As a college student finishing up at UVA in autumn 1989, I eagerly watched network news coverage of East-Central Europe’s protests. Fraternity brothers and I cheered for the freedom trains bringing East Germans to the West, and cried “Tear down the Wall!” I came home from my bellman’s job one November Thursday evening to hear a frater exclaim, “Mark, the Wall came down!” The next night, I bought champagne for a bunch of us to celebrate.
But, oh, how I wished I could have been in Berlin to see it all firsthand. I’d missed my generation’s Woodstock.
I did what I could, though, to get to the former East Bloc, and by the next October was teaching English in Slovakia. And that November, I was on Prague’s Wenceslas Square celebrating the first anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution with thousands of Czechs, Slovaks and international visitors to the capital, an event presided over by the country’s dissident-turned-president, Václav Havel, and U.S. President George H. W. Bush.
It was yet another year and a half before I got to travel to Berlin. By that time the Wall had been largely dismantled. Still, I’ll make that trip the subject of this blog entry, my personal tribute the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall - and to all those who suffered from Stasi oppression, and to all who fought and overcame it.
So, here is my take on the “New Berlin Feel.” (It is taken from a memoir, Slovakian Rhapsody, for which I am seeking publication.)
At breakfast the morning after checking into a Berlin hostel, I joined a dark-haired student named Dieter. He had a few hours before he had to return home to Bielefeld, so he offered to show me the center of town.
It was chilly and breezy, but sunny, on the Strasse des 17. Juni. June 17, he explained, had been the national holiday in West Germany, significant for a 1953 uprising of East German workers against the increasingly oppressive regime.
He pointed to the Siegessäule, or “Victory Column,” four massive sandstone columns, each about twenty feet tall, stacked end-to-end and topped by a gold-plated, winged Victoria. Completed in 1873, it celebrated Prussian victories over the Danes, French and Austrians, all part of von Bismarck’s project of uniting Germany, which for centuries had been a loose collection of hundreds of principalities with their own laws, customs and dialects.
Closer to the old East-West boundary, vendors, probably in their forties but with leathery, prematurely aged faces, sat at card tables hawking ushaki, those fuzzy black Russian caps with huge earflaps, Lenin pins, and Soviet army caps and jackets. I’d seen such shady operations in Prague and wondered how much stuff had been pawned by departing soldiers.
“So all the Soviet troops have left, right?” I asked Dieter.
“No, there are still a half million.”
My jaw dropped. “In Czechoslovakia they all left last year.”
“By treaty they’re supposed to leave Germany by 1994.” He pointed at the marble colonnade behind the makeshift souvenir stands. “It’s the Soviet War Memorial. Even though it was in West Berlin, Soviet honor guards marched out every day from the Brandenburg Gate to change shifts. The West allowed it because, well, it pays homage to
Red Army fighters who died defeating Hitler.”
What irony! To think that Soviet soldiers would march along the “Street of June 17,” which, since it abutted East Berlin, must have been an annoyance to the East German government.
As we passed through the Brandenburg Gate, I recalled the images of the crowds in late 1989. Now, people strolled through, elderly folk on canes, a mother pushing a baby carriage, but most people were at work. No vestiges of the Wall remained. I simply couldn’t relive the euphoria of its collapse.
Inside the former East Berlin, Dieter stopped at the entrance to an S-Bahn station. “This line is mostly in the West, but there are three stops in the East.”
“So it was all built before the war?”
“Right. After the war, trains ran through the eastern sector but didn’t stop. A few people tried to jump onto them as they passed through the stations, to escape to the West. But soon the government sealed them off.”
Now it was back in full operation. Passengers entered and exited as if it were nothing new. I wondered how fast the scars of the barriers that had deformed the heart of the city until so recently were healing.
I thanked Dieter.
“My pleasure.” He shook my hand graciously, wished me a good stay and disappeared into the station. My trip was not turning out so bad.
Not far away, I found a remaining section of the Berliner Mauer next to an abandoned lot—the dusty remains of the no-man’s-land between the inner and outer walls, where Honecker’s shoot-to-kill orders had long threatened potential escapees.
On an old section of the Wall, “Total Demokratie” in ten-foot white letters on a green background stood out among anarchic, multi-colored squiggles. A handful of tourists, the only people in a stretch of land several hundred meters, took pictures and wandered among the ruins.
The Museum at Checkpoint Charlie displayed a multitude of devices for smuggling Ossies to the West: a hot-air balloon, a gas tank partitioned to hold an adult human and just enough fuel to cross the border. Another room showed the mechanisms to deter – or kill – escapees, such as trip wires that set off projectiles. On another wall was a life-sized black-and-white of a young East German border guard, before the Wall was actually built, taking advantage of a moment’s distraction among comrades to make a dash for the other side—a picture that had made front pages worldwide in 1961. Finally, I watched a documentary which showed, after the grim history, the crowds dancing atop the Wall, shaking champagne bottles and spraying the jubilant masses with bubbly. At last, I could enjoy my Berlin Wall moment, but I was nearly alone in the museum’s tiny screening room – and there was no complimentary glass of champagne.
I’d also come to see “Degenerate Art,” paintings and sculpture that the Nazis had displayed as objects of derision in 1937. Since then, the works had dispersed to various corners of the earth, but curators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had managed to track down and borrow a fifth of those items for an exhibit there. Finally, with impetus from German organizers, the collection was making a three-month appearance here. I’d read about the original in my college German textbook. After learning of this new display in the International Herald-Tribune, I’d added it to my checklist.
It began with samples of Nazi sculpture, idealized Aryan bodies exuding vigor and military prowess. Avant-guard pieces, some depicting human subjects with deformities, were offered as examples of material repugnant to Hitler. An impressionist painting of ordinary farmers had been labeled, in the 1937 show, as “a mockery of the German peasant family.” A book cover, Degenerate Music, featured a drawing of an African-American sax player, a monkey in a tux—and oddly with a star of David on a lapel. The caption explained that Nazi theorists considered jazz an offense to the Germanic soul, a “Negro-Jewish-Free-Masonic” influence debasing American society. I’d heard Jewish-Masonic conspiracy theories in present-day Slovak circles, and I wondered how deep these streams ran in the European imagination.
I visited the permanent collections on Berlin’s Museum Island, took in ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, Roman jewelry and coins, Greek artifacts. Since it was Easter weekend, I watched an Ostermarsch on Sunday, a protest march through the center of the West. That year a lot of Kurds were clamoring for their rights, a sign that Germany’s liberal emigration laws had altered the character of such public meetings, and also a reminder of events in the Middle East following the First Gulf War.
Then I bought a Sunday paper and hopped onto an S-Bahn train in the Friedrichstrasse Station, with no goal but a broader view of the city. I took the line all the way to the east, passing the typically socialist architecture, as well as the splashy stuff like the TV tower – which the regime had also used, with little success, to jam broadcasts from the West. On the return trip across the West, the glitziness struck me as overdone, but preferable. There was also more green space, much to my liking. I opened my newspaper to a column, “Das neue Berlin-Gefühl”—“The New Berlin Feel,” the author opined, “is above all the S-Bahn Gefühl,” the sensation of riding across town.
I was living it, here and in Central Europe generally.
Genscher's Tear Down the Wall Speech - from last month, recalls the German foreign minister at the Prague embassy and other 1989 events leading to the Wall coming down.
The Glory and the Agony of Central European Anniversaries - about my experience of the 1st anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
Happy Hundredth, Leonard Berstein - recalls Bernstein's New Year's Eve 1989 concert at the Berlin Wall.