It seems surprising, when I think about it. Even I had largely forgotten about it until reminded by my friends at Katherin’s Biergarten. And because I have knowledge now I am typing away at 2306 in a desire to get this posted before 0000.
On November 9, 1989, the world was transformed. Like a huge dam, there were leaks here and there in Europe, but the dam suddenly, and unexpectedly, burst November 9, 1989.
This was the day the Berlin Wall came crashing down. And it was completely unexpected by both the public and the major intelligence organizations in the West.
It seems so strange to me that there are younger generations for which this is simply old dusty history.
In 1992, a former boss of mine, whose family came over to the US from what became East Berlin in 1956, told me that if I wanted to see what the former DDR – Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic or, as we knew it, East Germany) – looked like, I’d better go now.
Since I had that summer a 20 year reunion at my school in Virginia, it made perfect sense for me to just hop on a plane at Dulles and head east instead of west back home.
(What makes sense for me is, well, YMMV).
I flew into Berlin, stayed at a nice little family Pension a couple of blocks off the Kurfurstendamm – the main shopping Blvd of West Berlin), then after a week, rented a car, drove on the Autobahn to Dresden, then back west to my old haunts in the Saar region, up to Hamburg and back to Berlin. I covered 1,100 miles on the Autobahn.
The distinction is probably history now, but the best analogy I ever heard when crossing the iron curtain – from East to West, was to imagine seeing a movie in black and white that suddenly turns to vibrant color.
That huge abandoned building you see as the first picture of my Berlin post – on the Autobahn from Hamburg back to Berlin – with so many broken windows – was a mystery at the time. But I since learned, after reading a wonderful book on life in the former DDR – that it was an East German border check station.
Designed, of course, to catch citizens of the DDR and imprison them for years for the crime of trying to get to the West.
I can remember seeing what was East Berlin in 1992 – the Wall was of course gone – but East Berlin was in shades of brown and gray – and many of the buildings still had pockmarks from bullets in WW2.
Dresden still had blackened roofs from the terrible firebombing in February 1945.
The church where Bach composed his music in Dresden was, in 1992, still a pile of rubble. Today it has been rebuilt.
And East Germany was supposed to be the showplace of Communism.
The book I linked, by Australian Anna Funder, contains interviews she made of former citizens of the DDR and former members of its secret police, the STASI.
It is chilling, as the Stasi had the power of life and death over you. Something I remembered from the book – that became a scandal when the wall came down, was once former DDR citizens gained access to what was Stasi headquarters many learned that many friends, neighbors, and even family members were spying on them.
A statistic I remembered from Funder’s book was in the former Soviet Union, for every 2,000 citizens 1 was an informant to the KGB.
In East Germany it was 1 in 60.
When I was in the Army over in the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany – West Germany) , I had wanted to see Berlin. It could be done, you had to take a troop train from the West through the East, but it was an East German locomotive. And I believe East German guards had access through the train.
For me with a secret clearance it was discouraged. As a serviceman the thought of touring East Germany outside of Berlin was about like going to Mars.
It was very hostile and forbidden territory.
So I got to go in 1992.
Occasionally the Cold War turned hot. I remember when Nicholson was shot. The Soviets would not take him to a hospital – they let him bleed to death on the ground. While the rest of his American entourage watched and protested.
At the time I was there in the early 70s, there was about 400,000 US Army and US Air Force personnel in the West, with an equal number (or maybe a bit less) of West German Air Force and Army.
I was 11 years old when the Wall went up. There was no warning, and of course first the guards put up barbed wire. For much of my life it was a reality.
I can remember videos of families trapped in the East trying to jump from 2nd story apartment building over the new barbed wire (and Vopos – or East German guards) to waiting family members in the West. Families were separated for decades.
And in America it was frequent news of some poor German being shot by the Vopos trying to escape. On my Berlin post is a monument to an unknown 12 year old child who was shot trying to get across alone.
If you want to see an excellent movie about life in the DDR this is highly recommended.
August 1961, when the wall was built…
One of the first shot trying to escape – a boy – in 1962
The wall coming down – 30 years ago today
It seems so strange that I too should nearly have forgotten something that changed our world so profoundly…
Update 11/10/19 1103 : ColoComment posted a wonderful series of “before and after” photos of areas of Berlin with the Wall – and today.