“Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the magic of November 9 has inexorably faded. But eastern Germany has become a gloriously normal place in the meantime.”
I guess you have to be a Deutschlander to understand what Berlin journalist Marc Young meant when he wrote that this week in a Berlin newspaper, The Local. I’m an American, but I’ve been coming to Germany since 1995 and I think I see what he’s driving at.
There are sound cultural reasons for Germans just wanting to be normal.
This is a nation of many laws, written and unwritten, regulating behavior. As a result, it is a nation of cities like Berlin itself where you can feel safe walking down the street at night. It is also the only place I’ve been in the world where a total stranger could come up to you and scold you for not crossing the street at the right time or in the right place.It is a nation that conserves energy and a nation where clothing colors that many Americans might find drab are on the backs of most Germans you pass on the street.
Some of this is changing, but change comes slowly to a country that has been pummeled with too much of it in its history. Much of that change was unwanted and took the guise of invading armies, home-grown tyrants like Adolf Hitler who wrested control of Germany away from everyday Germans, and distant tyrants like Joseph Stalin who did the same thing – at least for the East Germans.
A Volatile History
When you grow up with a volatile history like that, Normal is not a dirty word. Normal is nice. And normal is what Germany – especially East Germany – has become, according to Mr. Young’s article in The Local.
Having said all that, let me balance it with this: A couple new generations of Germans have grown up without knowing war, so their Germany is different from that of their parents and grandparents. While still a part of the long train of Deutsch culture, these younger Germans have made some pretty big breaks with the past. They are opening up more emotionally; they are looking for more excitement and change; they are starting to show their colors more, and I mean that in a literal sense as I wrote a few blog posts back.
The feeling of national pride – especially in the realm of international sports – is back. Actually, it never left. What left was the showing of that pride. The year 2006 when Germany hosted the World Cup and finished third in the world changed all that.
A dear friend of mine here in the State Department – the person responsible for bringing me to start a series of projects over here years ago – told me this on Monday. She said Germans can be as emotional as anyone else, and she doesn’t agree with the perception that the typical German is detached from feelings.
“But you have to get on with life in the face of tragedy,” she said. “You can’t let emotions stop you. Germans are good at surviving and moving on.”
I would echo all that. It sounds trite to say something like this, but I’ll do it anyway because it’s true: Many Germans are some of the best friends I’ve ever had. Distance and time apart don’t damage these friendships, either. You just pick up where you left off when you come back next year.
The Value of Friendship
The fact that Germany and the United States have become such good international allies over the six decades since WWII, has made America safer in the world. It has also meant good things to Germany. Do we disagree on things? You bet. Just like the best of friends often do.
That’s why public diplomacy – the kind the State Department’s Foreign Service practices so well – is vitally important in today’s world. America must listen to other countries’ needs and do what we can to help them out. And we have to practice that over the long term instead of scrambling to make what I call “firehouse friendships” in times of crisis when we need help ourselves.
Whatever your politics, there is an inspiring sight to see right there near the Brandenburg Gate that trumpets the respect this country has for some American leaders. The site is the Kennedy Museum, a privately-funded tribute to the entire Kennedy family and specifically to the love that President John F. Kennedy showed for Germany with his famous, “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963 Berlin.
Now there was a one-on-one relationship that produced positive results.
Just as inspiring is the large poster of President Barack Obama in the display window of the museum and the exhibit inside intermingling notable campaign moments of President Kennedy and President Obama. That special exhibit went up last May and was in place until the day after the 20th anniversary celebration of the fall of the Wall Monday.
“Kennedy really means a lot to Berliners,” Alberts told me Friday. “Memory is triggered again by the pictures you see. We’re trying to bring back that time and make it alive again, especially for the younger generation of Germans.”
Germans See Similarities
The director also noted the similarity that many Germans see between Kennedy and Obama, and that similarity is the hope that both men have inspired, even in President Obama’s short time in office. The museum has featured a special exhibit for several months of President Obama, and his picture in the window can be seen clear across Pariser Platz.
This will be my last blog post on this chapter in German-American history. I return to college teaching soon on my southern California campus of Azusa Pacific University, ever grateful for this newspaper – The Oklahoman – that has devoted so much attention to this world-changing event over the past two weeks. You may be interested to know it is one of the few American dailies to have done so. It may be the only one to have run a daily blog on the subject.
The Legacy of Nov. 9, 1989
The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is over, but reports of it will last on sites such as Youtube where my Monday report was posted by my university. It is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIR5o_tdVA0&feature=related
I hope the legacy of this anniversary will remain. Through the individual stories of heroism and through the changes in this country since East-West days, we can all learn a lot about the universal need of all people to always dream of and chase freedom where ever and whenever they can.
All this week in Berlin – a city that has had more than its share of bouts with tyranny over the 20th century – I’ve been reminded of a folk song I learned as a student back at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1960s. It spoke of a pet bird who refused to stay caged or to sing the song it was taught to sing. It’s last stanza went like this:
Now freedom is like that bird,
you can’t put it in a cage
it will fly away,
give it a chance
it’ll fly away.
It will be gone,
take its flight,
fly on the wings of the wind.
On the night of Nov. 9, 1989, some 25,000 caged East Germans flew to freedom through the infamous Berlin Wall. They were given an inch, saw liberty straight ahead, and they took a mile.
Glückwünsche Berlin. Bis wir uns wieder treffen.
Or, in English, Congratulations Berlin. Until we meet again.
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.
BERLIN — It’s the eve of the anniversary here and, if Berliners are like me, they have already reached sensory overload with images and stories from many sources: the site of the celebration itself at the Brandenburg Gate, television, newspapers, magazines, and even the cab drivers who brought us here.
One of the most unexpected and poignant images for me was a scene I came across today while going someplace else. I was headed to see the display of the giant dominoes in Potsdamer Platz that will fall Monday night as an apt metaphor to freedom, when I found myself in a maze of concrete boxes of various sizes and shapes. Altogether there are more than 2,700 of them.
A lone woman, dressed in black, was resting against one of them, and it was obvious she had something deep on her mind. Suddenly, I realized this garden of stone was the most visible part of Berlin’s version of the Holocaust Museum although, in typical German directness, it’s called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Germans have never been known for an overuse of euphemisms.
When you think about the collective loss of lives signified by this memorial and the remaining chunks of the Berlin Wall arouind this city, you realize that you are standing on hallowed ground. The last time I remember feeling like this was when I walked the battlefield at Gettysburg a dozen years ago. A lot of people paid for their ideas of freedom with their lives, and the pain and hardship visited on their loved ones was incredible.
It would take a book just to convey the stories I’ve heard and the imagery I’ve encountered just in the past three days in Berlin. Everytime I sit down to update this blog, I have a small mountain of material I want to squeeze in; everytime I hit the “publish” button, I feel frustrated I covered so little. Today is no exception.
Getting back to the dominoes, this should be fun tomorrow night. At about 8 p.m., these dominoes that follow the path of the Berlin Wall in the center part of this city will start to fall. Within a few minutes it will be over, but the imagery of it should last a long, long time. For a decade I’ve remembered the many scores of torches that came to life along the path of the Wall back in 1999 on the tenth anniversary of this event.
Does all this mean everything is running smoothly in Germany, 20 years after the fall of the Wall and eastern communism? No, there are still problems, certainly. Berlin has not taken on the guise of a a neo-Garden of Eden, nor has the rest of Germany. The economy is a big bother here, and some former East Germans (“Ossis”) are still upset about having to make their way in a competitive capitalist system when the state used to provide for their basic needs. Some “Wessis” are upset that the country has had to subsidize the East so much over the past 20 years, although all Germans have to kick in for the “solidarity tax.”
But — and I’ve heard this time and time again — no one wants to return to the tyranny of the past. And, as many will freely admit, the divisions between east and west have diminished over the years.
A writer for Der Tagesspiegel, Helmut Schuemann wrote about all this today in an article headlined, “What is Germany in 2009?” He phrased his observations in a series of questions starting with, “Are We Reunited?” Noting several advances — not the least of which is twice electing a woman chancellor who comes from the East, no less — Schuemann points out the country has a ways to go in spreading the wealth and workload. He concludes this answer by noting, “The nostalgia for the East and the supposed desire for the past spring from the same melancholy that infects West Berlin.” Simply stated, we all tend to take refuge in the familiar past, remembering the decent times and forgetting the worst.
Yesterday I took my second visit to an important standing memorial here in Berlin: the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. In it is contained some of the most inspiring, death-defying accounts ever heard about a people who just wanted to be free to go where they wanted to go and when.
In fact, 40,101 “barrier-breakers” (those East Germans without exit visas) risked their lives successfully in doing just that during the 28 years of the Wall’s history. Sadly, another 220 lost their lives trying to get over, under, or through the Berlin Wall. More than 700 others lost their lives at other border crossings in Germany.
BERLIN — It’s Saturday and this city of 3.5 million people is poised for a big party Monday night. No, it’s not Hank Williams Jr.’s football party; it’s a bit bigger than that. It’s a party to celebrate freedom. It’s a party to celebrate unity.
It’s a party to celebrate the right to have parties.
Actually they had a pretty good one here Thursday night when U2 wowed 10,000 beneath the Brandenburg Gate. Want to see some of that? Try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZfUAMehb24
Officially the Monday party is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall or, as the locals put it, 20 Jahre Mauerfall. The city is abuzz, and the party is being heralded everywhere. The city’s largest newspaper, Berliner Zeitung, carries a full-page front-page picture today of jubilant Berliners straddling the top of the Wall back on Nov. 9 & 10, 1989. The picture reminds you of the remake you’ve probably seen of the line of iron workers from the 1940s straddling the high-rise carcass of a skyscraper while dipping into their lunchpails for a sandwich.
Ironically, since Germans put the day before the month when they communicate dates, they refer to this anniversary night of freedom as 9/11. It’s quite a different connotation than Americans have of that number sequence.
A few days ago I was visiting with two close friends in the eastern city of Magdeburg. Drs. Holger and Kristin Kersten both teach at the University of Magdeburg and, although they are from the western cities of Lubeck and Cologne, they moved to eastern Germany for Holger to take his position at the university where he now heads the Department of English Studies.
In moving east, however, the Kerstens are unusual among Germans because it is much more common for Germans raised in the East to move west. The reason? Inequities still remain in job opportunities and pay scales. Things are somewhat better in western Germany, although that gap is closing as George Glass noted in our Friday interview and as a story in Der Tagesspiegel on the “brain drain” in eastern Germany pointed out.
George Glass feels that psychological division between Germans has greatly diminished, however. “Now you hear virtually no references to ‘Ossis’ and ‘Wessis’ (Easterners and Westerners),” he says. “You don’t feel that distinction much any more.”
Holger Kersten grew up in Lubeck and sees the fall of the Wall through a prism of pain because he had family who lived in the East, and members of his family were prevented from seeing each other for many years.
“When I think of the Wall, I think of violence and anger and forced separation of family members, he said. To me, reunification is more a coming-together of family members and friends. Bringing back together those who should have always been together. So he can’t see how any in the East, who lived under that restrictive regime, would say the Wall should still be standing.”
By Chris Lapple’s count, some 4.5 million East Germans got out of East Germany when they could in the years following 1949. Clearly, that became impossible for most when the Wall went up in 1961, but it shows that when a people are confronted with being stripped of their freedoms, many will say no thanks. I’m headed West.
I can’t wait for the party Monday night that celebrates freedom and inspires the rest of the world to cherish it.
BERLIN – I spent last night in the East German city of Magdeburg, about a 90-minute train ride (with stops) west of here. I was on a tight schedule because a close friend had asked me to lecture at the University of Magdeburg today (Thursday) and I wanted to be back to Berlin in time for the 6 p.m. U2 concert, held outdoor at the Brandenburg Gate.
Before I go any further, let me say that was one terrific – albeit short – show that this Irish band put on for some 10,000 gathered in the Gate’s Pariser Platz. This was a win-win situation for the City of Berlin, its commemoration of the fall of the Wall, U2 fans, the band itself, and the MTV Europe Music Awards held in Berlin tonight. Featured on the TV show was the short set the band did on the platz.
Berlin holds special significance for U2 since this is where they came in 1990, a year after the fall of the Wall, to reinvent its sound and produce it’s Acthung Baby album.
Over the past several days I’ve been listening to stories from both East and West Germans about what the Wall meant to the country and the City of Berlin when it was up and what it meant when it fell on Nov. 9, 1989. Some of these stories have been pretty heavy, and some have had a touch of humor mixed in with the tragedies. But the upbeat touch that U2 provided tonight was very welcome by young and old Germans alike.
There is one interesting story going around and you can actually find it in the online version of the Berlin newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel at http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/1989/ (you can translate it with Google.) It involves a Lutheran pastor named Rev. Martin Weskott who has been saving tens of thousands of books in East Germany that were thrown on the trash heap after the Wall came down. It was as if these books were somehow contaminated because they came from the East, were maybe written by East Germans, or they were about life or politics there.
Pastor Weskott has an interesting reason for wanting to save the East German books.
“It’s not by throwing culture away that people will rid themselves of their past”, Weskott, 57, told Der Tagesspiegel. The pastor had grown up in West Germany where the memory of the burning of books by the Nazis in 1933 still haunts many Germans.
In fact, it is interesting that Germany celebrates the fall of the Wall not on Nov. 9, but on Oct. 3, which was the date that reunification was officially proclaimed 11 months after the Wall came down. Why isn’t the official celebration on Nov. 9? Because that is the same date (Nov. 9, 1932) as the infamous “Kristallnacht,” or the night of the broken glass when Nazis raided Jewish businesses and synagogues and tossed thousands of books into street bonfires. The shadow that cast on German history was not one that this country wanted confused with the positive events on the same night 57 years later when the Wall came down, so Germany moved the official celebration to Oct. 3.
So the Germans have dubbed Pastor Weskott “the book reverend” for his efforts to save history. He sells the books at his church, and the money for them all goes to charity. Many of the books came from East German libraries that were forced to close for lack of funds.
“No one wanted GDR (German Democratic Republic, as East Germany was known) books anymore,” said Siegfried Lokatis, a book specialist at the University of Leipzig.
No one, that is, except for the book reverend.
Well it’s approaching 3 a.m. Friday for me in Berlin, so I’m thinking about shutting down this post for the night. Before I do, though, how about one more Wall-related story, and this one is a funny one believe it or not. And forgive me, but it comes from my cousin, a guy named Jim Wintermeyer who now lives in Virginia but who traveled much of the world with his parents when his dad worked for the U.S. government.
This story happened not to Jim but to a friend of his (we’ll just go with his first name of Steve because he may still be embarrassed by it). Like Jim, Steve was a U.S. expatriate high schooler living in Turkey in 1961. Because his parents also worked for the U.S. government, his family could take space available on military planes going to various European cities for practically no cost.
So Steve tried to talk Jim into going to East Berlin, something Jim very much wanted to do but which his dad prevented. “I think Dad knew something was in the works in East Berlin,” Jim says, “and he thought it would be dangerous for me. Turns out, he was right.”
So Steve goes to East Berlin, drops in at a bar for some beers and meets a young woman who invites him over to her place. The route to her apartment, however, takes them down a dimly-lit street where Steve feels something hard hit him on the back of the head. When he wakes up, it’s the middle of the night, he is in the street, but he is in the street without any clothes. His money and passport are gone, he knows absolutely no German, and he is wearing only his birthday suit. So Steve does the only thing he can do: he gets up and flags down an East German cop, which turns out to be a big mistake.
Instead of helping Steve, the cop — who turns out to be a Stasi officer — arrests him on the spot.
Steve pleads, “Hey, just let me cross the border to West Berlin,” but that’s when he discovers what my cousin Jim’s dad apparently already knew: This was the night in August 1961 when East Germany officially closed its Berlin border to the West. Construction on the Berlin Wall itself would begin the next day. There was no way out.
So Steve winds up in an East Berlin jail for two weeks while the Stasi try to figure out if he is some kind of spy, pervert, or both. American diplomats have to get involved, and ultimately he is discharged with a one-way ticket out of East Germany. And some borrowed clothes on his back.
Now all he had to do was to explain all this to his dad when he got home. Part of Steve probably preferred the East Berlin jail to that.
FRANKFURT — Frankfurt is often seen as this country’s version of New York City since it is the financial center of Germany. Munich would be the arts capital, while Berlin is the government center.
Frankfurt also was an anchor city in the former West Germany, and I’m here today getting some thoughts of people about the fall of the Berlin Wall plus 20 years.
That anniversary is only a few days away, coming on Monday. So I was pleased to see the lead story and photo on most German dailies today, including the Frankfurter Algemeine, Frankfurter Rundschau, Die Welt, and Suddeutsche Zeitung, was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s historic address Tuesday to a joint session of the United States Congress.
This is a first, and it shows the mutual need both Germany and America feel for an ongoing partnership between the two countries.
Chancellor Merkel, who came from the ruins of Communist East Germany to lead the largest and most powerful country in Europe, used the occasion to thank the United States for the role it played in the reunification of Germany which began with the fall of the Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. That unification was officially proclaimed 11 months later.
As the first German leader to ever address a joint session of Congress, Merkel told the lawmakers that this appearance was beyond her “wildest dreams,” given her unlikely beginning as a child behind the Iron Curtain.
Speaking for the European Union, she also used the occasion to proclaim her view that, “I am deeply convinced that we (Europe) will not find a better partner than America, nor will America find a better partner than Europe.”
I’m sitting in the Frankfurt Airport right now, and I’ve overheard three or four conversations where Merkel’s U.S. address was the subject. I’m not suprised because, for all the disagreements that Germans have over the U.S. presence in Iraq — and even Afghanistan — most Germans still consider America to be one of its best allies in the world.
Many Germans I’ve talked to are pleased — and certainly proud — of the prestigious pulpit their chancellor was given Tuesday in Washington, D.C. They seem to feel that Germany’s voice now has a better chance to be heard in America than in many, many years and they are grateful for that.
In my last post I talked about changes in Germany over the past 15 years since I’ve been coming to this country. If you scroll back to the end of WWII, however, you find probably the biggest change here, outside of the fall of the Wall itself.
That change has been the metamorphosis of this once-warlike country to one of the most pacifistic countries on the planet. For some 50 years following the war, Germany refused to put its troops on any foreign soil, finally bowing to U.S. and NATO pressuer to do so in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.
Germany wants absolutely nothing to do with wars, and most of the population here hate the fact that the U.S. has been leading the charge in the war with Iraq. It’s one of the reasons President Obama was the overwhelming choice of most Germans to become president in 2008.
Americans don’t often realize why Europeans get so upset when the U.S. goes into military action with countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. One big reason is that Americans feel relatively safe from these countries’ terrorists right now because the countries lie on the other side of an ocean and European continent. But to countries like Germany, the proximity is much closer. And helping the U.S. war efforts there makes Germans a closer target for retaliation from those terrorists.
Here’s a rough transnational analogy: If Berlin were Los Angeles, Baghdad would be St. Louis. And, as in that example, you can get there all the way by land.
But, even more deeply, most Germans have a built-in hatred for war and the humiliation and shame — not to mention the devastation — that wars have caused them. Postwar Germany has chosen to make its mark as a European power through economics acumen and not through military might. It’s really not a bad model for the rest of the world to follow.
So Chancellor Merkel talked to Congress Tuesday, pledging her country’s continued support to its U.S. friendship and also taking something of a risk in supporting the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Even Germany sees the threat of international terrorism is still alive, and Agrhanistan is seen as its breeding.
She did , however, ask for America to take more of a leadership role in world climate change and urged the U.S. to attend a UN conference in December and sign a legally binding international agreement to reduce industrial emissions of heat-trapping gasses. That call was met with mixed reaction from members of Congress.
About the world economy, she said a global framework of rules is needed to guard against another financial meltdown. She said the current regional rules represent “a second wall that needs to fall — a wall made up of regional, exclusively national thinking.” Specifically she referred to trade policies and the concept of protectionsim tempting countries like the U.S.
One Frankfurt businessman told me something today that seems to sum up a lot of what I’ve been hearing over here. He noted, “We’ve been waiting in Germany for a chance to influence some of the thinking in Washington about wars and climate change. I’m not sure what kind of influence this country will actually have in the U.S. on these issues, but at least it’s nice to know we’re being heard.”
I’m headed back to the former GDR tomorrow and a conversation with some former East Germans in the city of Magdeburg. I’ll talk with you then and let you know their impressions about the anniversary of the fall of the Wall.
I started coming to Germany back in 1995 when an official with the former USIS (United States Information Service) noticed a book I just wrote that fit the theme the Foreign Service was pushing that year.
The book was about new media technologies which, of course, are old media technologies now. But that’s okay because the Germany I experienced then is not the Germany that I experience today. And that Germany was definitely not the same country that existed before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I have witnessed many of those changes as I’ve returned for several lecture tours and collaborations.
For example, take a look at this picture that warned East Germans they were entering the American Sector and leaving the East German Sector. This served as an ominous alert. Between the lines it warned East Germans they better have the right documentation or they could be shot on the spot. The signs still stand, but only as a reminder of how divided the country was then.
Later this week I’ll go over some of the personal stories of brave East Germans who paid that price in their flight to freedom. Clearly, however, that danger no longer exists as there is no East Germany and West Germany anymore. There is only one Germany, although it is still struggling to be unified in life, as well as on paper.
I read once that some 27 percent of all Americans surveyed said back in the mid-1990s that they would never set foot in Germany. I have this obvious hunch that a large segment of that group had lived through the horrors of World War II and the fight against Hitler’s Third Reich. But I also have a hunch that if the same survey were done today, there would be far fewer Americans inclined to stay away from Germany as the memories of WWII have faded.
For almost 15 years I have discovered Germany to be a great place to visit and work, largely because of the Germans themselves. These are largely people who give a new positive meaning to the words loyalty and friendship. Once a German decides you are his or her friend, that’s it. You become a friend for life, and you’d better stay in touch. Happily, I have many such friends in Deutschland.
I have noticed some big changes in this country over the years, however.
First is that this nation which has been so afraid since WWII of displaying signs of patriotism for fear it might conjure up remnants of the Nazi years, has once again begun to show public pride in being German. I first noticed that in 2006 when Germany hosted the World Cup. All of a sudden, German flags were replacing ubiquitous European Union flags on homes, cars, and even motorcycle helmets as bikers raced down the Autobahn. Display of national pride is still a sore spot for many Germans, but that wall has fallen for younger Germans.
A second change is that these people who used to smoke like chimneys — as is the case in much of Europe — have caught on bigtime to the dangers of tobacco. Smoke-free zones are now the norm in Germany, and this country does not hesitate to let you know smoking is bad for you. One of the favorite warnings standardized in country is simply, SMOKING KILLS!
Third, Germans used to be the brunt of jokes about having the shortest work week imagineable. Stores would not open on weekends, with the exception of certain designated Saturdays throughout the year, and very few professionals seemed to work late at the office. But today stores keep about the same hours as in the states, and the work week looks more like what Americans are accustomed to.
About that apparent reluctance to work late at the office? Actually there’s a cultural reason for that. Part of the German mindset is the concept of efficiency. So the notion is that, if you are efficient with your time, you should be able to get your work done during normal business hours.
A fourth obvious change is that, as late as 1995 and beyond, most stores would not accept credit cards in Germany, nor would most thrifty Germans think of using them. Not so today, as consumers use plastic almost as much as we do in the states. Not sure if that goes in the plus or minus column for progress, though.
There have also been big changes in the former East Germany or the GDR (German Democratic Republic). During my first lecture tour in Dresden and Leipzig in 1995, I needed an English translator in the university classrooms because few German college students in the East spoke English. Russian was their second language because of their control by the USSR. Today, however, English has replaced Russian in the East. No translators needed on my last several lecture trips there.
The physical landscape of the former East German cities has changed, too, as western capital has flowed into the East to bring it into the 21st century. Leipzig and Dresden have taken on new beauty as has the former East Berlin itself.
Another big change has been the return of Berlin as the seat of German government. From 1949 to the 1990 German reunification the federal capital moved to the university city of Bonn, and it was not until the Wall fell that it was able to move back to Berlin, although several federal branches remained in Bonn until recent years.
Of course the biggest change is that there is no more Berlin Wall, no more Iron Curtain dividing this country. All Germans are now free to pursue their dreams. And that, of course, is the happiest change of all.
How seriously is Germany taking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall? Well, if you consider the people who are showing up for the event any index, try 10 on a 10-point scale.
For the Wall’s history, check out my post below called, “Remembering the unforgettable.” But today I wanted to talk about how Germany is treating this anniversary, starting with the invitation list.
These guests include three world leaders from the Cold War era and one of the best-known bands in the world, which is also known for its humanitarian efforts.
The three men who led the Soviet Union, West Germany, and the United States when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 were on hand today (Saturday) to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, and George Bush spoke to some 1,800 pepole who packed the Friedrichstadt Palast theatre. The Berlin newspaper, Der Tagesspegiel, quotes former German Chancellor Kohl as saying, “I have every reason, above all anger and frustration, to be proud. I’ve nothing better to be proud of than the German unification.”
As current German Chancellor Angela Merkel looked on, the three world leaders spoke of the significance of the Nov. 9, 1989, event. Former Soviet leader Gorbachev, the man who is responsible for originating peristroika in Russia, then goaded Bush saying, “I tell you quite simply, America also needs a peristroika,” Der Tagesspiegel reports. He then commended President Obama for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and said that is a step in the right direction.
Bush praised Kohl as a “truly great statesman of the 20th century,” but said the events of 1989 were begun by the hearts and minds of the people deprived for too long of their God-given rights.”
German Federal President Horst Kohler called the fall of the Wall a “historic high point,” and called the gathering of the three world leaders “something special” and “a sign of hope and encouragement.”
The reunion of Bush, 85; Gorbachev, 78, and Kohl, 79, weas sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which has close ties to Chancellor Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Party. All three of the world leaders played key roles in the peaceful revolution that played out in 1989 East Germany that culminated in the fall of the Wall that year.
Berlin is organizing a “Festival of Freedom” for November 9, in which Merkel will host Gorbachev, Polish former anti-communist leader Lech Walesa, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton will represent President Obama. French and Russian presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Dmitry Medved will also attend.
Also lending a hand to the anniversary celebration is the Irish band of superstars simply known worldwide as U2. They will perform a short outdoor free-ticketed concert Thursday night, Nov. 5, at the foot of the historic Brandenburg Gate. The concert is part of the 16th MTV Europe Music Awards, to be held in Berlin’s 02 World on Thursday and broadcast live over MTV the same day.
Germany holds special meaning for U2, as the band relocated to the city in 1990, a year after the Wall came down, to reinvent its sound and release its famous “Achtung Baby” album. The Hansa recording studio where the album was done is located close to where the Wall stood.
The band’s manager, Paul McGuinness, said on the U2 website, “It’ll be an exciting spot to be in, 20 years almost to the day since the wall came down. Should be fun.”
A testimony to U2′s enduring popularity is that all of the free tickets were handed out within 24 of the concert’s announcement last Wednesday.
On the more serious side, one of the anniversary events will be the voluntary return to jail of a former prisoner of East Germany’s Stasi secret police. Wolfgang Holzapfel, 65, is returning to a former East German jail cell for a week to remind the world of the brutality of conditions there before the Wall came down.
The former West German will be enduring the same conditions he did when he was sentenced in 1965 to eight years in Hohenschonhausen Prison for political activism. He will be locked in a small cell, wear a prison uniform and will not be permitted to lie on his bed during the daytime hours.
In other news related to the anniversary, the German newspaper, The Local, announced that China’s government has blocked its citizens from logging onto a German website celebrating the fall of the Wall because Chinese bloggers were using it to protest conditions in their own communist government.
The site is called Berlin Twitter Wall www.berlintwitterwall.com and its access was cut off to China Monday afternoon Beijing time, according to the KulturProjekte Berlin, the non-profit arts organization that sponsors the website.
“When we launched it on Oct. 20, we got a lot of worldwide attention, so naturally the Chinese people have seen it as a way to voice their opinions about internet censorship in their own country,” Carsten Hein, the project coordinator, told The Local.
Particularly troublesome to Chinese authorities was the request by the Berlin Twitter Wall for users to describe, “which walls in the rest of the world should, in their opinion, now fall.”
All in all, the week ahead is shaping up to be an interesting one in Berlin.
Ever tried to erase ink from the printed page? Pretty hard to do. That image remains, no matter how hard you try to scrub it away.
This is the 20th anniversary of this world-changing event.
Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be writing about this anniversary, the event that it marks, and the impact the fall of the Wall has had on Germany, Europe, the United States, and the world. I hope you will come along with me as we travel to Berlin and a couple other cities in the former East Germany.
Along the way, you’ll see some images of what things look like today. Such as the Wall itself, or what remains of it. Like this image with your blogger in front of it.
Following WWII, the eastern portion of Germany was ceded to Russia for its contributions to winning the war for the Allies. As the Soviet empire grew into the USSR, East Germany became a country within that communist coalition. The former Germany became two Germanies: East and West, communist and democratic.
Ironically, communist East Germany was known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR, and was officially so founded and named in 1949 by the Soviet leadership which would hold sway over the country until the wall came down and eastern communism fell apart under its own weight.
Increasingly, the East German government found it hard to keep its people from fleeing to the West. To stem the emigration, the government decided on a plan to make it nearly impossible for East Germans to leave without permission. The most visible part of that plan — and a very effective one — was the Berlin Wall, whose construction began in the August, 1961.
It was the final barrier to freedom to be put in place after the previous plan of securing all other parts of the East-West German border than Berlin itself, had failed to prevent emigration to the West. The entire border was now officially closed, and East German soldiers at the border were ordered to guard it with their lives.
When the Wall was through, some 97 miles of the forbidding “monster” as it came to be known by man, would divide the two Berlins, virtually encircling West Berlin along the border created by post-WWII negotiations. The Wall included guard towers atop the concrete structure which circumscribed a swath of no-mans land often called “the death strip,” containing anti-vehicle defenses. A “baby wall” was built on the eastern edge of this death strip.
Defection came to a standstill among East Germans wanting to flee. In the months and years ahead, many brave souls would try, and many would fail and lose their lives in the process.
When the border was closed, a large number of Berlin families were split off from each other and many would not see their loved ones again. West Berlin became an virtual island of freedom in a hostile land. West Berliners demonstrated daily against the construction of the Wall. West German Chancellor Willy Brandt criticized the U.S. for not trying to stop construction of the Wall.
For its part, the East German government officially declared the Wall as the “Anti-fascist protective rampart.” GDR leaders said defection to the West was an act of political and moral backwardness and depravity.
The Wall and the extensions of its closed border that separated all of East from West Germany, was often referred to in world affairs as the “iron curtain.” That curtain would remain closed until communism began to crumble in eastern Europe in the mid- to late 1980s. In East Germany, peaceful demonstrations had been occurring regularly in 1989, and all of it led up to the opening of the wall on the night of Nov. 9, 1989. That opening, however, caught everyone — West Germans alike — by surprise when it happened.
Here is how I described it in my coverage of the 10th anniversary in 1999:
“It was more of an accident of history. A mistaken or misinterpreted televised remark on Nov. 9, 1989, of an East German Politburo member Guenter Schabowski that East Germans were free to travel ‘without meeting special provisions,’ and that the new rule would go into effect immediately.
“Still Harald Jaeger, then a lieutenant colonel in the East German Army, had received no orders to let East Germans pass to the West that night. A growing crowd of vocal Germans appeared at his post at Berlin’s Bornholmerstrasse Crossing. Confusion reigned. Jaeger called his superiors for orders. There were none. Jaeger took a chance that Schabowski’s statement was official. He opened the gate and it never closed again.”
In the days to come, we’ll take a look at what the fall of the Berlin Wall has meant to Germany and also hear from some Americans who have intertesting stories to tell about their time in Berlin. Then we will attend the anniversary festivities in Pariser Platz, beneath the Brandenburg Gate on the night of Nov. 9.
I look forward to your joining me on this journey.