November 9, 1989 marked the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of the oxymoronic titled German Democratic Republic, popularly known as East Germany. The strongly fortified border between the two German states, and East and West Berlin had been in place since August 1961, a little more than 28 years. Strange as it may seem for those of us who remember the days of the Cold War and the division of Europe into hostile camps post-World War II, the Wall has been gone longer than it existed.
A border between the German states, and the Eastern and Western halves of Berlin, existed since the war ended. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the four principal victors, United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union divided the former adversary into four zones of occupation. The capital, Berlin, was occupied in four sectors, supposedly administered by a joint authority. Berlin, however, was situated roughly in the center of the Soviet zone of occupation, 110 miles from the West. Even though the defeated Germany was supposed to be administered as a unit, the Soviets and the Western powers soon had a falling out. Josef Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union, wished to extend communist rule, and particularly into Germany, which though defeated, still had some of the greatest potential for future economic success in Europe. Stalin’s armies had already occupied most of Eastern Europe and converted those countries into Soviet satellites. As Winston Churchill put it in 1946, an Iron Curtain had descended across Europe from the Baltic Sea south to the Adriatic (Yugoslavia, although nominally communist, never really was a Soviet client). The Soviet zone, which later became the German Democratic Republic, nominally sovereign, was included behind Churchill’s Curtain. Berlin, a Western island in the communist bloc, guarded by U.S. and British military, was a potential flash-point.
The western sectors in Berlin, after the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany (West), though formally under the administration of the occupiers, were unified with a local government elected by Berliners for most functions. Travel by the inhabitants among them was uninhibited. Travel between the western sectors and the Soviet sector was somewhat restricted, but many easterners commuted to work in the western sectors and vice-versa.
That changed in 1961. The East throughout the 1950s had experienced considerable emigration of its inhabitants to the west. Because of the border, which had become increasingly fortified, it was easier to escape the East by traveling to Berlin and then leaving the Soviet sector, ostensible to work in the Western ones. Both East German communists and their Soviet masters feared a serious “brain drain” as well as the negative propaganda. Thus, in August 1961 the East German government headed by Walter Ulbricht, decided to seal off the eastern sector by building the Wall.
My first visit to Berlin was with a long time friend in August 1966, the summer between our junior and senior years in college. Traveling there by train was possible, but a transit visa was required, and the East German border police, known as the Volkspolizei (VOPOs) strictly scrutinized our papers during stops outside the West German border and Berlin. The Wall had been in place for five years, and the leaders of East Germany were celebrating that event. As citizens of a still officially occupying power, my companion and I were privileged to enter the East, while Germans, whether citizens of East or West, were prohibited from traveling between the two parts of Berlin. We had to purchase one-day visas, and exchange five West German marks, a hard currency, for five East German marks. Hardly a fair market exchange rate. We spent those marks on lunch, which I recall was not the tastiest meal I have ever had. The contrast between the sections of the city was dramatic. Much of the war damage in the East had not been repaired, and everything seemed dreary. Shelves in food stores seemed to be under-stocked. The people generally looked upon the two obvious Westerners, with suspicion, and even fear. West Berlin, on the other hand was a lively upbeat place where most of the war damage had been repaired or newly constructed, the shops were full of consumer merchandise and abundant groceries, and the restaurant food was very good, substantial German cuisine.
When leaving the East, as a rather brash college student I might have displayed somewhat of an attitude toward the VOPO, and was subject to some extra scrutiny. But I made it out, relieved to get back to the West.
Years later, in 1983, my brother and I traveled from Prague through East Berlin to the West. We were similarly obliged to obtain transit visas upon entering East Germany from what was then Czechoslovakia. The scary looking VOPOs with their AK-47s displayed somewhat of an attitude themselves when they discovered the we shared a surname with the then U.S. President who really had an attitude toward the Soviet bloc. Upon arriving in Berlin shortly before midnight, we had about 30 minutes to find a checkpoint to get out to the West before our visas expired. The East Germans separated us briefly, and that was disconcerting. But, as it happened, we made it out, and had a great time in the West.
My next experience with Germany was in 1989. During the country’s division, the West German railroad between Nuremburg and Hannover skirted the Eastern border at several points. The barbed wire and watchtowers on the border were visible from the train. When traveling solo on a train in January 1989, I noticed the barrier wondered if the Wall and border would ever fall and Germany would be re-united.
As it turned out, we only had to wait about ten months. Tensions had been building up in the Soviet sphere for some time, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR leader, realized that the cost of maintaining the Eastern European empire was too great. September and October of that year saw increasing unrest in Eastern Europe with hundreds of East Germans traveling to other Eastern Bloc countries to escape to the West. On November 9, the television news showed scores of people standing on top of the Wall, and within days it was permanently breached. In less than a year, the entire border was gone and Germany was unified. Within yet another year, the Soviet Union itself imploded and the tricolor Russian flag replaced the hammer and sickle over the Moscow Kremlin.
Berlin has been transformed as a unified city. My last trip to that city was in 1995. I saw the east was considerably improved, and development was everywhere. When we walked through the Brandenburg Gate, Martha asked me where the Wall had been, and I noted that she was standing on the very site. At least then and there, all traces had been obliterated.
Haven’t been back to Berlin, but I managed to visit Dresden in the East in 2010. As one can imagine, the atmosphere is totally different – no scary VOPOs asking for papers. Not even a checkpoint. A number of news sources have reported and commented that those in the former East German provinces are not sharing as much in the general prosperity. Even though Angela Merkel, the current German Chancellor, is an “Ostie” as easterners are called, it’s reported that some snobbery by the westerners exists. That probably is to be expected, after two generations living trapped under communism, they probably cannot be integrated into the free-market and democratic Western culture completely. Those born since the Wall fell, however, are just now coming into the age of full civic participation. They will work it out.