Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Berlin Wall Remembered

We watched The Wall come down.

Dennis and I lived in West Berlin from 1988-1991. Dennis was working as a manager for the Army-Air Force Exchange System (PX system), and I was a busy mother of one, then two small children. Keely turned three shortly after we moved to Berlin in 1988, and Isaac was born there in June, 1989.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, this post and its photos will tell a little about Berlin from the viewpoint of an American who was there when the Wall was opened.

The geography

For a refresher course on post-WWII geography,  please examine the map at right. The British (green), French (blue) and American (orange) sectors were West Germany. The Russian sector (red) was East Germany. The Soviets and East Germans maintained a barricaded, heavily-guarded border between West Germany and East Germany. It was one segment of the "Iron Curtain".

If you look at the east side of East Germany, you'll see a little block of four colors that represents Berlin. The capitol city was divided into four sectors at the end of WWII, just as the nation was. The French, British, and American sectors became West Berlin, and the Soviet controlled sector was East Berlin.  (This map is courtesy of Wikimedia.)

The Wall erected

The Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949 kept West Berlin supplied when the Russians blockaded Berlin to try to gain control of the entire city. Over 200,000 flights were made into the city by the Americans, British, French, and other nations. When the Soviets eventually realized that it was impossible to starve out West Berlin, they lifted the blockade, and travel resumed on the overland corridor from West Germany to Berlin.

The border between East and West Germany was closed in the early 1950s, but people could still cross into the West by entering West Berlin. In 1961, the East German army built the Wall around West Berlin -- the French, British, and American sectors -- to stop the exodus through that one remaining portal. Too many young, educated people were leaving.

The Berlin Wall was actually a double wall that went all the way around West Berlin. The West Berliners saw the inside wall. Much of it was covered with graffiti, as you may have seen in photographs. The well-guarded "death strip", with lights, towers and a patrol road, lay between the inside and outside walls. It was a hundred yards wide or more in many places. The East Germans saw the outside wall. A successful escape required crossing both walls as well as the space between them.

Living in West Berlin

Life in West Berlin was often compared to life on an island. As Department of Defense (DOD) civilians, we lived in military housing and generally had the same privileges and restrictions as military personnel.

We lived as free people within West Berlin, but our travel on the East German side of the wall was heavily restricted by military regulations. We could request paperwork that would allow us to go through Checkpoint Charlie to visit East Berlin, and we sometimes did. We could not go beyond East Berlin boundaries, so we had to be very careful when exploring.

Travel from Berlin to West Germany -- from Checkpoint Bravo to Checkpoint Alpha -- required an impressive stack of letter-perfect paperwork. Checkpoint Bravo was the only American, British, and French entrance/exit through the Wall on the west side of West Berlin. Checkpoint Alpha was located on the border of East and West Germany at Helmstedt/Marienborn, a 105 mile drive on the autobahn from Checkpoint Bravo.

Military travelers were allotted a certain amount of time between Alpha and Bravo. Soviet soldiers stamped the departure time on the travel papers. Travelers received detailed instructions about what not to do and how to handle emergencies. We drove through there a total of three times -- once when we moved there, and then a round trip out and back in when we traveled to West Germany to visit the villages where my great-grandparents were born. Our other trips in and out of the city were by air.

Cracks in the Iron Curtain

During 1989, a great amount of unrest developed in the eastern European countries. The USSR began to implode. "Solidarity" was happening in Poland. Hungary opened its borders, and East Germans started coming through Hungary to Austria. Then they were able to come west through Czechoslavakia. Thousands of East German refugees were arriving in West Germany.  Huge crowds of East Germans demonstrated in cities all across East Germany, day after day. In East Berlin, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated relentlessly. Finally the East German government decided that it had no recourse except to open its borders as well.

On Friday evening, November 9, 1989, I was sitting in our living room, nursing my five-month-old son and watching CNN. I heard a report by a stunned newsman that the East Germans had decided to open their borders for private travel. I called Dennis at work, and he was as amazed as I was. He decided that he would go down to Checkpoint Charlie when he got off work and see what was happening.

At Checkpoint Charlie, a huge crowd had gathered on the west side of the Wall. The East German guards, unsure of what they should be doing, were letting people through from the East, one at a time with long delays between each crossing. Each time someone came through the checkpoint, the West Berliners cheered wildly. One young man came through, pushing a bicycle and wearing a big backpack -- he was prepared to stay.

The Wall crumbles

Dennis came home after a while, but the excitement and celebration carried on through the night. The next day was Saturday, and the entire city of West Berlin was in a state of high jubilation. Visitors from East Berlin were everywhere. Some came over and used the public transportation, and others drove over in their Trabants. The electricity of freedom was in the air.

The banks opened to give welcome money to all the East Berliners who had come over. The West German government at that time gave visitors from East Germany 100DM of welcome money. They did this because East Germany allowed their elderly citizens to visit West Germany for up to 4 weeks per year, but they could not bring any money with them.

All the stores stayed open extra late that night, to accommodate the dazzled, goods-hungry East German shoppers. Shelves were depleted of such basic goods as sugar. A clever bit of Wall graffiti made the news the next day: "They came, they saw, they did a little shopping."

On Monday, the city calmed down a little because everyone had to go back to work, but the next weekend, the Easterners were back again. The West Berliners met them at the checkpoints with an outpouring of welcome. Some brought flowers to hand out to the visitors; church groups set up refreshment stands and gave away coffee and cookies.

At first, travelers across the checkpoints still had to deal with East German guards, but within a few weeks, even this pretense of regulation was abandoned. It had become pointless -- the Wall was being torn down. In some places, the Berliners themselves bashed through it with pickaxes and hammers.

By spring in 1990, Dennis and thousands of other Berliners were riding their bicycles on the long patrol road of the Wall, formerly the death strip. We often walked a half-dozen blocks from our home, crossed the former wall, and flew kites in an East German field. (That field, Keely, is where you were so happy to find what you thought was a "dinosaur bone" -- actually, a horseshoe.)

20 years of freedom celebrated

Yesterday (November 9, 2009), ceremonies were held in Berlin, in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. President Obama declined to attend. (I don't often discuss current events and such on this blog, but I'm going to deviate from the norm for a few sentences.) I am ashamed of the President's refusal to honor America's role in opening the Berlin Wall and restoring Germany as a nation.

Remember, this is the man who recently traveled to Copenhagen to beg for the Olympics to be held in Chicago. He should have attended the Berlin ceremonies himself, instead of sending the Secretary of State. It's an insult not just to the Germans and our World War II allies, but to Freedom itself -- and a slap in the face to the many, many people around the world who have struggled to gain it and sacrificed to secure it for others.

More photos


RunAwayImagination said...

What an experience, to be a witness to history in the making! Thanks for sharing your memories and photos.

Genevieve said...

Thanks for reading, Arnie. Yes, I suppose that was as close as I'm going to get to a famous event.

I have so many photos of Berlin buildings that I can't identify. I was telling my husband that I should start a blog called "Please identify this photo of Berlin!" and post a photo a day.

real estate agent Toronto said...

Oh, so you have experienced the fall of Berlin wall? Wonderful. I cannot believe it's been 20 years already. The time really flies. Anyways, congrats to Germany and everyone, here in Canada too, should remember and honor each anniversary of the great fall.


Genevieve said...

Thanks for visiting, Elli. It has indeed been 20 years. My children are now young adults instead of babies.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.