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angle-left null One November night on the motorway
13 September 2019

One November night on the motorway

Fall of the Berlin Wall – 1989


History comes in cycles and eras, in curves and straight lines, in upsets and respites; but offers also moments during which time itself seems to be suspended. Marc Scheuer experienced such a moment one November night in 1989 on the motorway between Frankfurt and Strasbourg".

Sometimes the circumstances of extraordinary events become clearly fixed in our memory, bringing to mind again and again the time and place where we first learnt of them, our initial reaction and even the faces, noises and smells around us.

At around 10 p.m. on 9 November 1989, on a dark night on the Frankfurt-Strasbourg motorway, three of us were returning from an assignment in Oslo with the Secretary General, whose office I had just joined. This was meant to be, as it would so often be at other times, a break, a time to wind down and a time to calmly take stock of the meetings that had just taken place. But not that evening. The car radio instantly transported us to Berlin. It spoke of a huge crowd gathered at the checkpoints between the sectors of the city. People were chanting “We are the people” and beginning to spill over from East to West. They would later return home.
The news was phenomenal. Our minds began to race. Being the same age as the Council of Europe, give or take three years, as a child, a teenager and then a student, I had been marked by the tragedies of 1956 in Budapest, 1961 in Berlin and 1968 in Prague. These memories go back and forth through my mind, together with the announcements that followed: no violence, no attempts to escape either. An impressive assertion of the right to travel freely. The people had seized control of their own destiny and no power was attempting to oppose them. This was all so new in its radicalism.

Admittedly, aided by the economic impasse, things had begun to move in the “East”. Processes of reform and openness had been set in motion, first in Poland and then in Hungary, while Gorbachev’s Soviet Union was testing Glastnost and Perestroika. Elsewhere, such as in the German Democratic Republic or in Czechoslovakia, the parties and institutions remained unchanged but civil societies were demonstrating more and more overtly for human rights and a more open society. Bridges had been built towards some of those countries. Mr Gorbachev had spoken before the Parliamentary Assembly four months earlier, alluding to a future common home.

It was of little consequence. Up until that night, the end of a divided Europe had been considered, at best, as a long-term possibility. That was why it felt like a dramatic acceleration of history.

We slowed the car down so as to be able to listen more closely and think more easily. Our thoughts focused silently on the border that had become porous and was being straddled with impunity. We visualised it and tried to gauge the consequences of its collapse. Still confused, we gradually realised that our world was no longer the same.

If you wish to continue your reading, you may buy the book "Europe: a human enterprise".

A lawyer by profession, Marc held a variety of positions at the Council of Europe, mainly in political co-operation and the protection of human rights. Among other things, he co-ordinated the preparations for the 1st Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe in 1993. From 2008 to 2013 he headed the Secretariat of the Alliance of Civilizations in New York, a project led by the Secretary-General of the United Nations.