IT WAS TV what done it. Marking the 30th anniversary, The Fall of the Berlin Wall with John Simpson (BBC4, Thursday of last week) was a critically self-referential exercise, with Simpson — then the BBC’s chief foreign correspondent — analysing the story as it unfolded, and then his failure to foresee the long-term consequences.
Building the wall created a grimly effective physical boundary, but it could not block Western TV broadcasts, eagerly watched by the increasing numbers of owners of TV sets in East Germany. The opening of the wall astonished everyone, and was brought about by the live broadcast of an unconsidered response at a press conference, slightly amplified by West Berlin TV, implying that anyone could cross over, immediately (Features, 8 November).
What this programme did not consider was the way in which the military did not stop them with the brutal force that it had always used, and that no officer instructed his troops to shoot, whatever stupid error a minor politician had made. In other words, there had already been a moral collapse of the regime: soldiers were no longer willing to kill their neighbours.
I am sorry that we heard nothing about the part played by the Church in precipitating this collapse, and in fomenting the call for freedom and justice. Simpson recalled his sharing in the unbelievable joy and euphoria, then hope, as Communist regimes fell throughout Europe: surely, from now on, everything would get better. But the exorcising of one totalitarianism opened the door for seven other devils: the hell of the Bosnia/Serbia conflict, Western capitalism’s shameful facilitation of the grabbing of Russian state assets, and the rise of Putin’s aggressive nationalism.
The anniversary was reflected also by Rich Hall’s Red Menace (BBC4, Tuesday of last week). The comedian found rich pickings for sardonic mockery in the United States’ wholesale adoption of Communism as its existential threat, and nuclear weaponry as the only effective response. Hall skewered his country’s whipping-up of fear as a cheap and easy political ploy, the comic-book demonisation of Russia, self-satisfaction, and moral complacency.
On both sides, human error led again and again to inadvertent nuclear catastrophe averted only at the last possible minute — and then hushed up. Meanwhile, terrible wars were fought with conventional weapons: the nuclear arsenal was too apocalyptic to be actually employed.
Refusing to go to church was a key turning-point in Everything is Connected: George Eliot’s life (BBC4, Sunday), Gillian Wearing’s wonderfully strange celebration of the great author. We saw the places and buildings that she lived in, where her words were spoken by those who use them today, creating rich and surprising resonances; the man who actually holds the post that her father held; the tutor at her Coventry family home, now a Bangladeshi centre; and the clergy who are today’s incumbents of the churches that inspired Scenes of Clerical Life.