This Sunday marks a big anniversary for me. On 9th November 1989 I was appointed to my first school headship, an unusual success in three respects: I was young, a musician and an internal applicant. Celebrations naturally followed.
But something else was happening, something so momentous that even our partying had to stop for the BBC’s Nine O’clock News.
The Berlin Wall, symbol of Communist tyranny, was crumbling. Berliners tore it down the next day: but on 9th November East Germany’s communist regime caved in and opened Berlin’s crossing points to the West.
They were heady days. The Communist Bloc was imploding. People across Eastern Europe were taking to the streets, asserting and (amazingly) winning their democratic rights. The old dictatorships were approaching their end.
I wasn’t about to change the world: but I was taking on a significant responsibility with the privilege of leading a school of some 700 children. The challenge and excitement were intoxicating and in that way, if no other, I felt at one with the tide of democratic change sweeping across Europe.
I’m now in my 25th year of headship, in my second school. Is it still so heady and intoxicating? Of course not. I’ve grown older, hopefully wiser, perhaps more cynical: I certainly have the benefit of experience. It’s not so instantly thrilling, but the satisfaction’s deeper.
Democratic Europe, too, has had to mature and learn from experience. Not all that experience is good.
The countries on the western side of the former Communist Bloc are making the most of being part of democratic Europe. Indeed, I’ve done some work with the Council of Europe on education for democracy and been humbled by those members’ forthright recognition of the difficulties and of the hard work needed to make democracy flourish.
By contrast, the nations closer to the old Moscow centre are less secure in their democracy. Ukraine is divided and looks fit to continue tearing itself apart in near-civil war for some time. Too many of its people perhaps feel themselves Russian rather than Ukrainian for any settlement to be easily reached.
And what of Russia itself? It seems to me there are, schizophrenically, two Russias. Many citizens enjoy the relative freedoms now compared to the old days. The shops are full. And people can make and spend money.
Yet corruption is rife and jealously protected by President Vladimir Putin and his cronies. They appear to hark back to the old days: but then, when Putin came to power, observers commented, “Once a KGB man, always a KGB man”. Thus the old passion for grabbing and clinging to power is alive and well in his present-day Russia. And, predictably, the country’s ills are blamed on the old enemy, the West, nowadays more demonised and hated by his circle than ever.
I’m told we should watch Putin’s new English-language TV station, Russia Today: its obsessively anti-western propaganda is hilariously delivered deadpan by English presenters oblivious to the power of irony and satire.
We take our UK democracy too easily for granted. Yet it’s a fragile thing: look at Ukraine and Russia. Those heroic Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Albanians and all who took to the streets in 1989, deserve our respect.
So this weekend, before our own Remembrance commemorations next week, let’s call to mind those who died in the struggle, whether scaling the Wall to escape or demonstrating against their Communist oppressors, and those who lived and built those democracies.
We should honour those recently liberated nations as members of the European Community instead of parroting the Putin-like utterances of those who wilfully turn what are seldom justified concerns about immigration into ignorant, xenophobic rants and who, given a chance, would build our walls as high as the old Berlin Wall to keep them out.
I’ll raise a glass to 9th November 1989. Not to my historical career advancement, but to the Fall of the Wall.
Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.