Stories Told

It happened at the Wall

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 Berlin 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 that summer.

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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.

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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.”

You are now leaving 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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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; 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.

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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.


Originally posted in October, 2009.

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17 thoughts on “It happened at the Wall

  1. Lone Primate says:

    Wow, succinct and powerful. I read it sitting here at work and I started to chuckle out loud at the part about waiting to return to West Berlin to relieve yourself. ‘I had to wait till I got back to the Free World to take a leak…’ Talk about solidarity with East Germans. Startling to think the Wall’s been gone now nearly as long as it stood. It seemed so monumental when we were growing up that it was hard to imagine it once hadn’t been there.

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    • It is hard to believe that the Wall has been gone for almost 25 years now. It was just a fact of life in the 70s and 80s, as if it would be there forever.

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  2. Shirley says:

    Hi Jim. thanks for the newsletter that brought this earlier blog to my attention.
    Our school took some of us for a trip to East-Germany for 5 days in May 1983 and one of the days we spent in East-Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate we knew, it was on a poster in the classroom where we were taught German. Nothing prepared me for actually seeing the Gate from behind the fences, just like you show on your picture. It was such a sad sight.
    This year we (my husband and I became a couple during that school-trip) went back to Berlin and revisited Unter den Linden, the Fernsehturm and the Brandenburg Gate. We were moved when we walked under the Brandenburg Gate from former East to former West Berlin. As it was meant to be when it was built. Seeing the Neue Wache without the military ceremony was much more relaxing. As was the entire atmosphere. Berlin is one city, once again. We loved it and will definitely revisit someday.

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  3. Peter says:

    I’ve visited Berlin three years ago, and those three days might’ve been the most soothing and calm ones in my entire life. German Museum of Technology and Stasi Museum definitely were highligts, but I enjoyed casual walks around the city and having plain breakfasts across the street from KaDeWe the most. We lived quite close to Kurfurstendamm, and about half an hour walk through Tiergarten from Alexanderplatz.
    The difference between western and eastern parts of Berlin are somewhat visible up until this very day, namely in architectural differences between residential buildings. And trabants! They’re everywhere. Germans really seem to enjoy the irony of the epitome of miserable socialist engeneering becoming a symbol for the end of Cold War.
    And yeah, it was a very brief distraction from routine back in march of 2014. Return from gentle German weather back to harsh Moscow sandstorm was somewhat… depressing. But I’ll always remember that trip and I’ll definitely revisit Berlin in the coming two years. I know I will.
    Abd thank you, Jim. This is one of my favourite posts of yours.

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      • Peter says:

        We went through the gate every time on our way to Alexanderplatz. And it’s really hard to imagine, with all the people that flood those parts of the city, that mere 28 years ago the Gate was it the middle of no-man’s land. It really shows that there is no limit to stupidity. And it’s great to have that particular stupidity almost gone now.

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