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The wall that fell and changed the world

  • Published at 12:03 am November 18th, 2019
Berlin wall
Photo: REUTERS

The fall of the Berlin Wall was symbolic to a lot of Bangladeshis

There are cinematic moments that tend to have a lasting impact on the mind -- just like the scene from the film The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, where Richard Burton, playing the angst ridden espionage agent Alec Leamas, is seen climbing the wall dividing East and West Germany, and then is spotted by the dreaded searchlight.

In that few seconds, before he is shot, the expression given by Burton is priceless. Without a word being said, he seems to be puzzled and fatigued at the futility of it all -- the vacuity of the Cold War division, the cat and mouse game, and how humans are made expendable to score political points. 

The Berlin Wall came down in November 1991 and radically transformed the socio-political face of the world. 

As university students at that time, we had grown up on a steady supply of John le Carre and Frederick Forsyth so “The Wall” for us epitomized not a brick division but a fascinating item that concealed a world of intrigue and machinations. 

All credit goes to the ceaseless propaganda of the period and the eras preceding the demolition of the wall. Come to think of it, we had always been systematically proselytized by films, books, and popular culture of the murky espionage world of the Cold War, where the KGB were obviously shown as the villains. 

But the wall that ideologically and physically divided capitalism from communism was also a terrific inspiration for decades of spy fiction, both in books and in celluloid. 

Interestingly, when the wall was coming down,  images of Berliners shouting “freedom” and driving unhindered to West Germany resonated with Bangladeshis because this country was also bringing down a wall of autocracy at about the same time. 

The heady days of 1989

How many can still recall the tumultuous times of the late 80s in Bangladesh? Universities closed indefinitely, the rebellious youth on the road defying curfew and intimidation, a dictator maintaining a brazen face while the air is filled with the zeal of revolution. Europe was also going through turmoil, especially the communist block, because the winds of change were blowing. 

While the Berlin Wall was being struck down, the anti-autocracy movement in Bangladesh reached a crescendo. 

From 82 till 90, this country was rocked by protests, political turbulence, and student movements. The same is also true for European nations behind the Iron Curtain as they were also experiencing social unrest, with the masses demanding reforms plus individual freedom. 

In between all this, the Cold War paranoia thrived with the propaganda machines doing their bit. 

Interestingly, when the pro-democracy movement raged in Bangladesh, a large section of the intellectual class tilted heavily towards the left, believing that once the dictator came down there would be a socialist revolution paving the way for a society where inequality would be stamped out.

So, while in the Europe the communist narrative about egalitarianism and brotherhood lost steam, here in Bangladesh, the hope remained and proliferated. 

In the late 80s and early 90s, a sizeable portion of university students in Dhaka and elsewhere firmly believed that a revolution would bring about a situation for a socialist ideology to take hold. 

The romantics believed in a leftist utopia

The romantics refused to accept that since communism in Europe had suppressed the masses, the same would happen if a revolution took place in Bangladesh. They felt that the mistakes of other countries would only work to make the application here better.

Paradoxically, the fall of the Berlin Wall was also celebrated here in Dhaka, though the sales of Marxist manifestos did not fall. The youth of the late 80s believed that they would be able to take lessons from the mistakes of communist states and apply a flawless system here. 

The anti-autocracy movement, which reached the apex in 1990, had all the features of a socialist uprising -- youth from the middle classes advocating equal rights, pay, and respect for workers. 

They donned T-shirts with Che Guevara’s face emblazoned on them, read the communist manifesto, listened to Bach, but at the same time read John le Carre and was fascinated by George Smiley, the fictional Cold War spy to represent the West. 

To be honest, it was a blend of contradictions -- giving slogans for workers’ rights in the morning and then ending up at the British Council to watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the evening. But the revolution did come in the end and, in the face of a countrywide agitation, the autocratic regime had to step down. 

December 1990 is etched in the memories of those who were on the streets of Dhaka to see “the wall” in Bangladesh crumble -- the invisible barrier that kept the authority detached from the nation. 

Unlike the Berlin Wall there wasn’t any physical structure, but just like the people in Germany, there was a sense of jubilation here -- people came out on the streets with kitchen utensils to celebrate through the night. 

Everyone dreamt of a new era which wouldn’t have academic session jams, students languishing at universities till their late 20s, and soaring unemployment among the youth. 

Almost 30 years later, one can confidently say that the social afflictions of the 80s are all history and despite many hurdles, this country has made her mark on the world stage. 

The Berlin Wall ushered in a new age for Europe too, though, honestly speaking, I miss the espionage thrillers set in the Cold War period. Someone should revive George Smiley and Karla. 

Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.