At the Ref Desk (12/13/17): Last shift of the year! [more...]

In Berlin When the Wall Came Down

Submitted by Leo Klein on Mon, 11/9/09 (8:57am)

I was in Berlin when the Wall came down. In fact I had been living there since 1984.

I had just woken up from an early evening nap when one of the people from the Wohngemeinschaft where I was living told me the Wall had come down.

This seemed strange since it looked perfectly intact only an hour before when I had gone to sleep.

Of course my room-mate was exaggerating. In fact, the Wall hadn't come down -- it had simply opened up. You still had to show your ID to get through. There was one or maybe two cross-points. These are important distinctions which I'll get back to in a moment but at that point it really didn't matter. I like everyone rushed out to welcome the incoming East Germans at Checkpoint Charlie, buying a bottle of Sekt (German sparkling wine) along the way.

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East Berlin in the Bad Old Days

East Berlin up to that point had principally been a source of cheap booze and tyranny. It was drab beyond imagination. Other than official communist exhortations plastered on walls here and there, there was absolutely no advertising -- or color of any kind.

Of course, the people living there knew what was going on. They had access to the same radio and tv we did. The Wall surrounded West Berlin but it was the 'Ossies' as they were called who were trapped.

Long Weekend

By the time we got to Checkpoint Charlie that night, there already was a huge number of people. It seemed like the East Germans were being processed in lots. Every time a group came through, people would applaud.

Some that night came over just to have a look. They clogged the buses and U-Bahn. It was extremely difficult for the next three days to get into the center of the city. In front of all the banks, there were huge lines of East Berliners waiting to pick up their Begrüßungsgeld (Welcome Money) of 100 DM. They used this money to buy oranges and radio-cassette players -- things they couldn't get in East Berlin.

Everywhere there was this extraordinary sense of euphoria -- summed up best by Walter Momper, mayor of West Berlin, when he called Germans "das glücklichste Volk auf der Welt" (happiest people in the world).

When the Wall Came Down for Me

As days turned into weeks, more and more entry ways were opened between the two parts of the city. The Brandenburg Gate was opened in December. You still had to show your ID to get through but the level of scrutiny became less and less.

I remember one particularly sunny day several months later -- it may even have been summer -- when I was going through the new entry point at Mariannenplatz and there didn't seem to be anyone around. I kept waiting to be stopped at some point as I moved further across -- first through the West Berlin side, and then through the East Berlin side -- but again there was no one. I simply walked through! It was the first time I had been able to do this. That's when the Wall truly came down for me.

Postscript

I never got into taking a hammer to the Wall. It was something I was glad to leave up to the tourists. And I don't really know what I'd do with a chunk of the thing any more than I'd know what to do with a pair of handcuffs from the Stassi or a uniform or hat.

I don't need those things. It's enough to remember what the people I met back then had to endure and that no matter how free-wheeling and wild we were on our side of the Wall (west), that there was a fully-certified police state just a block away (east).

That was the Berlin I knew. By the time of the unification, it was clear that the city and country were embarking on a new chapter.

It was time for me to leave. I had been in Europe for more than ten years, six of them in Berlin. I witnessed the unification ceremony near the Reichstag and flew back to the United States the next day.

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