Cheerful Anarchy: The Fall of the Berlin Wall
The 9th November is the 25th anniversary of the day people crossed the wall that split Berlin, unchallenged and jubilant.
Many of us will pause to remember the sacrifice of the armed forces during wars past and all too present. Let us then also pause to reflect on the period between 1961 and 1989 when a city was split so completely that people were killed for trying to reach family on the other side.
(As December approaches another ‘Eastern Bloc’ country will be very much on my mind. In Romania, Ceaușescu had ruined the economy of the country and stolen luxury for himself and his entourage whilst most people starved. I will write more as we come to the anniversaries of the violent road to change in Romania. NB: this link contains distressing images from the start.)
But this week is for Germany and the Germans. I struggle with the packaging of history in books, media reports and school curriculum materials. I prefer to learn my history from the stories of individuals who experienced an event. A lovely friend in Cardiff agreed to tell me how it was for her when she heard the news that ‘the wall’ had fallen. (She has pieces, kept in air tight tupperware because it is said to have asbestos in it). She is German and moved to the UK where she married and had children and grandchildren. She was at home in England when reports hit the British television:
“That evening I was clearing up in the kitchen, the children went to watch the news. Then my oldest called telling me to come and watch as ‘they have opened up the wall’. I was quite cross with him and told him so saying that he should know better than to joke about this to me, but he just stared at me and urged me to ‘come and look’. Well we all sat together, I was glued to the TV, I was sobbing my heart out. It was true. After 28 years of tears and pain and separation people from the East walked into West Berlin and nobody shot at them and no dogs chased them and nobody walked them off into prisons. The next day at work I was still crying. I still cried in the evening , again glued to the TV. I did not realise until much later that I actually was in shock.(Even my regular blood donation yielded nothing). My husband suddenly got up from watching TV, left the room and when he came back half an hour later he told me that we were going to Heathrow in the morning as he had just succeeded in getting me a flight.
Well, that started me on one of the most breathtaking, emotional experiences of my life.
West Berlin was a mass of people. All around the centrum the road was closed to traffic and people just partied, hugged, sang, laughed, cried. A whole city celebrating. ‘Freude! Alle Menschen werden Brueder….!’ I breathed it in, I lived it, I felt it. And I embraced people just on impulse, joy does not know about strangers. You looked and suddenly you were in each others’ arms, laughing and crying. I then travelled on by tube to Checkpoint Charlie. All public transport was free and in the tube we were all like sardines. When I arrived at this place – the Checkpoint- which had always chilled me to the bone and I had had some unpleasant experiences I stood watching people coming over to the West, some tentatively, others already in party mood and the hugging and crying and laughing continued. Well, I walked all the way to the Brandenburger Gate along the wall. There were moments then when I also remembered standing there before, then nineteen years of age seeing the wall being built. I remembered my rage then and my hatred. Well it was pretty late, when I finally called my brother asking for a bed for the night. In his rather laconic manner he just said,’I thought you may be here’.
I was up again very early as we had heard the wall was going to be opened up at the Potsdamer Platz to create a further crossing point. So I was there when the cranes lifted the large sections of the wall away. I knew then in my very own heart that it would last, there would be no return to closing it down again. People had climbed on top of the wall, I am afraid to my deep regret I did not manage that. And when the opening was finally open we surged across. On the West the Wall was full of graffiti, colourful, odd sometimes witty drawings, sad drawings, messages.
On the East , however, it was white— completely white— a sinister white – a long stretch of white along the empty stretch of the Todestreifen . All the Vopos seemed young lads, uncertain how to deal with this crowd of emotionally charged people , some of the Vopos handing out pieces of the wall, which had broken away when the slabs had been lofted. That’s where I got my first three pieces from, three pieces of Berlin Wall for my three children.
Some months back my youngest had asked me what I would do if I could cross the wall. I remember that I had answered that I would cross over and go back and cross over and come back and go on doing that for many a times and that is just what I did. And nobody stopped me.
Finally people from the East were allowed to cross at the newly created check point .We greeted the people coming from the East with the same joy and hugs. There were people who had travelled from quite distant places in East Germany. One woman told me how she had been taking part in the Leipzig demonstrations, how she had always dreamed to go to the West Berlin Philamonia Hall and that she now had a ticket for this very evening. We danced around as sisters and to this day I often think of her wondering how she fared in the years to come.
The whole family returned to Berlin at Christmas.We were there when the Brandenburger Gate was opened as a crossing point and I finally was able to actually walk through the Brandenburger Gate, my children became ‘wallpeckers’ when they chipped away pieces of the wall, the Vopos waved to us from the Watchtowers and we were able to go to East Berlin. New Years Eve night was a party beyond belief . One late night my daughter and I went to the Brandenburger Gate knowing it would be less crowded. The Vopo was slightly concerned about my daughter being out so late. But we both were deeply moved by this experience especially when a man suddenly started singing a well known German song about Freedom and Freedom of thought – Die Gedanken sind frei – .
I knew he was singing it for himself. He stood there all alone in the cold night only his voice travelled and silently I sang with him not wanting to interfere with his dream.
Is it really 25 years ago? I do not think I will ever lose the depth of my feelings when I step into the old East. Having lived away from Berlin during all that time it has remained special for me and I am sure will continue to do so.
I will probably mark the anniversary by sitting in my chair, closing my eyes and travel in time into the land of my memories.”
I invite you to ask German people you meet what they felt and what they did – when the wall went up, whilst it was a part of life, and when it came down. Please share stories; it’s how I like my history.