BERLIN — Having Jon Bon Jovi and U2 perform in the same week on ground that was once known as the life-threatening ”no man’s land” is amazing enough. Having the man who championed Peristroika in Russia and Solidarity in Poland, on the same stage alongside the chancellor of a unified Germany and the U.S. secretary of state, added to the wonder.
But the sight that really got my attention Monday night on the cold and wet pavement near the Brandenburg Gate were the more than 100,000 Berliners, fellow countrymen, and well-wishers from around the world who came on this night to remember what was and to give thanks for what is no more. I’ve never been happier to be squeezed into a one-foot square of personal space in my life. The company was great.
Chief among those things past, of course, is the structure that Berliners used to call simply, “The Monster.” That was, of course, the 97-mile Berlin Wall, 10 feet high in most places, that encircled this city divided between Russian and American sectors after World War II.
Although “Wessis” (West Germans) could leave and re-enter at will, the “Ossis,” (East Germans) were trapped and barred from moving west, except with special permits usually good for only a day now and then. And it was no cinch getting even those.
Those who tried to leave on their own faced being shot or blown up by explosives implanted in the infamous “Death Strip,” separating the actual Berlin Wall from a “hinterland” wall or inner barrier.
The Death Strip is another casualty of events that took place 20 years ago on Nov. 9, 1989, when the Wall was rendered moot, quite by accident. An East German Politburo member made a premature announcement he had no authority to make early in the evening; a border commander at Bornholmerstrasse Crossing was confused about whether to order his 30 guards to shoot or not when East Berliners approached his gate; he ordered his guards to shoulder their Kalishnikovs, and the rest is history.
Estimates are that 25,000 East Berliners risked their lives that night to walk through that gate, while others simply scaled the wall itself.
The thing that was — that “Monster” — had lost its teeth. It was no more.
So what was this monster and how did it menace East Germans so much during the 28 years it stood from August, 1961, to November, 1989? Here are a few gruesome facts I picked up Saturday night over at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum:
* Length of the wall: 155 kilometers.
* Height: 3.6 meters.
* Length of metallic fence: 66 meters.
* Guard towers: 302.
* Concrete guard bunkers: 20.
* Guard dog runs 259.
* Self-actuating missile firing units (land mines): 54,000.
* Lives lost trying to escape over, under, or through the Wall: 225.
* Lives lost trying to escape elsewhere on the E-W border in Germany: 760.
All these once were, but are now no more. Sadly these 985 East Germans, who sacrfiiced their lives for a chance at freedom, are among them.
Other things that were but are no more? How about stories of mothers who wanted their children to grow up in freedom but didn’t want to give them up to someone else to be raised, perhaps never seeing them again? One such woman was Anneliese Trauzettel, an East German woman who — because she was an epilectic — already had four of her five children taken from her by the state. There was no way she was going to give up Mike. She knew she could probably get a one-day shopping pass to West Berlin, but she also knew the catch-22 rule that the East Germans had which said you couldn’t take your children with you.
So Anneliese solves that problem in May, 1987, by getting her day pass, spraying 4-year-old Mike with deodorant to throw off the scent of the guard dogs, giving him a sleeping pill to calm him, and stuffing him into a wheeled shopping cart. She knows there is a 50-50 chance the bag will be searched at the Checkpoint Charlie crossing, so she picks the heaviest-trafficked time of day to attempt escape. It works, the guards don’t search her bag, and she and Mike are free.
A postscript to this story is that Mike Trauzettel celebrated his 16th birthday in a party thrown for him back at Checkpoint Charlie on April 8, 1999. But this time, the Wall was no more.