Posts Tagged ‘1989’

The Writing on the Wall for the Hitler-Stalin Pact

26 November 2009

Contributed by Ciarán Wallace

The Berlin wall was inscribed across the history of twentieth century Europe. Appropriately, the Baltic States’ struggle for freedom was written on that same wall. On 12 November the Latvian Embassy launched an exhibition of photographs in Dublin’s Pearse Street Library. Taken between 1987 and 1989 the collection of twenty pictures portrayed murals and graffiti painted on the Berlin wall by activists for Latvian independence. In the first shot a bearded student in a Latvian t-shirt stood beside a mural of the Soviet-dominated map of the Baltic States with ‘SOS’ emblazoned across it. The student was a young Pēteris Elferts, current ambassador of the Republic of Latvia to Ireland – these were his personal photographs. The personal resonance of the wall was underscored by Ambassador Elferts in his speech at the launch. The audience nodded as he commented simply that ‘if the Berlin wall hadn’t fallen many of us would not be standing here today’. In a room full of diplomats from across the new Europe this was a striking thought. Murals of the Latvian flag defiled by Soviet tank-tracks, and calls for the repeal of the Hitler-Stalin pact (effectively in force until 1989), show how the wall became a noticeboard for nations campaigning against Soviet occupation. Clearly the Berlin wall had a symbolic importance far beyond Germany. This exhibition was a small but valuable contribution to a broader understanding of its role elsewhere in Europe during the Cold War. It was accompanied by photographs taken by the Latvian community in Ireland, whose pictures of Irish suburbs and countryside fit in well with the historical and political flavour of the main exhibition. After all, had the wall not fallen these photographers would not be here either.

Remembering 1989

11 November 2009

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Mass_on_the_street_1989In all of the column inches, radio interviews, television series (thanks George Lee) and film festivals (thanks IFI) to commemorate the events of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, something has been bugging me. Isn’t it all just a little, well, quiet? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I’ll be as sick of hearing about it as you are in a couple of weeks. It’s just that instead of the wave of coverage we’re experiencing, I’d expected a tsunami.

Listening to Matthias Middell from the University of Leipzig speak at a seminar in the Humanities Institute of Ireland, UCD, last Thursday (5 November), the reason why became readily apparent. It’s because we’re not quite sure what 1989 is, what it means, and whether it was even a revolution. Berlin may dominate our thoughts, but are we that sure about events in Budapest, Prague, Bucharest, or Warsaw? And does anyone have any idea what, if anything, happened in Sofia? Ukraine’s revolution arrived only in 2004, Georgia’s and Kyrgyzstan’s the following year. Read More

Václav Havel, To the Castle and Back (London, 2007)

27 August 2009

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Vaclav Havel - To the Castle and BackBefore a rash of publications appears in the coming months to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the revolutions of 1989, there is one book that you shouldn’t let pass you by: Václav Havel’s excellent personal history, To the Castle and Back. Havel, as you might expect from a playwright turned activist turned political prisoner turned president of democratic Czechoslovakia and its successor the Czech Republic, has written no ordinary memoir. The book’s raw materials – his vast personal experience and undiminished abilities as a writer – provide rich pickings for an extraordinary life story, but it is the structure he imposes that makes this an autobiography unlike any other. Here Havel the artist runs free, his life from 1989 to his retirement from politics in 2003 presented in three subtly intertwined narratives: notes from the author during the period spent writing ‘this strange little book of mine’; extracts from his instructions to the presidential secretariat; and a revealing (and lengthy) interview with Czech journalist Karel Hvížd’ala.

The interplay between them, not least the book’s out-of-sync chronology, has no right to work  smoothly, but it does. One short memo, written to his staff on 21 August 1999 and repeated in three or four different chapters, captures its eccentric brilliance: ‘In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it? The lightbulb has been unscrewed so as not to wake it up and upset it.’

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History-making Historians

31 July 2009

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Velvet Revolution 1989What happens when the historians are part of the history? Timothy Garton Ash, the Oxford-educated, self-styled writer of the ‘history of the present’, has just re-published his book, The File: A Personal History, the story of coming to terms with the Stasi informers and secret police who kept his file from the time he arrived in Berlin in the late 1970s. His story is an interesting one. Drawn to Berlin initially to work on Hitler for a postgraduate degree, he rubbed shoulders with some of Eastern Europe’s most prominent dissidents, writing and commenting on the processes leading up to the velvet revolutions of 1989 and beyond.

He also makes for a fascinating interviewee, as his recent conversation with Philip Dodd on the BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves shows – in 45 minutes they manage to get through 1970s Berlin, Orwell, Iran, Obama and American foreign policy, the velvet revolutions, historical psychology and much more. Here on Pue’s Occurrences we are fans of interviewing those who work in the Irish history industry, with plenty more great interviews lined up for the coming months (had to get the plug in), but I thought on this occasion, you might like to hear from someone farther afield. You can listen to the programme below, or click here to download the mp3 to bring it with you.

Hat tip (again) to Speechification for archiving this show and bringing it to my attention.