Berlin 1989

(Last semester I participated in the BU Modern British Studies program at Oxford University. After the term ended, I took a journey to the continent, to visit friends in Germany and Italy. I spent one week in Berlin, and had a remarkable experience. I would like to tell it here with my firsthand observations I made at the time.)

18 December 1989

I took an overnight train from Aachen to Berlin. The journey itself was interesting. I was awed with the grandness of the Cologne cathedral. Later, I fell asleep, to be awaken at 3:00 AM by an East German soldier who issued me a transit visa. We arrived at the Zoological Garden (“the Zoo”) train station at 7:00 AM.

After I settled in with an American I had just met, we left for The Wall (Die Mauer). It was a very long walk, but certainly not unenjoyable. At the Wall we took the usual photographs, and observed everyone taking pieces of the Wall with their hammers and chisels.

Near Brandenberg Gate I met some East Germans, one who spoke very good English. His name was Nico. I learned the reason he spoke English so well was because although he was born in East Germany, he had spent most of his life in England. He did hold two passports, which actually got him into more difficulties than rewards. There were three other East Germans, all in West Berlin for the very first time. One girl, Solveig, was showing her emotions. I could only imagine how incredible all of it was for her.

All of us went to Checkpoint Charlie. While the East Germans simply walked through by displaying their passports, I had to go through the timely process of having a day visa issued and converting 25 DM to 25 East German marks ($15). A guard instructed me to a separate room, where my bag was thoroughly inspected. I must have been the fate of a random number as I found it rare for persons to be searched.

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Once through, I met up with everyone, who had patiently waited for me. Solveig and her friends had to catch the train to return to Leipzig. They went to a large protest for those against German reunification. Nico and I went sightseeing in East Berlin. First we saw Brandenberg Gate from the east side. It is a rather different perspective. You could only get about 100 meters from it. There was only empty space between you and the Gate. Of course the Wall was whitewashed. From there we went to Alexanderplatz, the center of East Berlin life. We bought some knockwurst, and the man who sold it to us helped himself to a tip. They usually expect one, and do help themselves to one if you do not offer.

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We went up the “Television Tower” (proper name I do not know), where we had a spectacular view of all Berlin. What impressed me most was looking at the whole of FriedrichStrasse. The separation of it by the Wall exemplified the artificial division of a once united capital city. Afterwards we went the People’s History Museum, a never-ending myriad of rooms and displays. What amazed me were all of the Nazi-Socialist-Communist artifacts of collaboration. As East Berlin describes the Wall as the “anti-fascist” Wall, I was genuinely surprised to so many of those artifacts displayed.

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We left and went to where Nico was staying in East Berlin. In a short while I met his Russian friends. The conversations did not go far as I knew no Russian, let alone German, and likewise they knew no English. Fortunately, a Russian woman who understood and spoke a good amount of English entered the room. Her name was Rimma, and with her we had an enlightening conversation for well over an hour. Some of us agreed to go to Brandenberg Gate. On the trip to the Gate, one Russian, named Oleg, was curious of how I could afford to travel. Oleg was intrigued the American system of economics, and Rimma told me he now wants to study it. Oleg appeared to be too optimistic, and I felt compelled to tell him that economics is one of those not perfect sciences. (I’ve recently written to Rimma, and asked her if Oleg has gone off to be a good Capitalist!)

Although the other Russians were apprehensive of speaking with me, I did not encounter a lack of humor with those I did speak with. One moment was when Oleg asked me why I was not married, since I was young, smart, and handsome. I laughed pretty heartily, explaining to him that it just hasn’t happened. Then he offered to match me up with anyone in Russia! At least I know I have that option.

At Brandenberg Gate I felt somewhat melancholy as I realized this was as far as the Russians could get to West Berlin. Remember, the infamous November 9th affected only Germans directly: only East Germans can enter West Berlin without a visa. I learned as well that for all the idealism of gates and barbed wire coming down throughout eastern Europe, the reality is that at least for Russians, travel is still quite controlled. Arrangements must be made far in advance and approved by the central authorities. Then all travel must be in groups, never individually, and with some sort of liaison chaperon accompanying.

At the street corner where I had to go to Checkpoint Charlie (as it was nearing midnight and my visa would expire), I gave them some single photos of myself, and we exchanged addresses. It was a nice, warm goodbye, and an experience I will certainly never forget.

On the subway ride home I meet a fellow American. He told me he was leaving the next day, and I informed him of a protest demonstration that was to take place in East Berlin that night. Well, he told me this was a good enough reason to change his plans since he had an 8mm camera and could put a story together for CNN.

19 December 1989

Nico, Solveig, and I went to the Reichstag Museum in the afternoon. We easily spent a few hours in there. As we left, Nico mentioned the protest and attracted the attention of yet another American, Dave. He would join us. We were late in arriving at Alexanderplatz, and the protest had begun. The theme was that of being against Kohl’s reunification plan, that any unification would render the GDR as a banana republic since it is so relatively underdeveloped. These people were clearly against any German unification.

There were thousands and thousands of marchers. It made American university student smaller, special-interest protests laughable. It was exhilarating like no other experience I have had. Solveig translated some of the slogans and chants: “Nazis (Go) Home”, “No Fourth Reich”, “Kohl (Go) Home”. There were many GDR flags and numerous banners. Walking the route, I was surprised to see not one policeman.

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The procession ended at the Academia building where Kohl was visiting. On top of the stairs I could see there must have been at least 20,000 people. There began some speeches. At one point, we met someone from NBC News. He was trying to find an East German who spoke English, and we happened to have one with us. He recorded a live interview with our friend Solveig (anyone see me?).

At the protest we met an Englishman, named Kevin, who joined us as well. Walking back in West Berlin, we stopped to have a diplomatic chat with an East German patrol guard at the Wall. We spoke with him through a large hole in the Wall. It was an unequalled photo opportunity. He informed us that the patrol force was down to 30% of regular level. He could not offer us any information about the rumor that there would be new breakage in the Wall at Brandenberg Gate. We heard it would be in a few days, and I decided to stay longer to witness history.

22 December 1989

I woke up early and rushed down to Brandenberg Gate only to learn that the slabs of wall were removed sometime the night before. Soon I met Jorg, one of our group. He was from East Berlin. We chatted a bit, and began arguing about American intervention throughout the world. He was concerned about Panama. (Rightly so!, as the banner headline in the International Herald Tribune the next day read: “U.S. Invades Panama”.)

Kevin found us, and we waited in the steady light rain for 3 o’clock, when the official ceremonies were to happen. Afterwards, the West Berliners began to surge forward. I was suspecting this since the West German police had strangely removed the barricades between the people and the new entrances. We decided to join the masses and walk right into East Berlin

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It was incredible bordering on the unreal. Overwhelming. It was November 9th relived. How can one describe the impressions of seeing over 100,000 people collecting at one place for such symbolic reasons? It turned into one large celebration. Numerous persons (myself included) climbed onto of the Wall for the most spectacular view. Soon enough some brandished hammer and chisels and began to chip away at the Wall from the east side! There was one young man who began to play various songs with a bugle. Listening to “Amazing Grace” moved me very much.

Kevin and I had to leave to catch our train to Munich. We said “goodbye” to Jorg, and vowed to keep in touch. During my long journey to Florence I was able to have the events of the previous week set in. It was the most rewarding experience I have had.

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