pushing their way past overpowered border guards. Adolescents and young people climbed the wall and danced in jubilation on a newly-found freedom. Others wept for joy and relief for the reunification with their long-separated families and friends. Young men grasped chisels and chipped away at the monstrous grey wall. Three days later, musical conductor Daniel Barenboim used Beethoven’s symphony no 7 to celebrate the reunification of West and Eastern Berliners. Together with his Berlin philharmonic orchestra, he invited East Berliners for a free concert at the Philharmonie concert hall.

Freedom, unity and jubilation, are probably the best words to describe the atmosphere in Berlin and all-around Europe at that time. In reality, none of us could ever entirely grasp and understand the sheer impact and importance of this historical event on the affected population. It was not just the fall of a physical concrete wall, which undoubtedly took longer to dismantle, but it was the fall of the politics of division and a reaffirmation of the urge of humanity to unite. The grey and murky reality of the communist-controlled East merged with the colourful and dynamic cosmopolitanism of the West, giving birth to what is today a dynamic, artistic and culturally rich city.

Today, this vibrant city of Berlin which has re-emerged in all historical and architectural splendour shows hardly any signs that it have ever been divided physically and politically.

Ladies and gentlemen,

this commemorative forum comes at the opportune time and provides an excellent opportunity to reminisce on the divisions of the past, and reflect on the potential damage of present or future divisions.

The year 2019 was surely a significant one for Europe and the shared project we call European union. The imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the European family, but also populist discourse ostracising certain groups of people are significantly challenging our freedom and European unity. The constant disagreements between member states on how to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean sea, and hate speech targeting racial and ethnic minorities amongst us are having a damaging effect on the core European values that we so often boast about as welding us together.

The four freedoms; movement of workers, goods, capital and services continue to be the basis that keep our project so unique and distinctively identify our region as a space of dialogue, cooperation and peace. yet we so often seem to take these freedoms for granted and build virtual walls and all sorts of political objections to keep people out. We tend to forget that they too are trying to escape the harsh reality of their present to move hopefully towards a more promising future.

Furthermore, if we care to take a closer look, we can see a parallel reality to the Berlin wall happening all around us. I am referring to the daily exclusion and discriminatory practices that are intended to keep certain persons excluded from social, economic and political life.

Today, although living a different reality than that of the cold war, we still continue to erect mental walls to separate people, ideas and knowledge. We continue to fail to understand the strong power of unity and dialogue, and instead perpetuate old mistakes of superiority, intolerance, ostracise, xenophobia and outright racism.

Let us not forget that over so many years, we have jointly worked for the establishment and strengthening of a united and prosperous family of nations geared to promote the well-being of its citizens and enjoy the benefits of a sustainable environment.

Let us go back and adopt the same determination, commitment and resolve that urged the founders of the European project to do something.

I believe this forum should help us to understand how politics, when adopted for the common good and for the ultimate development of the people, can bring about positive and long-lasting change. Most importantly, a united and peaceful Europe gives citizens the necessary tools to develop their full potential and transmit to the younger generations key universal values of dialogue, acceptance and peace, which are the keys to security, stability and prosperity.

I once more thank the corporate id group for this forum and with you are very interesting and fruitful discussions.

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