Remembering the Berlin Wall

Two decades later, GW professors remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the University hosts a series of commemorative events.

November 03, 2009

This November marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall -- the 12-foot-high and more than 100-mile-long wall that literally and figuratively divided the democratic West from the communist East. First constructed in 1961, the wall was the Cold War’s most tangible symbol of communism and demarcation of the Iron Curtain.

GW is holding a weeklong commemoration co-organized by the Global Resource Center in Gelman Library and German faculty in the Department of Romance, German and Slavic Languages and Literatures. Events including a candlelight vigil, film screenings, panel discussions with ambassadors and other high-ranking officials from former Eastern bloc countries, as well as a “Tear Down This Wall” cake on Kogan Plaza. A full schedule of events is available here.

GW experts Mary Beth Stein, associate professor of German and international affairs, and Hope Harrison, associate professor of history and international affairs, discuss the significance of the Berlin Wall--both in historical terms and in its lasting implications for today’s world. An expert on the Cold War, Professor Harrison is currently in Berlin as a Fulbright scholar. Professor Stein, who has also spent time as a Fulbright scholar in Berlin, teaches a course at GW titled “Berlin Before and After the Wall,” which will be offered next semester. Both professors were in Berlin in 1989.

Q: What did the Berlin Wall symbolize in Germany and around the world?

Professor Harrison: The wall symbolized the lack of freedom under communism. It symbolized the Cold War and divide between the communist Soviet bloc and the western democratic, capitalist bloc.

Professor Stein: Berlin was on the frontline in the Cold War struggle between the superpowers. Conservative West Germans called the Berlin Wall a "wall of shame" and said that it illustrated the bankruptcy of communism. The East German government claimed that by building the "anti-fascist protective wall" they had saved the peace in Europe.

Around the world, the Berlin Wall was the most widely recognizable Cold War symbol, which is why its collapse was such a dramatic spectacle and televised around the world.

Q: What prompted the East German government to construct the wall in 1961?

Professor Stein: Between 1949, when Germany was formally divided, and 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, more than 3 million East Germans "voted with their feet" by moving to West Germany. The East German ruling party never enjoyed popular support, and the regime never trusted its citizens. Refugees left East Germany for economic as well as political reasons, and this "brain drain" of young, educated workers had a destabilizing effect on the East German economy. The only way to stop the flow of refugees was to close the border between East and West Berlin.

Professor Harrison: The rest of the border between East and West Germany had been sealed off in 1952, which meant that the only place in all of Germany where there was free movement back and forth was Berlin.

The East German regime had asked Soviet leaders repeatedly to let them seal off the border in Berlin. Until 1961, the Soviets said no, arguing that not only was it technically impossible but also that closing the border would make the Soviet and East German regimes look terrible. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev later wrote that he knew that building the wall would be an admission of the failure of communism in Germany.

Q: What did the wall look like? Who was allowed to cross it?

Professor Harrison: The wall was more than 12 feet tall, and at first had shards of glass on top. It was never just one wall but always two, and in between were guard towers, guard dogs, tripwires, anti-tank barriers and other obstacles. It was a deadly border, called the “death strip” by the West. At first no one from the East was allowed to cross. Eventually very trusted East Germans and those past retirement age could get a visa for a short period to the West.

Professor Stein: The Berlin Wall consisted of two walls separated by a no-man's-land containing watch towers at regular intervals. The wall that came down in 1989 was the fourth generation wall. With each generation, the border system was further perfected. The first generation wall was constructed of brick while the last one was made out of steel-reinforced concrete and had a round concrete top piece that made scaling it very difficult.

The Berlin Wall was built to keep East Germans in and did so rather effectively for 28 years. Travel restrictions were one of the most common complaints of East Germans. They were allowed to travel within the Eastern bloc (the notable exception being to Poland at the height of the Solidarity movement), but relatively few East Germans, with the exception of authors and athletes, were granted permission to travel to the West while they were of working age.

East German retirees were allowed to travel to the West and even encouraged to emigrate so that the East German government didn't have to pay their pensions. In later years, it was possible for an East German to travel to the West for special occasions, such as the funeral of a grandparent, but the decision-making process was completely arbitrary. Often only one member could travel at a time, in order to ensure the return of the traveler.

It wasn’t only East Germans who suffered the consequences of the border closing. For two years after the building of the wall, West Germans were not allowed to travel to the East to see family and friends, and it wasn't until 1971 that a regulated system allowed West Germans to purchase day visas for travel to the East.

Q: How did people try to escape and did they succeed?

Professor Harrison: People escaped in hot air balloons, in small submarines, in trunks of cars and through tunnels. But every time someone escaped, the East German regime figured out how they had done it and made it impossible for anyone else to escape in the same way at the same point.
 
Professor Stein: When I was in Berlin in the late 1980s, I interviewed people who escaped (or helped others escape) through barbed wire, crawling through the tunnels, swimming across the river and hiding under the seats of cars. I also interviewed people caught trying to escape who spent years in East German prisons.

There are many places and streets in Berlin where crosses and stones commemorate people who died trying to escape to West Berlin. In some cases, their identities are still not known. The Bernauerstrasse is the most famous street along the former sector border between East and West Berlin, where many people lost their lives jumping from the upper stories of buildings that were in the East to the sidewalk across the street, which was in the West. There were so many tragic attempts, and the precise number of victims is still not known.

Q: You were both in Berlin in 1989. What was the atmosphere like?

Professor Stein: I lived in West Berlin in the late 1980s and spent a lot of time in East Berlin. Since my East German friends couldn't travel to the West, we traveled together throughout the Eastern Bloc, including Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. I was aware of the protest movement in Leipzig [site of a mass demonstration in 1989 against the East German regime], but did not believe the communist government would tolerate any real opposition.

I returned to the United States in August 1989 just a few days after the 28th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. At the time, the East German party secretary said the wall would stand another 100 years, and I had no reason not to believe him. On Nov. 9, I thought friends had played a practical joke on me when I heard the announcement of the opening of the wall on my car radio. My first reaction was complete and utter disbelief at the unexpected and dramatic fall of the wall. My second reaction was also disbelief--that after living in Berlin for two years, I would miss out on this unforgettable moment! I quickly booked a flight to Berlin and got there on Nov. 14.

The word on everyone’s lips during that first euphoric period was "Wahnsinn" or "crazy." But the expression doesn’t begin to capture all the complicated feelings of those first days. By the end of my three-week stay, I had been witness to many wonderful scenes but also some disturbing ones. I had seen the first signs of a backlash, a souring mood over long lines and crowded subways, frustrated expectations, and the resurgence of stereotypes and prejudice.

Professor Harrison: I was on a plane to Berlin on the afternoon of Nov. 9, before anything had happened. I arrived early on Nov. 10 and was in Berlin for 10 amazing days of watching new border crossing points open; seeing people laughing, crying and hugging each other; and champagne being sold on every street corner. And I got my own pieces of the wall.
 
Q: Professor Harrison, you’re in Berlin now. How is Germany celebrating the anniversary?

Professor Harrison: Hillary and Bill Clinton, Nicholas Sarkozy from France, Dmitry Medvedev and Mikhail Gorbachev from Russia, and other leaders from around the world will be here in Berlin. There will be a memorial service for the victims of the wall; a meeting of the German chancellor, visiting dignitaries and key revolutionaries from 1989 at the first border that opened; and a celebration and symbolic toppling of huge dominoes to mimic the fall of the wall at the Brandenburg Gate.

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