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Pete Hamill remembers those heady days 20 years ago when the symbol of Soviet domination was bludgeoned to rubble.
On Dec. 11. one last great crowd gathered in the square, more than 200,000 people, young and old, men, women and children, and even soldiers from the Czech Army flashing V signs with gloved fingers. Through smiles, tears and hugs, a gigantic chant began: HAVEL NA HRAD! HAVEL NA HRAD! Havel to the castle. Havel, a writer of plays. Havel, who spent much of his life in Stalinist jails. Havel, now looking embarrassed. And so it happened. It had been a long time since many of us had witnessed a happy ending.
A few days later, Fukiko and I left for Berlin. All of the communist regimes were tottering, even East Germany with its lies and Stasi informers. We arrived on a morning dense with an icy rain. A translator was driving us into East Berlin, where we had booked a hotel. The guards seemed resigned. They did not crumple chocolate bars. We passed through and got into a car. The rain was harder now. Then I saw a long line of people, about 300 of them, using umbrellas against the rain or just letting it pound their faces. The line was more than two blocks long.
“What is this?” I asked the driver. “Are they lining up for food?”
“No,” he said. “Today is the first day that we’ll have books from the West.”
Pete Hamill hits the Berlin Wall in 1989.
That’s what was defeated. All over the communist world of that time, nasty little men made the rules. They wanted no choice, no doubt, no questioning. They would tell the people what they could do and what they could read. They had the guns and they wanted obedience. They had turned the old socialist ideal, for which many decent people had given their lives, into a triumph of the stupid. They created ignorant states where the binding emotion was not pride but fear.
A few days later, walking along the Western side of the wall, heavily marked with graffiti, I came across a man in his 30s, dressed in a pale blue nylon ski jacket and dirty jeans. In a gloved hand, he was holding a three-pound, thick-handled hammer, and he was battering the Wall. When he stopped for breath, he handed me the hammer. I hefted it, flashing on a job I had for a year at the Brooklyn Navy Yard when I was 16. I gave the Wall a good whack. Then another. And then I was into it, seeing the guards at Checkpoint Charlie in 1971, seeing all those people who died trying to get over this goddamned ugly thing, seeing all those Stalinist bureaucrats, filled with what Orwell called “the smelly little orthodoxies.” I kept smashing until I had no strength left. "Fuck you," I said out loud and hit it one final time.
“Ja, gut,” said the man in the blue nylon jacket. “Gut, ja, ja.”
Yes, very good.
Pete Hamill, a contributing writer for GlobalPost, is a novelist, essayist and journalist whose career spans 40 years. He has been a columnist for many newspapers and magazines, including the New York Daily News and the New York Post where he also served as editor-in-chief. He's also done his fair share of international reporting, including disptaches from Vietnam, Nicaragua, Mexico, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Berlin and Prague. Hamill is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. He is the father of two daughters, including Deirdre Hamill, a photographer whose photo essay on the events of 20 years ago accompanies this piece.