BBC’s Berlin Season

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It’s 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the extraordinary moment when the Cold War symbolically ended. The anniversary was covered extensively by the BBC: from television and radio to a magazine. And this by an organization Winston Churchill once mused was “honeycombed with Socialists – probably with Communists.”

Watching, listening and reading the material on events as they transpired in Berlin, it becomes clear that the producers and editors had a choice between one of two routes to go down: personal or political. Whichever route they chose, though, each sketched the creation, evolution and demise of what Henry A. Kissinger called “a symbol of Communist inhumanity” admirably.

Albeit misleading titled, The Secret Life of the Berlin Wall (BBC Two) chronicles the secret lives east of the wall dramatically. The 90-minute documentary is a visually stunning production illuminating the psychological barriers encountered by those in Soviet-controlled East Berlin.

The Day the Wall Fell (BBC Radio Two) is no less emotional. First-hand testimony evoked the reality of a divided city and the euphoria when the wall came down. So much so, in fact, hearing about the double-layered lives thousands had to live for 45 years trumps the slick archival footage of the start and end of the Cold War.

Talking of famous footage, 20 years after he watched the guards open the gates and joined the crowds climbing the Berlin Wall, the BBC’s foreign correspondent Brian Hanrahan returned to interview the political players from the time in Our World – Brian Hanrahan: Fall of the Wall (BBC News 24).

As significant as Messrs Gorbachev’s and Genscher’s interviews are, Douglas Hurd’s and James Baker’s are far more revealing: The former reading from his diary and the latter asserting that no Allied capital anticipated the wall crumbling on November 9. Still, the Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary could be forgiven considering such events would not have unfolded were it not for Politbüro member, Günter Schabowski, and his blunder on travel restrictions to the Allied-run democracy to the west.

“This incompetence was in marked contrast, however, with the story of the wall’s rise on 13 August 1961,” writes Patrick Major in The Secret History of the Berlin Wall (BBC History Magazine). Therein, we learn that, at the height of the Cold War, secret dealings and stealthy planning led to the erection of this iconic barrier. But the professor of modern history at the University of Reading tells us nothing about JFK’s incompetence and, chiefly, his lack of understanding towards Germans’ feeling on a single Berlin. Nor does he crucially mention the fact that President Kennedy prefaced the word “Berlin” with the word “West.”

“It was clear”, writes the late William F. Buckley in The Fall of the Berlin Wall, “that Washington was not going to choose this time and place to pay any price, bear any burden.” And the Kremlin was fully aware of this. Worst still, the Allies should have been fully aware that the Kremlin was.

Notwithstanding Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. serving as special assistant and “court historian” to JFK, a warning 15 years before the wall was built on Soviet thinking went unheeded: “From what I have seen of our Russian friends and Allies during the war,” Churchill stressed in 1946 at Fulton, Missouri, “I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.”

Yet, back to the wall’s rise and how a line of railway cars and barbed wire evolved into the massively fortified fortress that came to symbolize the Cold War, it must be concluded that The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall on the History Channel was the one to watch – possibly at the expense of the BBC’s season, given that computer-generated imagery, re-enactments, expert commentary and first-hand accounts all featured in this spectacular two-hour special.

• Berlin, a three-part documentary presented by BBC journalist Matt Frei exploring the city’s history, starts 14 November 2009.
• For more on the Berlin Wall and the fall of communism go to

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