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