Black Box East: A Time of Monsters and the Death of Certainty

The events of 1989, in Berlin and throughout Europe, have inscribed themselves in the media memory of the West as a frenzy of joy. The Brexit, a good thirty years later, was not really celebrated anywhere. Nevertheless, there are revealing parallels between the hangover following the UK’s exit from the EU and the frenzy of "reunited" Germany, as Greg McLaughlin argues.

9th November 1989 and 1st January 2021. Two dates on which people gathered together to express their joy and celebration about breaking free from a monolith or prison and entering a new-born era of liberation and endless possibilities.

On 9th November, West Berliners and East Berliners danced on top of the Berlin Wall, which Western media depicted as “a concrete symbol of partition and Soviet oppression” since its erection in 1961. Within a year Germany was “reunited” after 45 years of “division”. The Soviet Union was dissolved on 25 December 1991.

And on 1st January 2021, Britain’s Brexiters celebrated the formal exit of the country from the European Union. Yet, in that instance, the celebration was observed within and elsewhere with indifference or with a creeping anxiety that it marked the first step in the dissolution of a union of nations, i.e. the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not the EU.

This short essay looks at some of these discordant and contradictory themes as they emerged in British media coverage.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The images of Berliners celebrating on top of a wall that had separated them for nearly three decades have become stock illustrations of the East European revolutions of 1989. One had to look hard for the underlying contradictions but they were there. In the weeks before, images of East Germans flowing across the borders of Hungary and Czechoslovakia to West Germany in trains and Trabant cars were celebrated as a triumph for Western values – democratic and material. Media reports featured black and white news archive pictures of how it used to be: individuals trying to escape only to be arrested or shot dead. Now they were flowing across as brave “refugees”.

For most news outlets, this was a good news story: the triumph of the West, its democracy and its capitalism irresistible forces piercing even the indomitable Wall. A senior economist with Deutsche Bank told the Independent that the opening up of Eastern Europe to the West was ‘the equivalent of the discovery by Europe of Latin America, exploiting cheap labour and cheap supplies’ (11 November 1989). The Financial Times included an item headlined, ‘Shopping Bag Becomes Flag of Freedom for Visiting East Germans.’ The report described the ‘tide of consumption as East Germans celebrated by shopping until they were broke on their forays into the capitalist West....their shopping bags loaded with Sonys, Panasonics and Phillips’ (11 November).

As the Wall opened up, and free travel officially allowed by the Stalinist state, the media story soon changed. According to the Independent newspaper, most East Germans returned home with ‘shopping bags containing their modest purchases – cheap Western products, small electronic gadgets, special offers put on by shops for their money would not run to expensive goods’ (13 November). ITN (Independent Televisions News) was keen to draw a clear line between fantasy and reality amid the scenes on the streets of Berlin. Gazing down from an hotel balcony above, the reporter sustained the dream metaphor:

It’s extraordinary! This is probably the busiest shopping day that West Berlin has ever known! [...] The irony of it is, most of them are East Berliners and they simply aren’t buying anything! For East Germans, West Berlin is a city to look at and dream.’

The item cut to a pre-recorded report in which he followed a young woman, Simone, and her family around the city as they window-shopped, including along the Kurfurstendamm, that she saw repeatedly on western TV at home ‘and dreamed of [and] dream was all she could do!’ Finally, they stopped at a McDonald’s for a Big Mac and fries, ‘happy for life in the West to remain [Close up of her child asleep in her arms] a dream’. (ITN, Last Days of the Wall, 12 November 1989).

The flow of people across the border became an immigration problem, no longer a refugee triumph. The BBC reported that while ‘political reaction has been swift and jubilant...some local West Berliners have warned that already there are shortages of jobs and housing. What’s welcomed internationally may not be so popular locally’ (9 November; emphasis in the original).

The BBC’s current affairs programme, Newsnight, based itself in Berlin for the height of the celebrations and, on the second night, featured a remarkable moment when journalist, Olenka Frenkiel, interrupted a live studio discussion to place on the coffee table a brick from the Berlin Wall. It generated heated debate. Guest Thomas Kielinger, Editor of the Rheinische Merkur newspaper, grabbed the opportunity to mock the unease and doubts being expressed by the other guest, Jens Reich, a representative of the East German pressure group, Neues Forum. Holding out his arms priest-like over the brick, he proclaimed that:

‘Once (East Germans) start on that liberal, free-wheeling way of ours, Professor Reich, they will become a competitive society! Never mind about elbowing! We don’t want to be brutal capitalists in the West but that’s the way it goes! Once you let liberty fly easy and unfettered...people will develop their entrepreneurial skills and become competitive. And we don’t like some of the ills of capitalism. We hate them! We hate each other’s guts because we get on each other’s nerves!...And yet [SHRUGS] that is the price you pay for freedom!’ (BBC2,10 November 1989)

Brexit

Perhaps those words were close to the thoughts of MEP, Nigel Farage, on the night of the UK’s EU referendum result, 23 June 2016. When the result was confirmed late into the night, he declared ‘independence day’ for Britain and hoped the result would bring about the end of the EU. He did not say if he was aware that in December 2015, Marine Le Pen, leader of the then French Front National (renamed Rassemblement National in 2018), said that Britain leaving would be like the fall of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps he has not seen or heard of any of the comparisons being made between the two events.

Writing in the Independent, in 2019, Marion Van Renterghem made a clear, much less celebratory connection. With Nigel Farage in mind, she concluded:

Populists are artists who simplify complex issues and make people dream with words such as “leave”, “exit”, “take back control”. Who wouldn’t buy that? But the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence. Nationalist populisms are the bad head experienced the morning after a drinking binge. Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Brexit is nothing but a bad hangover.’

Just over a year later, the country finally agreed a ‘deal’ establishing a trading relationship with Brussels and formally exited the EU on 31 January 2020. But it is more divided than ever before. Whereas the fall of the Berlin Wall brought about German unity in less than a year, complex fractures of identity have opened up and show no signs of healing.

Scotland asserts its right to another independence referendum, with nationalists pointing out the irony that a central argument of the remain (in Britain) campaign for the first referendum, in 2014, was that Scottish independence would mean the country would also have to exit the EU. But the path to a second referendum is not straightforward – the UK government has a right of veto, which Prime Minister Johnson threatens to use.

Wales, too, is showing signs of restlessness, with opinion polling showing unprecedented if not consistent levels of support for an independence vote. Then there is Northern Ireland, which has the right under the Good Friday Agreement to hold a referendum every 7 years if signs show a significant popular wish for one. The problem, however, is that the British government has the sole right to give permission and, so far, does not think the majority is there. But experts think that it is still only a matter of when, and not if, the time will come when even the government cannot say no.

Towards Uncertainty

The BBC presenter, Jeremy Paxman said that it took ‘something of a leap of the imagination to realise that there are some people – politicians, industrialists and, above all, generals! – who have been watching the scenes in Berlin with a feeling other than joy in their hearts because the events of the last few days raise enormous potential questions!’ (Newsnight. BBC2, 10 November 1989).

I argued in my book, The War Correspondent (Pluto Press, 2016), that he might have added journalists to his list of suspects because the East European revolutions removed the certainty of the Cold War paradigm, or framework of interpretation, for understanding events such as the Fall of the Wall (p.175). Perhaps what is needed now, after the end of the Cold War, financial collapse, Brexit and the devastating global Covid-19 pandemic, is an Uncertainty Paradigm.

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This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German translation is available on Berliner Gazette.

You can find more texts, artworks, and conference information on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de

Greg McLaughlin

Greg McLaughlin is an Associate of the Centre for Media Research at Ulster University. He is the author of “The War Correspondent” (Pluto, 2nd edition; 2016), and co-author with Stephen Baker of “The Propaganda of Peace: The Role of Media and Culture in the Northern Ireland Peace Process” (2010) and “The British Media and Bloody Sunday” (2015). His most recent book is “Russia and the Media. The Makings of a New Cold War” (2020).

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