Twenty five years ago today, I was sitting in my living room in Kataseyama, in Japan, bawling like a baby. I was all alone in the house, so there was no reason to keep a stiff upper lip. I was watching the Berlin Wall come down. It was one of those magical moments I thought I might never live to see, but there it was, happening before my eyes.
I first went to Berlin in early 1961 with my Uncle Willi. He wanted to show me the “home town”, where my mother’s birth father lived with my grandmother for a short while before she went back to Celle to give birth to my mother in 1915. They divorced and my Uncle Willi was the son of a second wife, not my grandmother. Nonetheless, they kept in contact somehow, and it was my grandmother who told me I should get to know Willi.
It was not a match made in heaven, me and my Uncle Willi, but I did enjoy being able to cross over into East Berlin and walk down Unter den Linden, which I remember my grandmother talking about. She was a new bride and loved window shopping, pressing her nose against the shop windows to see all the latest fashions. I saw none of the glamour, of course, since Unter den Linden was in 1960 a drab, dark, even frightening place for a Westerner, and Potsdamer Platz was still a wasteland and site of Hitler’s bunker.
A few years later, I went back to Berlin with the U.S. Army and spent my time up on the hill made of the rubble of the city after war’s end, with the Army Security Agency, listening in on East German Communist Party officials talking to each other. Also much less glamorous than it sounds. By this time I had become close to a great aunt and uncle living in Berlin and it wasn’t long before I felt I might just want to pull up stakes as an American and emigrate to my mother’s homeland. And by that, I mean Berlin, not West Germany, where she was born.
It was a heady time, being in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. A black and white time. Good guys this side of the wall, bad guys on the other. It had only recently gone up but already the toll of people dying trying to escape was rising dramatically. I’ve written about this elsewhere and won’t repeat the stories. I just want to make the point that although my plans to go back there for good got waylaid, my sense of connection with the place never quite left me.
I have since been back several times, and have some passing familiarity with the reunified city, but twenty-five years ago, watching the crowds pouring out of the East on my television screen in Japan, this was yet to come. All I could think of was how awful it was that my friend Achim and my Aunt Frieda were no longer alive to see it. The division of the country into two states was cruel and Berliners, many of whom had some friends and family on one side and some on the other, with little to no contact, felt the injustice keenly. The wall was routinely described as a “Schandmauer” (wall of shame.)
I visited a school in Kiel once, many years earlier, and was asked a bunch of questions by a fifth-grade class that had prepared their questions in advance. One kid shot his hand up in the air and made me laugh out loud. “Warum ist Amerika das Land der unbegrenzten Möglichkeiten?” he asked. I wanted to ask him where he learned all those big words. “Why is America the land of unlimited opportunity?” Not knowing how to respond to an eleven year old, I turned the question back on him. “Why is Germany not a land of unlimited opportunity?” I asked. “Weil Deutschland geteilt ist,” he answered without hesitation. “Because Germany is divided.”
Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of talk about “Ostalgie” – that’s “nostalgie” for the “Ost” (East). Lots of people, disillusioned to learn that joining the Federal Republic did not solve all their problems, are missing job security, and other good things, and overlooking the fact they were living in perhaps the most ruthlessly controlled police state in the world, where, until the U.S. developed the means to spy on everybody’s telephone conversations at will (so far without serious threat to the average citizen), being spied on was a given.
Since the two Germanys came back together, efforts have been made to integrate the Easterners into a Western way of life, with mixed success. From time to time, things happen that are quite unsettling to a majority of people, both Westerners and maybe especially Easterners who suffered under the GDR (the German Democratic Republic – DDR in German). The other day I watched a video of a group of men wearing East German uniforms marching and placing a wreath on a Russian memorial. On the one hand, watching how sloppy they looked made the whole thing a joke, and the people standing around snacking and laughing and almost getting in their way, should mean this is anything but a threatening development. But just the sight of men in DDR uniforms makes you wonder what they were thinking.
Today I listened to a German talk show with people discussing whether enough water has passed under the bridge for a member of “The Left” Party, the successor to the East German Communist Party, to become a minister in the government of Thuringia, a state in the southwest of the former DDR. Two of the panel members could not hide their fury at the idea, claiming the DDR must be labeled, now and forever, an “Unrechtsstaat” (an illegitimate state), and until and unless The Left Party completely disassociates itself from any and all connection with the defunct state, the idea of anyone joining the present-day government as a minister of state should remain anathema. The argument goes if we have to stay vigilant to keep Nazism from creeping back in, we must do the same for communism, since the states formed by these ideologies were tyrannies in equal measure, at least domestically.
None of this debate was visible from the videos I was able to find of people celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall. Along the fifteen kilometer stretch where the wall once stood they had set up stands holding white balloons, and they were then released, one at a time, to symbolize the disappearance of the wall. Wish I could have been there.
It’s strange that I have not seen this event covered much in the American media, except as a story to be buried in the back pages of the newspaper. Perhaps it was there and I simply missed it, but my guess is most Americans feel little connection to this world event that brought me not just to tears, but to some serious sobbing at the time.
I then had to go the next day to a faculty meeting with professors in the language department, after which we all went out to a pub. In no time I found myself in argument not only with one of the French teachers who offered the view that reunification was a bad idea. “Germany will always be a military state,” he said. “Our only hope is to keep the country divided.” To my astonishment, one of the German teachers also took this view. It was my astonishment that saved me. If I had seen it coming I’m sure I would have dumped a pitcher of beer on his head. As it was, I sat back and said, in a very mousy voice (at least that’s how it seems to me now), “That’s not how I see it.”
“You don’t see it that way because you are an American!” he said. I never got this guy to explain that bit of illogic, because somebody sensed discord and put a stop to the discussion, and the topic never came up again. One doesn’t discuss politics under such circumstances in Japan, and there were times my sense that settling in Japan, rather than Germany, where such discussions were part of everyday life, was a bad mistake on my part. I have few regrets, but the fall of the wall was one of those times I felt I had chosen the wrong country.
I can’t believe twenty-five years have passed since then. But here we are. Berlin is now one of the most desirable cities in Europe to live in, famous for its night life and art and theater and museums. I still go back there every chance I get, and will, as long as I’m able.
I may open a bottle of champagne and drink it all by myself, to remember that time I sat alone on the other side of the world from Berlin, wishing I was there, wishing Achim and Tante Frieda were still alive, wishing I could capture the moment somehow and bring it out from time to time, when I needed a boost.
Happy Anniversary, Berliners.
The Wall is gone.
And that’s a very good thing indeed.
Added, November 10: a BBC video of the balloons going up