It happened at the Wall

I spent the summer of 1984 in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program with 29 other Indiana high-school German students. I lived with a kind and patient family in Krefeld for six of the seven weeks I was there; we young Hoosiers spent the seventh week in Berlin.

Germany was still divided in 1984. We could not know that in five years the Cold War would end, marked dramatically on our televisions by video of East Germans spilling over the Wall and through its checkpoints. We had all seen photos of it in our history books, of course, and maybe even in our German texts. We had heard the story of how the Wall went up “virtually overnight” to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. The whole concept of keeping the East Germans in seemed sad and silly, yet it happened half a world away and seemed remote. So I was unprepared for the Wall when I saw it.

Irgendwo an der Mauer

The Wall was at least twice my height, effectively blocking the view into the East except for tall structures near the border. Its rounded top made it hard to scale.

Irgendwo an der Mauer

It stood several feet behind a railing, which marked the actual border between east and west. Step over the railing and you were on shaky ground. The sign says, “Attention, you are now leaving West Berlin.”

Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin

The railing made a wide strip around West Berlin into a no-man’s land. These shots are of the Brandenburg Gate, finished in 1791. It teemed with people until 1962, when the Wall was built.

Brandenburger Tor

We crossed into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie and saw the Gate’s other side from behind a fence. Nobody could get close to this grand symbol of Berlin from either side.

Brandenburger Tor im Osten

Back in West Berlin, the wall stopped next to the Reichstag where the Spree River flowed by.

Deadly crossing

It was a popular place for East Berliners to try to swim to freedom, at least until the East German government lined the river with barbed wire. These eight people were either caught up in it or were shot by border guards as they tried to cross. Here we were told that the no-man’s land behind the Wall was heavily mined and, in some places, lined with weapons that fired automatically.

Memorial to the dead

This is where I fully grasped the Wall’s reality. At first, I had felt frustrated by it, as the roaming American in me was not used to being prevented from going where I pleased. Then I felt saddened that it kept historic sites off limits to everybody. But when I saw these crosses, and the watchtower that loomed near them, I finally understood the real power and control being exerted over an entire people.


I spent but a few hours in East Berlin. Every building was old, gray, and dilapidated, compared with the many gleaming new structures in the West. I saw few cars on the roads in East Berlin, but most of the ones I did see were tiny, noisy, smoke-belching, plastic-resin-bodied Trabants as in the photo at left; the roads in West Berlin were choked with traffic, with cars of every make and model produced across Europe and Japan. I watched people in the Alexanderplatz, noticing the downcast silence with the average East German went about his business, especially compared with the exuberance I had experienced in the nightlife on the hot Ku’damm in West Berlin the night before. And then, as my group passed by the Neue Wache building, a military procession began. Everybody stopped to watch the goose-stepping soldiers in their show of miltary strength; the onlookers’ faces showed dull acceptance.

East Berlin

Nature called while I stood on the Alexanderplatz. A sign pointed to a public toilet; it turned out to be a fetid underground pit into which men peed in plain view of each other. Unable to abide the stench, I sought out a restaurant, hoping to find facilities. A hunched-over old man was stationed in the tiny restroom, requiring a 10-pfennig coin to access the stalls and doling out short strips of toilet paper. Such is the nature of communism’s promise of full employment. I lacked coins, and the man would not change a bill, and so I held it until I returned to the West.

It was in experiencing the Wall, and spending those few hours in the East, that I first appreciated the great gifts of freedom I had always enjoyed.

One November morning five years later, I had just started to make my breakfast before dressing and going to work when the radio told me the news of the Wall’s end. I sat at my kitchen table and cried, simultaneously recalling my feelings of shock and sadness from my brief glimpses into East German life, and feeling joy for those people and the hope of better lives for them all.

I’ve touched on my trip to Germany twice before, about the joys of it, and about how I thought it put me in hot water with the FBI.


25 responses to “It happened at the Wall”

  1. Lone Primate Avatar

    What an amazing story. Really. It’s a relatively rare thing for someone from this hemisphere to have a direct experience with life on ‘the Other Side’ back then. I really envy you your experience… one of my real regrets is not having taken the chance to go and teach English in Prague for the summer while I was in university, just a few months after the Wall fell. Imagine what that could have been like. Well, you don’t have to imagine it, do you? :)

    Forgive me for asking, but I must… are those your own shots? I may have to die of jealous now.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Yes, those are my photos, taken with a crappy little 110 camera. They were badly faded after 25 years, so after I scanned them in I punched them up in Paint Shop Pro as best I could.

      My parents were never of means, and so I remain amazed and grateful that my father made the money appear so I could go on that trip.

      1. Michael Avatar

        I see the trip expense is $4,500+ now and it’s only 6-7 weeks. Still not bad I suppose, but I know your family had to sacrifice to send you. I see your father counts it “money well spent”. :)

        Stephan is going to Germany this Christmas vacation, but it’s a normal school tour type trip though I think they will have the chance to stay with some locals.

        1. Jim Avatar

          Whoops, it was seven weeks then too; corrected the text above. I seem to remember it costing $1,500 in 1984.

          I studied German for three years in high school before I went, and I was fairly competent at speaking it heading into the trip — but I really learned German during those seven weeks. So much so that by the time I came home, my dreams were all in German. So much so, that even though I’ve hardly used the language in 20 years, I can still read it fairly effortlessly and when I speak it to native speakers, they still tell me I have almost no accent. Unfortunately, I’ve lost so much vocabulary!

  2. Lone Primate Avatar

    Er, jealousy. Blah.

  3. David Avatar

    Thank you for sharing this. Your stroll back through a quarter-century makes good reading, and brings back memories of my own.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I hope you’ll write about your memories!

  4. Jennifer Avatar

    Amazing story, Jim. Wow…it seems like it would have been scary to visit East Berlin back then. I don’t know if you have ever seen the 80’s movie “Gotcha” with Anthony Edwards. He plays a college student who takes a trip to Europe and gets mixed up with a beautiful spy who lures him into entering East Berlin and unbeknownst to him, smuggling back some microfilm. The movie is funny, but at the same time, the East Berlin scenes are pretty nerve-wracking. Could be hyped up drama (after all, you were there), but still scary. Some similar things you’ve photographed are depicted in the film (the warning signs, etc.). If you’ve never seen it, the film is available online free and well, you can relate to visiting East Berlin before the wall came down!

    1. Jim Avatar

      The scariest part of going into East Berlin was crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. Border guards boarded our bus, took our passports, and kept them for more than an hour. We sat there at the checkpoint the whole time without any papers. Inside East Berlin, we Americans stuck out like sore thumbs — we were more colorfully dressed and far, far more exuberant than the people there, and we could tell that we were kind of an irritating presence. My primary emotion in East Berlin was sadness, because everything was so dilapidated and crumbling, in stark contrast to West Berlin; the difference in standard of living was stark.

    2. Jim Avatar

      I’ll look up that movie, too!

  5. Scott Avatar

    It’s worth recalling the lyrics of the East German National Anthem (from the film “Top Secret!”):

    “Hail, hail East Germany, land of fruit and grape.
    Land where you’ll regret if you try to escape.
    No matter if you tunnel under or take a running jump at the wall.
    Forget it, the guards will kill you, if the electrified fence doesn’t first.”

    1. Jim Avatar

      Or the land mines, or the automatic machine guns…

  6. Lone Primate Avatar

    Has anyone here ever seen the movie “Good-Bye, Lenin!”? It came out four or five years ago, and it’s a dramedy about Alex, a guy about 20 years old when all this takes place. His mother has a heart attack seeing Alex arrested, and lingers in a coma for months as the Wall comes down and the reunification begins… she awakens, but her family is told any shock could kill her, and so Alex, his sister, and his co-worker from the West (who has aspirations of being the next Stanley Kubrick) pull out all the stops to keep her convinced East Germany is still a going concern. It’s one of the most touching and interesting movies I’ve ever seen.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I’ll have to look that one up, too!

  7. Jim Grey Avatar
    Jim Grey

    Jim the third won a competition in the German Language put on by Indiana University. he went to Germany to become emersed in the language. I had him tested a few years after he came back and was informed that he speaks German without and accent. It worked. Money well spent.

  8. Bernie Kasper Avatar

    Incredible post Jim, what an eye opening experience that must have been !!

  9. Rose Avatar

    I love your account of the trip in 1984. I was just a kid then, and in 1989 when I watched it fall “live” on CNN in our History class, I thought it was funny that the teachers said “we have nothing to teach you – this is why history is important” and sat down.

    20 years later, I realize that the events of 1989 changed my life as an American. Not only did communism fall in Germany, but it also fell in Russia a few months later. This end of the communist regime (and the cold war) allowed me to be one of the first American Exchange students to Russia in 1994 – which helped encourage me to see the world in a completely different way.
    Then, in 2006, my job opened up international offices in what would then have been “east” (communist) Berlin. Because I had had the first opportunity of living abroad (in Russia), I was blessed with a second – this time in Germany. If it hadn’t been for the end of the wall, I wouldn’t be here, living in Berlin today, witnessing the events of 20 years later – and watching the “dominoes” fall into place.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Rose, thanks for popping over. And thanks for your blog’s excellent perspectives on the 20th anniversary. I sort of envy your opportunity to live in Berlin now. I hope I can make it back there one day and walk through the Brandenburg Gate.

  10. Richard Kraneis Avatar

    Although I never saw East Berlin my Russia Trip prints and negatives from 1975 sit patiently in my desk awaiting their re-birth. For 3 months as a Lawrence University college student, 7 VW vans with about 40-50 students arrived one night in Munich and then visited Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Turkey and a few other countries. 6 weeks in Russia alone.
    First full day in Russia I was strolling near Leningrad and two big guys came up behind me, grabbed me by both arms, and starting walking me away. They were surprised I could speak Russian. They were two secret service officers walking me back to my camp ground “for my own safety”.
    Ah, the memories of Russia during the Cold War.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Richard, I’ll be you felt quite like the stranger in a strange land. I’ve tried to explain to my sons what the world was like before the wall came down but it’s difficult.

  11. andBerlin Avatar

    Great post Jim. I’m always fascinated to read accounts of a Berlin I don’t and never will know and I envy you seeing the way things were but appreciate that in many ways things are so much better now.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks for commenting. Sometimes I still find it hard to believe that the wall is down. I grew up with a divided Germany and communism as a threat – we worried about nuclear war. That impact was so great that even now sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s so far in the past.

  12. Shirley Brouwer-Krab Avatar

    Hey Jim, I was searching for a picture of Brandenburger Tor as it was during the cold war and yours was one of the first that popped up. So I clicked on it and was directed to your blog.

    I live in The Netherlands and was in former East-Germany on a school-trip that lasted 5 days in 1983. We were 17/18 years old at the time.

    The atmosphere was exactly as you described and experienced during your couple of hours in East-Berlin. We had two State-approved guides with us during the entire trip. They would never, ever, tell us anything that went against the official doctrines of the National Party. Also, the teacher that was in charge of our group had to check in with the local police station each day. And our bus was accompanied by tho police agents (Volkspolizisten, VoPo’s) on motorcycle wherever we went. One in front of the bus, one on the back. Just to make sure we’d stick to the previous approved plans. Talk about control….

    What struck me most was the atmosphere of distrust among the citizens. They really didn’t know who they could trust, anyone could be their enemy and rat them out to the secret service. And, as became clear after the fall of The Wall, many did.

    One evening we were scheduled to meet with high-school students like we were. They had absolutely no control over their lives. They had to be a junior member of the National Party. If they weren’t life would be made hell for them as much as possible. The National Party decided for each of them which occupation they would have in their future. You might want to become a doctor, but if the party decided you should be a carpenter, then you were a carpenter for the rest of your life.

    What made it all worse, to me in those days, was that they could receive tv programs from the west, at least the ones in East-Berlin could. So they could see, but couldn’t touch.

    Like you, we left East-Berlin crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. I found it as scary as you describe. We were on time pressure as well, as our visa expired at midnight. I can still see the VoPo’s opening the cargo-holds and taking a mirror on wheels to look under the bus. Checking if nobody left the “Heilstaat” who wasn’t supposed to. They weren’t just there to check our passports and visa…they were there to prevent their own people from leaving.
    Eventually we left East-Berlin with 5 minutes to spare.

    After 5 days in East-Germany it was a shock to be back in the west, to see the neon signes and and adds. The east only had banners telling you how to be a model citizen and what a great country you were living in….

    It was a life-changing experience for most of us. And forever heightened my appreciation of the freedom we were brought up in and are still living in.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Shirley, thank you so much for sharing your memories of East Berlin. I wonder now if we had a state-supplied guide while we were in the East. I don’t recall for sure. I do remember the mirror on wheels with which they checked the underside of our bus, though. And I remember the propaganda signs everywhere. I have to think the East Germans had a very difficult time transitioning after the Wall fell and the country reunified.

      1. Shirley Brouwer-Krab Avatar

        Some East Germans did indeed have a difficult time after the unification, as I understand. Perhaps it was easier for the ones that were younger and able to adapt to the western lifestyle.

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