Saturday, November 9, 2019

A Wall to Remember

On this day thirty years ago, I was in my apartment in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, near Chamissoplatz — in West-Berlin— and watched Die Abendschau, a local news show. At the end of the Abendschau, they were picking up the feed of a previously-aired press conference with Günther Schabowski, a member of the Politbureau of the SED, the governing Communist party of East Germany. Schabowski explained in a somewhat befuddled way that there would be legislation to allow East Germans to leave the GDR. And when? Why, like, right now!

I went to a friend across the street and said to him, if things keep going like this, the first East Germans will appear on our door in a few weeks. I was joking, of course, because we believed that this would never happen.  Well, most of us did. In the summer of 1989, I had met a guy in our favorite hangout, the Heidelberger Krug, who had traveled the Soviet Union. "The whole thing will come crashing down within months," he told us. "Russia is in total disarray, there are people everywhere selling the last possessions." Well, he was right. Of course, at that time Hungary had opened the border already, so that should have given everybody a clue. And with the Russians gone, everything would be gone.

I went home and later that evening, a friend called me from a phone booth, Paul Duwe, then a reporter for the long-deceased Spandauer Volksblatt and he himself a former Easterner. He was at Bornholmer Strasse, totally excited. "The Wall has opened", he said. "People are coming into West-Berlin by the thousands. This is incredible. Just come." At that point, it was 11pm and raining and, to my great embarrassment, I did not.

The next morning, still regretting my mistake, I went to the Brandenburg Gate. Here, the Wall was a bit lower and broader, so you could stand on it. It goes without saying that this was severely forbidden. Now, everybody was standing on the Wall; the Wall was completely crowded, and people were pulling each other up. I could see into the East, see border guards, not sure what they should do, but definitely not shoot us, and Berliners preparing to cross into the West.

Many things happened that seemed unbelievable a few weeks earlier. East-Berliners who were not sure if the Wall would come up again came to the West by the droves, leaving fully-furnished apartments behind. Refugee camps like Marienfelde had to be reopened. The city governments started to cooperate and then, reunite. And West-Berliners discovered their surroundings.

There was a push by the Old Left to give Socialism another try, culminating in a huge rally at Alexanderplatz (for which everybody got the day off and the train ticked paid), but that faded into obscurity real soon. In the 1990 election, three-quarters of East Germans voted for parties who wanted a quick reunification. And they got it. And some on the Left have never forgiven them for this,

Nowadays, some East Germans also remember the hardships of the aftermath. A lot of people lost their jobs, manufacturers closed, and the public sector had to slim down substantially. There are still economic problems — not surprising since the GDR never had a chance to really recover from World War II — but what most people remember are the good sides of Socialism, like cheap housing, but not so much the bad sides, like, that you were on a waiting list for an apartment for many years, and that the apartments often had coal heating and no warm water from the faucet.

So, what happened to the Wall? It was taken down, mostly by people just taking parts and then, companies, but a few pieces here and there were left standing. Read more in The Berlin Wall Today, a book by Michael Cramer, available in English and in German. And take the rest of the day off.

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