I was a child – 11 years old in the summer of 1961 – and I lived many thousands of miles away from Germany. But I remember the Berlin Wall going up. My parents talked about it. Our local TV news talked about it. There were photos of it in Life Magazine and Look Magazine, the big glossies that my mother enjoyed reading. Time Magazine put it on the cover. President John F. Kennedy gave a speech in front of the wall, declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner“, though his words left the wall intact.
It was a wall that we grew up with, until it became “normal” – just another wall in just another city, just another marker for the two sides in a war – a “cold” war because only a few people died and the shooting was only occasional.
By the time I had grown to start my own family, the Berlin Wall was a fact of life to us here. Not in Berlin, of course. It was always a reminder that families were separated, that some people could no longer get to their work and had to find new jobs on their own side of the wall. It wasn’t just a wall – it was barbed wire, guard towers, searchlights, weapons, a “no man’s land”, an occasional attempt to escape, a less occasional successful escape. And a wall. It was always there, always a reminder.
When the wall was broken, finally, in 1989, there was a large and spontaneous celebration. Our pundits in the U.S. were amazed, gasping on-air about this historic moment, not seeing this coming, as people climbed over, cut the barbed wire, and celebrated on the top of the wall and along the wall. The guards on both sides wondered what their new orders were – and, having no orders, holstered their weapons, shared cigarettes, shed parts of their uniforms, and joined in the singing and dancing.
I was in Germany in September, 1990. The wall had been breached for just over a year. I worked in a small town outside of Frankfurt and spent a weekend in Berlin. I sought out the Brandenburg Tor, the gateway to East Berlin. I marvelled at the visible differences between the gaudy, colorful buildings of the West and the dull gray concrete structures of the East. But the people were the same – and that sameness made the differences even more stark. Even the soldiers, now wearing their Soviet uniforms casually and looking slightly dishevelled, laughed and lounged with people whom they might have taken in for questioning only one year earlier.
I found the wall, of course. I guess I should say “the Wall” because it was deserving of being capitalized. It dominated the city for almost 30 years, so there were many young people who had never known a day without “the Wall”. It was so near some buildings that I could imagine jumping from a bedroom window onto and over the Wall. It bent this way and that, cutting off streets and slicing across back yards.
Were they walling people in? Or out? Both, it seems. As much as they tried to keep people in, they also tried very hard to keep western influences out. Jeans, rock’n’roll, Coca-cola, all the symbols of decadence that Americans thrust at them.
The wall is broken now. Yes, I lived long enough to see it go up and to see it go down. I remember why it went up – why the U.S. hated it – why the Germans tried to breach it – why they finally tore it down. In October of 1990, soon after “Unity Day”, I paid a street vendor 5 DM so I could use his chisel and mallet and chip off a few pieces of the Wall.
The Berlin Wall sent a message. Like a giant billboard, it shouted out to us. What we heard was this:
Behind this wall is a nation afraid of outsiders and insiders. We who built this wall don’t trust the people on this side or on the other side. We need this wall because we lack strength.
We heard fear. We heard weakness.
That’s what we learned from that wall. And when the people overcame their fear and the people overcame their weakness – that’s when the people took down the wall.
Es gilt viele Mauern abzubauen.