“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”- Robert Frost
It was a cold grey Sunday morning in Berlin. Thousands of Germans, many foreign revellers and scores of journalists and cameramen from around the world, stood shivering next to just a brief remaining section of the Wall to witness the commemoration of the 25 years of the end of the Wall!
A big screen erected above the space was steaming the happenings on the ground. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was seen at the commemorative Church Service, before she delivered her commemorative speech.
When the Chancellor Merkel left Church, the crowd rushed towards her. Speaking to them the Chancellor said it was important to remember all those who suffered because of the wall, not just in Germany but across Eastern Europe.
An elderly man, tears in his eyes, told that he was born in East Berlin. On the historic night of November 9, 1989, he was among the first group of people who leaped into West Germany, with the crowd, though the suddenly opened gate!
Just only about 3 kilometres of 155kms (96 Miles) of the Wall remains today, to mark a grim memory. Of course, the vestiges of the wall in pieces remain, scattered through the city and in a Central Memorial on Bernauer Street.
This wall, dominated this historical city of Berlin for 28 years, split a country in two parts. And so many people died, injured, put into prison, trying to cross the wall, escaping Communist Germany.
Thousands of Germans from around the country and people from the neighbouring nations have descended on Berlin for the weekend of celebration. There was a “citizen’s party” at the Brandenburg Gate too.
The new generation Germans came to celebrate the Sunday morning in the open.
Quarter a century later, many Berlin residents can hardly relate themselves to the life and the mood in the heavily militarised, divided city of the days before Nov. 9, 1989.
According to Moritz van Dülmen, the director of ‘Kulturprojekte Berlin’, that organised the anniversary event, around half of today’s Berlin residents never had direct experiences with the 96-mile barrier.
Berlin has so many newcomers and residents born since unification, the organisers stressed on the fact that it was important for them to provide a very intense reminder of what it meant to live in a city and country where millions of families were kept separated under threat of death!
There were stands selling steaming Currywurst – a German fast food speciality, souvenirs and replica of the Broken Wall. But it was not as poignant as the time Berlin celebrated the Fall of Berlin, after the Second World War, the veterans recalled.
There were very few waving of German flags or that enthusiasm, as seen even during the recently held World Cup Soccer matches.
But undoubtedly, the mood was sombre.
Outside the Berlin Wall Memorial, in the Mitte district, the crowd suddenly turned silent as images from the past memory were flashed on the overhead big screen. The shocking scenes of East German escapees being dragged away from the Wall in the 1970s and 1980s.
Desperate East German people screaming, struggling, as members of the East German Armed Forces of the Stasi – the infamous East German Security Service Personnel took them into custody!
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, on the occasion: “The fall of the Berlin Wall showed us that dreams can come true, and that nothing has to stay the way it is, no matter how high the hurdles might seem to be.”
Merkel, who has grown up as a young Scientist in Communist East Berlin has said in her speech that the Wall’s opening in response to mass popular pressure would be eternally remembered as a triumph of the human spirit.
Markel was young, in her 30s- working as a Scientist under East German Government- when the wall came down.
Today, just a few fragments of the wall remain. Much of it was broken into pieces, and sold off worldwide or taken by visitors as lifelong souvenirs. But for many in this city, specially those who have grown up in a curtailed Eastern part will never forget that it once stood there.
Lichtgrenze: The Border of Light
Berlin was strewn with enchanting helium lights on the weekend. On the evening, 8,000 lighted balloons have been released into the sky over united Germany’s capital at the conclusion of events to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.
The white biodegradable balloons – perched on 3.6 Mt poles to equal the height of the Wall once stood, stretched for 15kms, disconcerting a route through the heart of the city, were released one by one to signify the breaching of the wall by the thousands of East German protesters, quarter of a century back.
The “Lichtgrenze,” or Border of Light, installation was meant to evoke the brutal division of the past, according to Marc and Christopher Bauder, the lighting designers based in Berlin, who conceived the balloon installation. At the same time, the use of modern ways and techniques denotes how much the city and the world around it have altered in all these years.
“The horror of the wall is hardly imaginable for young people today,” remarked Frank Ebert, himself a former East Berliner and one of the organisers of this balloon event.
The balloons, each bearing a message of hope or congratulations, were released Sunday to the cheers of thousands. The multitude of white balloons – showing personal messages about the wall’s fall were meant to symbolize the end of division of Germany.
Many of the balloons’ messages honoured the role played by tens of thousands of East Germans in creating the conditions for the wall to be torn down.
“The wall was heavy, it was big, and dark,” according to Bauders. “We wanted to contrast it with something ephemeral, light and potentially beautiful!”
A former East Berliner’s message accompanying the balloon began with the words in German: “Freedom is the only thing that matters!”
“The Wall Is Open”!
After 28 years of harsh separation, on the night of Nov. 9, 1989, officials suddenly announced that East Germans would be allowed to travel West. To break free of Communist repression, East German crowds, turned out by thousands demanding the opening of a checkpoint at Berlin’s Bornholmer Street. The once menacing border guards, surprisingly, let them through, unopposed.
“We weren’t afraid at the time. There were so many people moving in, we knew by sure, nothing wrong would happen. It was unbelievable,” “said John Legler a former East Berliner who made his escape to the West on that very night.
After a year he had been released from an East German prison, serving harsh punitive term for his attempts to cross the Wall into the West, Juritza was ultimately able to cone to West. But he was severely warned and permanently debarred from visiting back East, or to visit his family.
On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, he was sitting in a small West Berlin bar, when the gate was opened!
“Late in that evening a guy came in and started shouting: ‘The wall is open, the wall is open’!” the former East German recollected.
“I said to him: ‘ Nice Dream fella, but don’t drink too much beer’.”
Then Juritza went home and went to sleep.
When he woke up in the next morning, he found out that it was true!
But again, due to strong warning, for two months afterwards, he had not dared to go back to the East.
These days Juritza works as a tourist guide in Berlin, showing and narrating to tourists about the East Berlin he knew. A memory that is fast fading into the oblivion, in the contrasting experience of modern unified Germany.
He is sure that the stories of personal experience should not be lost into oblivion.
“The poignant stories, of the people who tried to escape over all those years, who were shot in the ‘death zone’, facing the wall or went to prison because of their opinion and quest for freedom, must be told”.
Like him, many former East Germans want those stories to be known to the world. Otherwise, they fear that these stories would be buried into the past forever. How would the future generation learn from the history!
The Man Who Opened The Gate
Former East German Lt. Colonel Harald Jaeger, as per the media, is the man who opened the Berlin Wall, on that very night of November 9, 1989.
Even 25 years after the historical event, the former East German Border official is not comfortable to take the credit, solely. He is viewed as a hero who had defied his superiors’ order and let thousands of East Berliners to cross the checkpoint into the West of Germany.
He has been located thereafter and interviewed by various German publications, including ‘Der Spiegel’ and others.
He has turned 71 this year, but still remembers the event vividly after quarter of a century.
The former East German Lieutenant Colonel was in charge of Passport Checks, at the Bornholmer Street checkpoint.
“I didn’t open the wall. The people who gathered there, actually made it open.” He remarked.
“The spirit of the people was so enthusiastic, there was no other way but to open the border gate.”
Once Mikhail Gorbachev had taken over Soviet leadership and started Perestroika, the iron curtain of Soviet controlled Eastern Europe started to crack. The Communist parties of the ‘Eastern Block’ felt themselves abandoned and loss of control. Obviously the Soviet Army was not ready to intervene into any local uprising this time, like the 1960s.
In a major political development, the long- serving East German State Head and General Secretary of the ‘Socialist Unity Party’ Erich Honecker had to relinquish his posts on 18 October 1989, handing over the leadership to Egon Krenz.
Under tremendous pressure from a huge number of East German citizens protesting and eagerly waiting to break out to West Germany, on November 9, 1989, the East German Communist party had declared free Elections in the country. It had also announced, that visas for travel to the West would henceforth be easily available!
After 30 years, it was the big story of the day.
But gradually, the events of that night had started to take life of their own and were moving out of the control of the deflated East German authorities..
In an unprecedented turn of events, the powerful Politburo Member and GDR Communist Party’s spokesman Guenther Schabowski had unwillingly spelled something in an evening News Conference on Nov. 9, 1989, that incited the East Germans took matters into their own hands.
While answering the question of an enthusiastic reporter, in that widely telecast News Conference, the senior Politburo Member Guenther Schabowski, as it turned out … rather mistakenly, contrary to the normal Government stand, said that the East Germans would be allowed to cross into West Germany, effective immediately!
Schabowski was the powerful member of the ruling Socialist Unity Party, whose influence had forced East German leader Erich Honecker out of power just a month earlier. So, no one cross checked his words.
Almost immediately, all the Berlin border crossings to the West Germany, including the infamous Checkpoint Charlie, were under siege from thousands of East German citizens.
The border guards who had obeyed their shoot-to-kill orders many times over the past 30 years had abstained from using their guns, this time.
“There was no Tiananmen Square”!
The border guards were clueless. They had no order form above.
The East German authorities had almost lost their control to act. At 10:45pm, local time, to a mammoth rumble, the boom gates at Checkpoint Charlie were raised and a sea of people just flounced through.
The people also started gathering at the crossing on Bornholmer Street after hearing the Checkpoint Charlie outburst.
Lt. Colonel Harald Jaeger almost choked on his dinner when he heard Comrade Schabowski on the Checkpoint’s cafeteria TV set.
He immediately rushed to his office and asked for some guiding, on what his border guards were supposed to do. The crowd had by then swelled to 10,000 or more.
Jaeger recalled the hours in his interviews. “I called Col. Ziegenhorn, who was my boss at the time.”
His boss told him to send the people away. Further calls to other higher officials didn’t help, either. The crowd was so huge that instruction came to Jaeger from above to avert any possible riot. The Army officials were not sure, their Bosses would be able to save them, in the changing scenario!
Despite orders from his higher ups not to let too many people through and avoid confrontation, Jaeger facing a growing crowd and surging unrest had to take a decision at 11:30 p.m.: “I ordered my guards to set aside all the controls, raise the barrier and allow all East Berliners to travel through.” jaeger said.
Jaeger said to his interviewers that such an order he never would have given if Comrade Schabowski hadn’t uttered those words at the press conference four hours earlier.
But he had not left East Berlin.
“I was on duty.” he explained. And East German officers didn’t get permission to cross into the West.
Reunification of Germany in 1990, led to the disbanding of the East German Border Authority, and Jaeger got unemployed at the age of 47.
He tried many professions thereafter , including selling newspapers and like, but he never succeeded. It was tough for a border guard to adjust in a normal situation.
Now he stays in a small town outside Berlin, with his wife, Marga. Giving interviews he got some money over these years. Not that qualified to write a book. Now he travels to the West but not that enthusiastic. Waiting for their 50th wedding anniversary is a major event for him now.
The Wall Has Gone!
The Wall had vanished almost completely by 1991.
There are still a few remainders at the Bernauer Strasse, the Niederkirchnerstrasse (near the building of the former Prussian parliament, which now houses the New Parliament of Berlin) and as the 1.3 km long “East-Side-Gallery,” near the railway station “Ostbahnhof“.
There are two small stretches still standing. A memorial at Bernauer Strasse, the scene of many escapes. And the East Side Gallery near the river Spree, where the protest graffiti that decorated the Berlin Wall in its ending years is kept alive.
But elsewhere the wall that was a symbol of the harshest division of a historic nation, has gone for ever!
“Checkpoint Charlie”, the infamous border crossing the featured in many Cold War novels is there but almost lost into the past. An abandoned guard post. left behind in the middle of a street , for the tourists, hugely dwarfed by the new building rows.
A red line was painted, on February 1997, on the pavements around the “Checkpoint Charlie”, to mark the course of the former Berlin Wall. The red line is to be extended to a length of 20 km and replaced by two rows of paving stones gradually.
The much quoted Brandenburg Gate, that once stood solemnly but neglected and inaccessible behind the wall, is restored and now an attraction at the heart of the city.
At infamous Potsdamer Platz, there is no trace of the ‘Death Strip’ that ran through a wasteland of scruffy grass and unremittingly patrolled by armed border guards with orders to shoot on sight ,anyone trying to cross the border. It has long disappeared beneath the array of newly built gleaming glass skyscrapers.
The fall of the Wall has resurrected the city. Severed Subway and Rail lines between the two halves of the city and its hinterland were reconnected. Museum holdings put back together and Germany decided to move its capital from Bonn to Berlin.
Little by little, the wall has now faded from sight and memory and a new Berlin has risen in its place. Brand new apartments, buildings and shopping Malls took the place. A glaring new Capital has come up for the market oriented, Capitalist, new unified Germany.
The Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer)came to symbolize the Cold War’s division of Communist East Germany from the Capitalist West and of Eastern from Western Europe.
After the Nazis were defeated in 1945, in the WWII, Soviet Union wanted to keep Berlin as a spoil of War. But was forced to handover a major part of it to the Allied power, the USA, Britain and France.
In the years between 1949 and 1961, around 2.5 million East Germans had fled from East to West Germany. Majority of them were skilled workers, younger people, students, professionals, and intellectuals. Their departure threatened to harm the economic progress of the East Germany. In response, the East Germany, in consultation with the Soviet Union, decided to build a strong barrier to close off East Germany from West Berlin.
The Wall, was first erected on the night of August 12–13, 1961, by an order of August 12, by the East German Volkskammer (“Peoples’ Chamber”).
The original Wall was built of barbed wire and cinder blocks. It was subsequently replaced by a series of concrete walls (up to 5 metres high) that were topped with barbed wire and guarded with watchtowers, gun emplacements, border guards, sniffer dogs and at some marshy stretches with landmines.
By the 1980s this system of walls, with electrified fences and fortifications extended to 45 Kms through Berlin, dividing the two parts of the city, and extended a further 120 Kms around West Berlin, separating it from the rest of East Germany.
About 5,000 East Germans managed to cross the Berlin Wall putting their lives at stake and reached West Berlin while more than 5,000 were captured by East German Border Guards and Stasi, during their escape attempts.
191 people were killed during their attempts to cross the Wall.
By: Deep Basu