This Is What It Was Like to Witness the Fall of the Berlin Wall
By Christopher Hope NOVEMBER 7, 2014
Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 27-mile barrier that for 28 years completely cut off West Berlin from East Berlin—the iron curtain of Europe hewn from concrete and steel. While the protests, Checkpoint Charlie, and the celebrations have passed into legend, this piece captures the raw emotion, the chaos, and the euphoria of worlds reunited on a cold night 25 years ago. As Christopher Hope puts it, “it was the biggest damn family reunion Europe had seen since the War.” The piece also hints at the economic, structural, and mental gulf between east and west, a difference Germany continues to grapple with even today.
This piece originally appeared at The New Republic on December 18, 1989.
You know that things are serious when the TV news stations start flying in their anchor men and women. Chattering groups of them thronged Berlin Airport when I arrived on November 12, father figures and mother confessors from the news desks of the American networks, the British Broadcasting Corp., Japanese TV, and the European pop and sports satellite channels. They were eager to present the news in situ, beside the Berlin Wall, in front of the Brandenburg Gate. They were attended by baggage bearers, drones, and soldiers who formed a kind of protective scrimmage, easing their costly charges through passport control, incredulous that mere officials should obstruct the faces welcomed into millions of homes each night.
Berliners have always displayed disrespect when faced with power or privilege. And household names become very parochial the moment they leave the house. The famous faces, it must be said, are paler than expected, the eyes flutter restlessly as if searching for makeup and the auto-cue. As the Berliners well knew, these were people who a few weeks ago could not have picked out their divided city on a map. Berlin flickered in the memory, if at all, mixed with images of Liza Minnelli belting out her stuff in Cabaret. Indeed, for most people Berlin was an improbable oasis in the East German wilderness, cut in two by the Wall, surrounded by Russian troops, a stump of a city crowded with allied soldiers, spiked with missiles, lined with steak houses.
Berlin was last in the news in a big way during the Berlin airlift, and the building of the Wall in 1961. It featured vividly when President Kennedy gazed out across the Wall and proclaimed: “I am a Berliner.” But thereafter it was simply a schizophrenic city. A remnant of a vanished metropolis, occupied by its conquerors—in the West a prosperous fortress of two million people; in the East a prison house its masters called paradise, a place of outer darkness. Berlin was not a place—it was an issue. It never quite seemed to be part of modern Germany. When people thought of West Germany they tended to think of Bonn, the apologetic federal capital, of Mercedes and BMW, and of the strength of the deutsche mark. It was devoutly to be hoped that the two Germanys would one day be reunited, but outside the circles of the devout, no one was putting any money on it.
Since the erection of the Wall 28 years ago, Berlin has become a kind of distant theater of the cold war. A fine place for spy stories, the scene of memorable exchanges of secret agents; daring escapes by hugely brave men and women hidden in the cunning compartments of trucks and automobiles; flights by hot air balloon; midnight dashes through the sewers beneath the city. And of abortive escapes that ended in gunfire and bleeding bodies. Along the length of the Wall small tabernacles remember with a name or a photograph those who did not get away.
Then suddenly the world was stood on its head. The night of Friday, November 10, the East Germans began smashing through the Wall. By November 14 there were 22 new crossing points, with promises of more to come. And through these gaps poured the grateful tens of thousands. The invasion so long predicted was coming true. Even the direction was right—the invaders came from the East. But they carried not rifles but shopping bags, and they arrived not in tanks but on foot, or in tiny two-stroke motorcars called Trabants, belching fumes, their fiber-glass frames shivering on their uncertain chassis. To watch the tiny Trabant cross the Wall and go chugging along the broad West Berlin boulevards, impatiently followed by a gas-guzzling, absurdly fast turbo triumph of German automotive engineering, is to be present at a motorized street theater. The way into the future might be summed up by a single stage direction: “Exit a Trabant, pursued by a Porsche.”
West Berliners, usually so laconic, acerbic, irreverent, melted in the face of this invasion. The Opera House offered free performances of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The city fathers allowed free travel on the subway, the U-Bahn. They gave each new arrival 100 marks to spend. The department stores hung out welcome signs and exchanged the visitors’ dud currency at the rate of ten East German marks for one West German mark. Around the square at the top of the Kurfürstendamm, beside the ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church commemorating the destruction of Berlin, sausage stalls appeared, trestle tables, beakers of beer, mobile toilets, street musicians, and unbounded conviviality. The visitors were quickly dubbed the “Ossies” to distinguish them from the West Berliners, who became, naturally, the “Wessies.” When Ossies met Wessies, there took place in West Berlin the biggest damn family reunion Europe has seen since the War.
True, there were also a few party poopers about. Taxi drivers worried aloud about the cost of it all. After all, there were at least 1.2 million East Berliners (or had been the last time anyone had been brave enough or foolhardy enough to count them), and at 100 marks a head, the overall subsidy for this invasion, in every sense, was not small beer. Similarly, guest workers employed to do the work that West Berliners disdain took a rather dim view. “What will happen to me?” the Turkish cleaning attendant of a block of flats asked her employer, “when the Ossies undercut me?” Her employer appeared happily unconcerned. “I know. I’ve had three offers already.”
And what of the thousands of troops that the Western allies and the Russians have kept massed along this crucial border? More worrying still, to the Poles and the others—with sad memories of the last united Germany—where were the borders of Germany itself? Why had the West German chancellor, on a visit to Poland, declined to state that the postwar boundaries were immovable? And what on earth was one to make of a German people who, it seemed, were no longer preparing for the war but mounting shopping expeditions instead?
It was all very confusing and very euphoric and vaguely troubling all at once. Anyone who imagined that things would settle down did not, as they say in Berlin, have all his cups in the cupboard. Such people also mistook the significance of symbols. A Wall had once stood between East and West, built of stone and stained with blood. One night, without warning, it fell down. And only the rich bird life, thriving along its empty, eerie length, would mourn its passing. No one was surprised by the news that three Communist mayors from the East had committed suicide. It was the opinion of otherwise pacific matrons taking coffee in the Kempinski Eck, the famous plush, glass-fronted observatory on the Kurfürstendamm, that the disgraced former leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, should “do the decent thing” and follow suit.
West Berliners have always detested the Wall, but they learned to live with it. They have jogged along its length and have daubed it with graffiti from end to end, but except on rare occasions when it thrust itself into view with a spectacular escape, or some important politician came to call and made a speech, they forgot about it. What West Berlin has never allowed anybody to forget is the War itself. Bullet holes are still to be seen, spattering the sides of buildings. Fragments of the portals of the old Berlin synagogue are cemented into the porch of the Jewish Community Center in Fasanenstrasse. West Berlin is a city loud with ghosts.
The area around the Wall added to the sense of wartorn desolation. Once it was the site if the Potsdamer Platz, among the busiest intersections in Europe, the very heart of Berlin. Since the War ended it has been a muddy, disconsolate slum. Taxi drivers assured visitors with laconic understatement that it was not “a development area.” The deserted embassies look like the victims of some below-stairs revolt by the lower vegetable orders. Creepers spread across their facades and reach through open windows into empty rooms.
Reminders of the cataclysm are everywhere: the Hitler bunker; the site of the Gestapo torture chambers in Wilhelmstrasse; the fragmentary remains of the old Anhalter station, a crumbling façade and a few headless statues on a roof out of which trees have sprouted. Before the War the Anhalter dispatched 60 trains a day to Dresden, Rome, Vienna. Nearby is Friedrichstrasse, now a gray shadow of its pre-war, tinselly self. It sputters out in a pizzeria and a rash of bars, ending abruptly when it runs up against Checkpoint Charlie. The graffiti on the Wall reveals the genial derision in which West Berliners hold the foreigner’s tender fascination with this monstrous monument: “What are you staring at? Have you never seen a wall before?”
There has always been something inconsolably sad in the air of West Berlin. East Berlin, by contrast, has always pretended otherwise. East Berliners never spoke of their city as “East Berlin,” but always and only as Berlin, the capital of the only legitimate Germany. They preferred to ignore the existence of the imposter stuck away in the middle of 110 miles of East German territory. East German soldiers were to be seen regularly changing the guard Unter den Linden, still doing the goose step, wearing helmets like soup plates.
Naturally I crossed the Wall into the East for the simple pleasure of witnessing East Germans moving the other way. They waited patiently in long lines, helped by the border guards to fill in their travel forms. It must be strange to ask directions from a man who a week earlier would have shot you for trying to leave the country. It must have been even stranger for the guards themselves trained to snarl, shoot, and inspect the undersides of tourist buses with giant dentist mirrors. Overnight they had become part of the courtesy staff, obliging, efficient, seemingly delighted that most of the population planned a trip abroad.
I traveled to the East with a British novelist who had never made the crossing before. She had a theory that you could tell you were getting older when the popes started looking younger. But in Berlin, that test seemed really to apply to border guards. They appeared to have shed years overnight. “Please step this way to exchange your money,” a smiling fellow invited toothily, holding the door. Only those used to making this dreary crossing would understand the novelty of his demeanor. I exchanged good West German marks for bad, an obligatory transfer, a tax on curiosity. One day East German banknotes will, like the Wall itself, become collectors’ items. On the face of the 20 mark note Goethe stares back guiltily, as if disturbed to find himself so framed.
There has never been much to see in the streets of East Berlin, or in the shops. A smart new coffeehouse adorns the corner of Friedrichstrasse, in its continuation on the other side of the Wall. It is always packed to capacity. Most of the customers appear to have taken up their seats soon after the building was completed and show no signs of leaving. In a nearby supermarket, food is more plentiful than it is, say, in Moscow. But a German economy, any German economy, must be in deep trouble if it cannot make even bottles of sauerkraut look attractive. But what lightens everything in a lovely, astonishing fashion are the chattering crowds of East Berliners at the crossing points, waiting to leave as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Most are going for the day, complete with bags, babies, and beaming smiles, heading for the bright lights of West Berlin.
And for citizens of a regime known for its prim moralizing, its political piety, and its claims to be untainted by the lures of Western junk, the Ossies show themselves to be endearingly human. They crowd the non-stop strip shows on Kant Strasse. The unexpected connection between vice and philosophy is a feature of West Berlin. After all, the crown (if that is the word) of Martin Luther Strasse happens to be an emporium known as Big Sexy Land. The clip joints reduced their entry fee and offered two free beers to our “Eastern guests” and reported that the crowds were “good-humored.”
And so they were. They were also “different,” a word that kept cropping up among West Berliners who observed the visitors closely. The Ossies manifest that special sort of raging docility that distinguishes Eastern European crowds, people accustomed to standing in line and monitoring their expectations every wish of the way. The Wessies looked upon the Ossies with a benign complexity attended by gentle satisfaction. They were, quite simply, as pleased as punch to see them in West Berlin—though not quite sure what to do with them.
And thus it was with a certain relief that the Wessies sought refuge in their bars, restaurants, and watering holes where the Ossies could not follow and sat talking excitedly over meals that only they could afford. And the Ossies would press their noses to the windows of the Paris Bar like gentle ghosts. Yet there was no discernible resentment in their stares. Ossies were to be seen striding through the most distant suburbs, stopping to stare at children playing in the park, or a man washing his car, or gathering in great crowds outside the windows of the BMW showrooms. After all, what qualitative difference is there among the objects of your fascination when you are seeing it all for the first time? It is all very natural, and not a little sad.
At the entrance to a large department store I watched a family of East Berliners, freshly arrived, wide-eyed and eerily silent. Father, mother, and a boy of about six were passing the chocolate counter. Suddenly the little boy stopped dead. He had seen the chocolates, homemade and gleaming darkly under the lights, perfection behind the glass, a costly pyramid, profligate, tempting, untouchable. His adoration passed like an electric current into his mother and father and rooted them to the spot. No one spoke. After a while, like sleepers awakening, they shook themselves and went on their way. Seeing is believing. It’s not the same as having, but it will do, for a while at least.