November 1989 was memorable and worth remembering

November 3, 2019

By Thomas Tass

Recently a friend sent me an article that was captioned “Where were you when the wall came down?”. It got me thinking about that time and in retrospect I can say it was one of the most interesting months in my professional career.
In August 1989 I was assigned to the Canadian Embassy in Vienna. I was just getting used to a new and very different work environment after having served two years in Port of Spain Trinidad. I had left the island as the geopolitical situation was “heating up” During my time in Trinidad I witnessed the decline of its economy, religious and tensions and a spike in crime. The stirrings of a Muslim militant extremist group, Jamaat Al Muslimeen was beginning and indeed there was an attempted a coup against the government in July 1990. The country was in crisis. There was looting in the capital and 24 people died. The rebellion failed but it represented the only Islamist coup attempt in the Americas. But I digress.
On arrival in Vienna, the first of a series of briefings by our CSCE colleagues (forerunner of the OSCE) was that many East Germans were pouring into Hungary most of whom who were looking to get into Austria. It was reported that there were thousands of them just across the Austrian border. In fact, near the town of Sopron, a Pan-European Picnic created by human rights activists was a focal point for the movement. On August 19 some 600 East Germans crossed the border simply by walking over a wooden bridge without any resistance from the Hungarian authorities. At the time there were somber concerns expressed in the mission’s safe speech room by various observers because of the speed at which the events were unfolding. Moreover no one knew of any plan B if the Russians and the Warsaw Pact were to act negatively if the exodus were to spin out of control.
The speed of events was indeed breath taking. Two-and-a-half weeks later after midnight on Sept. 11, busses with thousands of East Germans began streaming into Austria. When busses were not enough they drove across the border in their ubiquitous Trabants that were so numerous that the Mayor of Vienna made provisions for the vehicles to be parked in the periphery of the city and put on transport to get them to the West German embassy for travel document onward travel arrangements.
November was a very busy month for a dear friend (now) who was then a newfound colleague at the West German Embassy. Even though on November 9, the Berlin Wall fell, he and his staff were providing hundreds train fare and travel documents every day to East Germans to get to West Germany. The following day they were at a reception center at Giessen near Frankfurt.
I traveled to Prague the last week of that month. I was deeply moved by the scene of thousands of candles and molten wax that covered the plinth of the statue at Wenceslas Square where demonstrations took place the evening of 26 November which as part of the Velvet Revolution put an end to communism in Czechoslovakia. During the 6th BORDERPOL Global Forum that was held in Prague in the spring of 2018 I revisited Wenceslas Square and pleased to note that it was revered as much today as it was in November 1989.
Google writes 1989 changed the world. It led to the end of communism in Europe, of the Soviet Union, Tiananmen Square, the cold war.
As we close out 2019, for many 1989 was a lifetime ago…..but for me November of that year remains a recent memory and a positive one.
Thomas Tass