The Berlin Wall in front of Branderburg Gate, Nov. 9, 1989. Thousands climbed the wall as news spread rapidly that the East German Government would now start granting exit visas to anyone who wanted to go to the West. The announcement was misinterpreted as meaning the border was now open, and East German border guards were unable to stop the rush of people to the wall. Within hours, people were smashing sections of the wall with their own hand tools. Those first cracks led to the complete opening of the border within days. (© Robert Wallis/SIPA/Corbis)
Imagine that you lived in a prison all your life, and one evening, the doors suddenly opened, and you noticed that even the guards were leaving. That is roughly what happened 25 years ago in East Berlin. The East German government finally just quit trying to keep its citizens locked up in their prison country. It was 25 years ago, and I remember watching it on the news like it was yesterday.
I am a Cold War baby. I spent the first 30 years of my life as a human shield with Soviet missiles pointed at me. We had duck-and-cover drills when I was in first grade — you were supposed to kneel under your desk, put your head between your knees and lace you fingers across the back of your neck. We were told that this would keep the glass from the windows from cutting our necks if there was an explosion. What the grown-ups didn’t mention was that the fireball would vaporize us before we’d even feel it. By sixth grade, you kind of figured it out.
The Americans and the Russians were eyeball to eyeball from 1945 to 1991, but nowhere was this quite so obvious as in Berlin. After the collapse of the Nazis, Germany wound up occupied by the three victorious allies and France (France was on the winning side, but when the other side marches through your capital city, you aren’t really victorious no matter how the thing turns out at the end). So, the American, British and French zones of occupation turned into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), while the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). And thy same thing happened to the city of Berlin, four zones of occupation.
Berlin, of course, lies in the eastern part of Germany, and so you had an island of Western European Civilization in a sea of Bolshevik bull. Stalin tried to force the west to give up its part of Berlin by closing off the road and rail lines in 1948. For almost a year, the west flew supplies in on the theory that if the Soviets wanted to shoot down aircraft, it meant war — at the time, only America had the atom bomb. Stalin eventually gave up.
During the airlift, an American pilot named Gail Halvorsen (who’s still alive) started dropping candy and gum into East Berlin. Pretty soon, lots of pilots were doing the same thing, and the candy companies in the U.S. were donating their products. It’s hard to win a propaganda war against a country that bombs your kids with chocolate. Loads of people defected by way of West Berlin.
So in 1961, a couple of months before I was born, the East German government built the Berlin Wall to prevent people leaving the workers’ paradise. Officially known as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall), the wall became a symbol of communist failure. When you have to forbid the population from leaving because they won’t come back, you really have failed.
At first, it was just a wire fence, barbed wire, and people who tried to escape would get caught on the wire and often were shot. In the mid-1960s, it was a more fortified wire barrier. In 1965, the East Germans started pouring concrete, and by 1975, the reinforced concrete was strong enough to prevent a car from bursting through it.
Berlin has an underground train system, and some of the lines ran under the wall. It was an eerie feeling commuting from one place in West Berlin, passing through a closed U-bahn station in the east and coming to your destination in the western part of the city. You could stand on the street in West Berlin and look over into East Germany and make out the expressions on the faces of the border guards who were charged with keeping people in — rarely did they smile.
In 1989, as the Soviets tried to loosen up a bit to make communism work, their empire in eastern Europe crumbled. First, the Hungarians dropped their border controls with Austria, then the Czechoslovakian government did the same. East Germans found their way out through these countries. By November, East Germans were protesting in the streets (they had done this in 1953, but then, the army fired on the people).
The end of the Berlin Wall came, aptly enough for a communist system, through a bureaucratic error. The East German government offered new regulations, but sent a spokesman in front of the press without briefing him. The resulting mix up sent thousands to the six checkpoints, the guards called their superiors for orders, but eventually, they just gave up.
The Ossis, as the easterners were known, were welcomed by the Wessis, as the westerners were known, with Sekt — German sparkling white wine — and the Ossis devoured bananas, which their system couldn’t provide (and banana-growing Cuba was part of that empire for God’s sake!).
If you go to Berlin today, it’s rather difficult to find any trace of the Berlin Wall. In fact, the Berlin Senate has endorsed a walking tour that has to rely on GPS to help tourists “walk the Wall.”
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.