November 9, 2009

The Berlin Wall: Twenty Years

Fragment of the Berlin Wall

Over the weekend, I attended a reunion of Americans (Army, State Department, civilians) who were present in Berlin when the wall fell twenty years ago.  I saw many old friends and colleague, and my memories flew back to that most exciting and surreal night.  I had a front-row seat at one of the most remarkable events in modern history.  The fall of the wall and the periods both preceding and
following it changed the world.

The following is an excerpt from the commencement speech I delivered last July at Touro College in Berlin: 

My family joined me in Berlin shortly after New Years, arriving at the very beginning of 1989.   In the context of the wide sweep of European history, with the exception, perhaps, of 1848, did a single year see such a confluence of potentially history changing events as occurred in 1989.  The year did not start happily in Berlin.  In January, Erich Honecker boasted that the Wall would still be standing in “50 or even in 100 years.”  On February 6, Chris Gueffroy, a 20-year-old East German, was shot dead as he tried to cross the Wall.  On the same day, the communist regime in Warsaw began talks with the Solidarity trade union and its leader Lech Walesa.   Also in February, the Soviets pulled their last troops out of Afghanistan.  In March, Winfried Freudenberg fell from the sky into a garden in Zehlendorf as he was attempting an escape by hot air balloon from East Berlin.

In April 1989, Solidarity gained legal standing in Poland, and students in China marched in Tiananmen Square.  By May, there were demonstrations in more than 400 cities in China, until martial law was imposed.   In June, the Ayatollah Khomeini died, marking the end of the beginning of the Islamic revolution.  One wonders today whether we may be witnessing the beginning of its end.

During the summer of 1989, East Germans, free to travel within the East bloc, flocked to Hungary where they then crossed into Austria and gathered in the compounds of the West German Embassies in Prague and Budapest.   Tens of thousands left.  In September, the Hungarians let 14,000 East Germans pass through in a single week. 

During the autumn of 1989, large crowds demonstrated in Leipzig and other cities.  In the midst of all of this, the East German government held a celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the German Democratic Republic.  The heads of state from the East bloc countries attended;  Ceaucescu and Honecker, of course.  Within months, one would be dead by firing squad and the other out of office.

In early November, my wife and children had returned to the States for a visit, where I was to join them for the Thanksgiving holiday.  With no family obligations, I worked late on the evening of November 9th, and happened to catch Guenther Schabowski’s now-famous news conference on the car radio as I drove home from work.  I will confess to you that I had no idea of its far-reaching significance as I made my way through the streets of Zehlendorf.  Of course, neither did Schabowski or anyone else for that matter.  When I arrived home, I turned on CNN and watched as the incredible scenes unfolded.   Although my home in Grunewald was too far away for me to actually watch the streams of Trabis that poured into West Berlin, the atmosphere was electric. 

The next day, I took Bus 29 all the way down the Kudamm and witnessed the throngs of people.  There were huge lines surrounding all of West Berlin’s banks, which extended their hours to disburse the 100 mark--Begrussungsgeld--that each East German citizen was eligible to receive.  Food markets were selling bananas at an alarming rate, and along the Wall itself, there were surreal scenes that are now familiar even iconic pictures.
That weekend, as the world watched the historic events on television, I was present as the section of the Wall by Potsdamer Platz was removed by a crane, and Mayor Momper with his red scarf marched across.  The air was filled with the irregular cadence of chisels striking concrete around the city as the Wall began to fall victim to individual demolition efforts and souvenir collecting.    

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