So many knowledgeable people have weighed in this week on the legacy of the Berlin Wall, that I really had not planned to offer anything other than what I saw and what I read. I put this package together for those who missed it the first time, and there were plenty of people out there who did, including Germans.
Two things struck me, however, as I was researching this project:
1. The power of propaganda.
As television viewers, we all know how easy it is to sway large groups of people, but still, it’s stunning how easily East German authorities convinced people that walls and borders were there to protect them from the immoral and dangerous influences of the West.
Judging by the number who escaped or tried to, not all were fooled. But, if you listen carefully to the dialogue between guards and East Germans in the Mauerfall videos, you'll find evidence that many East Berliners still believed they were walled off for their own good.
I went to Berlin and Leipzig not long after reunification. It was still a mess.
You couldn’t place a phone call from east to west. You still had to carry a passport, or a visa provided by a hotel, which took your passport when you checked in. That practice made me very nervous since I had no way to call the US embassy in what-was-once the West, if that passport went missing.
Living conditions in East Germany were much worse than I expected. I had never before seen so many obviously disabled people in one place at the same time. Since my mother was crippled, I was very tuned into noticing such things. One day, I counted 40 physically disabled people on the streets of Leipzig. Many begged on street corners, at entrances to office buildings or in front of restaurants. These were young people -- many blind or with badly deformed limbs -- so these weren’t war wounds they were dealing with.
Coal was the home heating fuel of choice so the air stunk and, some days, it polluted the air so much you could barely see across the street.
Fences and gates marked many intersections. There were video cameras and loudspeakers at every turn. Recorded voices told you to stop, start, to not spit, smoke, run, or misbehave in any way. They may have told you more than that, but those were the only words I understood. I could hear loudspeakers barking all night all over the city, since I had to leave the windows open in my hotel room to keep cool.
Outside the cities, empty gun towers still watched over cornfields, maybe a half-mile apart. We were told not to step off paved roads in rural areas because all the landmines had not been removed.
Small towns were gated at every exit with concrete stanchions spaced just far apart to let a Trabant through, which meant there was no way anyone could simply drive from town to town without dealing with a guard. All movement within the country was watched and recorded.
Highway border crossings looked like American interstate toll plazas with gun towers. We passed an especially large one that had been shot up to smithereens.
I was in Leipzig the week the first green grocer opened. Lines of skinny and wan customers wrapped around the block to buy fresh produce, many for the first time. I went there to buy water every few days – at the advice of the hotel concierge – and stood in the quiet, very orderly line, waiting my turn to shop. They sold food we would never eat: moldy peaches, rusty lettuce, blackened bananas and overripe tomatoes, all at New York prices!
The Leipzigers we met loved their city, and boasted loudly about everything they could that set them apart from the rest of the country. Think New Yorkers. Texans. Californians. After all, this was home to Bach, Mendelssohn and Goethe, among other notables, and today is home to one of the world’s finest orchestras.
A tourguide boasted about the city’s main hospital, in particular. You’ll see it below. Aside from electrification, it didn’t look to me like much had changed since the 15th century, when it was built. Note: It wasn't tilted, I was shooting from a bus.
Leipzig hospital wing
2. How easily it all came apart.
In spite of all the available firepower, attack dogs, machine guns, landmines, barbed wire, Stasi and whatever else they threatened people with, not one single shot was fired on the night of November 9, 1989.
Not long after der Berliner Mauerfall, citizens of Leipzig, Dresden and other eastern cities tested the waters and got the same response. Guards were either ambivalent about what to do, overwhelmed by the crowds or unwilling to stop them.
Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Think of all the walls that are up today, in places like Israel, China, Korea, the US. Do you think we’ll see them come down in our lifetime? I certainly hope so.
In reverse blogging order, you’ll find seven separate posts below tracing the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall. This is a pet project of mine, one that surely has stretched my blogging skills if not my research abilities and patience compiling a zillion elements.
Sources for the material include The New York Times, BBC, London Times, Spiegel TV, Wikipedia (only footnoted and approved sections), archival material and books I picked up in Berlin and Leipzig on a trip to Germany not long after the fall. Photos are mine unless noted. Video is from YouTube, and I’ve cited the source when I could locate it. Don't miss the last one. It will blow you away.
I invite your comments, reflections and memories of Europe before, during and after the division. As for Germany, it was officially reunified on October 3, 1990.
You already know how this story ends, so I’m going to put up some stunning video of the last minutes of the fall of the Berlin Wall, now, while you’re reading the intro.
This video was taken on November 9 and 10, 1989 by Spiegel TV, and its value will be much more evident once you’ve read the posts below.
On November 9, 2009, Berlin will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Over one thousand 8-foot high tiles will be stacked along the route the wall followed, and, with much fanfare, they will be toppled like dominoes. Daniel Barenboim will conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in a special concert, as one of many celebrations that will mark the event in Germany and around the world. Commemorations began last week in the US with a visit from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who spoke before an historic joint session of Congress on Tuesday, November 3, the first German leader to do so since Konrad Adenauer in 1957. See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/06/world/europe/06merkel.html for Merkel’s remembrances of the night the wall came down.
On the 9th, Merkel, Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa will walk together to the Bornholmer Bridge, where the first crossing was made. Their gesture will be purely symbolic, but the anniversary would be unthinkable without it, according to http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/a-bridge-opened-ndash-and-then-the-wall-fell-1817277.html
France will mark the occasion with an open-air concert and laser show held on the Place de la Concorde. According to The New York Times, the concert features prominent cellists from each of the European Union’s 27 member nations in a piece inspired by a musical tribute given at Checkpoint Charlie two days after its fall by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/04/world/europe/04parisberlin.html?ref=europe for more information. Through a program called Maurreise, or Journey of the Wall, symbolic wall bricks have been sent to artists in Korea, Cyprus, Yemen, among other divided countries. Artists have been asked to incorporate these bricks into works expressing the pain of people separated by impenetrable borders.
Here's a link to the German Embassy in Washington DC, containing updates on No Man's Land, comments by German citizens who lived through the event, and much more:
Also, see Arts and Letters Daily (www.aldaily.com) for a robust list of events, and a varied collection of rememberances.
The 87-mile-long Berliner Mauer, or Berlin Wall, was erected by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), part of the Eastern Bloc of the USSR, purportedly as an “anti-fascist protective rampart.”
Completely surrounding West Berlin, the wall effectively sealed off a section of Germany’s largest and most important city from the rest of East Germany, making it an island trapped in a country that did not govern it. Home to 2 million people, West Berlin was affiliated with—geographically, historically, ethnically and linguistically—but not legally a part of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). As a result of post-war partitioning, it was essentially a city without a country.
Collectively, the Berlin Wall and the larger border between east and west were called The Iron Curtain (in the west, at least), because they symbolized the fiercely guarded border between the democratic Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc nations associated with the USSR.
Immediately after World War II, millions of people emigrated from Soviet-occupied Eastern European countries to the West. By 1950, the Soviets imposed restrictions, trying reduce the number of young educated professionals leaving for opportunities in West Germany, France and beyond. Nearly 20% of East Germany’s population took part in that migration, many from the eastern to the western sectors of the partitioned city of Berlin. To stem the human tide, they put up fences and by 1961, the fences had been turned into concrete walls.
Once the Berlin Wall and the fortified borders went up, emigration stopped and didn’t start again for almost 30 years.
Here is how Wikipedia describes the Berlin Wall:
The Wall included guard towers lining large concrete walls circumscribing a wide area containing anti-vehicle trenches, “fakir beds” and other defenses.
In June 1962, a second, parallel fence some 100 meters (110 yards) farther into East German territory was built. The houses contained between the fences were razed and the inhabitants relocated, establishing an area called No Man’s Land, later known as The Death Strip. The Death Strip was covered with raked gravel, easily disturbed by footprints. Guards could spot someone running the wide, open space, and had a clear shot at anyone they saw.
No Man's Land was paved when I saw it.
From 1961 to 1989, eight border crossings connected East and West Berlin, allowing Westerners into East Berlin, but very few Easterners into West Berlin. A visit on the other side required an application for a visa, with several weeks lead time, as well as a preparation fee and money left at the crossing site, as a kind of escrow.
Perhaps Berlin’s most famous border crossing was the vehicle and pedestrian gate known as Checkpoint Charlie. That site, near the intersection of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse, was often depicted in literature and film, especially thrillers and spy stories.
Over the course of 29 years, about 5,000 people made it across the wall, from east to west. The number of those who died trying is disputed, but thought to be between 89 and 200. There is a small, rather primitive memorial site on what was once the west side of the wall, honoring people who lost their lives trying to escape East Berlin.
Early on, when the border was made of barbed wire and other fencing, people cut through or leapt from apartment windows into the West. To prevent this, East German authorities bricked up windows in buildings near the border.
Still, people found ways to escape. They built tunnels, installed false seats in cars, even concocted hot air balloons to take them west. Some even escaped through the sewer system that ran below streets on both sides of the wall.
The last person who didn't make it over the Berlin Wall was shot on February 2, 1989, adding to the clamor to bring it down later that year.
On June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy visited West Berlin, reassuring residents that the US had not forgotten them, in a speech that included the memorable line, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” (True, the correct way to say "I am a citizen of Berlin" is "Ich bin Berline." Machs nicht. Everyone knew what he meant and the crowd went wild.)
Twenty-six years later, at a ceremony commemorating the 750th anniversary of the founding of the City of Berlin, President Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, within earshot of guards posted at the gate and along the wall:
“If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Here's a chronology of events leading to the actual collapse of the wall dividing east from west:
1980-89---Solidarity, a non-communist-controlled trade union, gains strength in Poland, elects Lech Walesa president and pushes for free elections. Spring 1989—The world holds its collective breath as it watches students defy tanks in Tiananmen Square. A sprit of revolt against repression is in the air. At the same time, Protestant churches throughout East Germany use weekly prayer meetings to press for change, and prepare for peaceful demonstrations that could be mobilized quickly, when circumstances allowed. By October, they were ready. Some say the Lutheran church was East Germany’s Solidarity Party. For more on this topic, see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article6906779.ece
August 19, 1989---A young Hungarian border guard defies orders and allows a group of East German tourists to cross into Austria. See http://www.expatica.com/de/life-in-germany/news_focus/Looking-back_-Remember-the-fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall_14767.html for a recent interview with that courageous guard.
Late August, 1989--- A Solidarity-led coalition government is elected in Poland.September, 1989—Thousands more East Germans flee to Austria, by way of Hungary. Fearing mass defection, East German authorities demand their citizens return to Budapest, then to East Germany, immediately. Instead, thousands flood the West German embassy in Austria, seeking asylum. East Germany quickly stops travel to Hungary, ordering tourists already there to return home. East Germans visiting Czechoslavakia are told to return home, as well. Many refuse. Mass demonstrations erupt across East Germany.October 18---Erich Honecker resigns as chancellor of East Germany. Protests grow louder and larger.West Germany accepts those seeking asylum. Thousands more stream through Czechoslovakia, hoping to get to the West. The Czech government does not force East Germans to return. Chaos erupts all over Eastern Europe.
November 4—A million people gather in East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz chanting “Wir wollen raus!” or “We want out!” November 9----Hoping to stem some of the unrest, the newly appointed East German leader agrees to loosen travel restrictions, including travel between East and West Berlin, beginning November 17. He directs Party Secretary for Propaganda Günter Schabowski to make the announcement. Click on Read More to see what happened next, according to New York Times reporter Alison Smale, who was in East Berlin on that historic day: