Reminiscing about the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the End of History
Lee Evans is a well-respected guide and historian, who leads a number of tours for Insight Berlin. Lee came to Germany on a Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholarship and almost never looked back. He first set foot in Berlin at Templehof Airport in 1986 and immediately fell in love with the then divided Berlin. During the fateful year of 1989, Lee was in Berlin when the Wall fell and saw the collapse of Communism first hand, demonstrating on Wenceslas Square during Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in Prague. He earned a Master’s Degree in Central European History and also studied Czech history and literature at Charles University in Prague.
Chernobyl exploded four months before I set foot in Europe for the first time. I was seventeen, on a scholarship to spend a year in West Germany and little did I know that Chernobyl would be the beginning of a series of events that would result in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Chernobyl would test the limits of Mikhail Gorbachov’s reform agenda of Perestroika and Glasnost. Although restructuring and openness were embraced or at the very least acknowledged in the Soviet block, in East Germany they tacitly did not exist and any mention of these concepts in public was strictly controlled. East Germany existed because of Soviet power and could only survive in a divided world.
Due to its status as a city occupied by the armies of the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, Berlin did not legally belong to either German state. The western sectors, called an island in the Red Sea, were easily accessible to the citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Between 1950 and 1961, more than 3.5 million people used West Berlin as the last loophole to exit the iron curtain.
Faced with the economic consequences of losing roughly 18% of its population, the East German government “closed the border” on August 13th, 1961, by building a 100 mile fence that completely surrounded West Berlin; effectively blocking the last escape route to freedom. For the next two decades West Berlin was surrounded by a 15-foot tall concrete barrier patrolled by men with guns, and traffic was mostly one-way, from the West to the East. In 1987, I visited the East and I met Annika, an East German “minder” who escorted groups of West German students on officially sponsored trips through the GDR. We stayed in contact after the trip, corresponding frequently.
In the spring of 1989, the unthinkable happened. Communist governments in Poland and Hungary entered negotiations with opposition groups and by July, Hungary removed most of the barbed wire fence that separated Hungary with Austria.
East Germans, who could vacation in Hungary relatively easily and meet their West German relatives on holidays, slowly started to trickle out of the country, into the West, through the new hole in the Iron Curtain.
My friends and I arrived in Hungary at the beginning of August, headed to Greece, before beginning a course in Art History in Italy.
Although the Hungarians initially tried to stop East Germans from leaving, by August there were tens of thousands of East Germans and Romanians in camps waiting to leave. On August 19th, the Hungarians hosted a picnic near the town of Györ. Although the organizers presented the picnic as a “Peace Demonstration,” it was a thinly veiled attempt to allow the new refugees to escape to freedom. Caught up in the fervor of the moment, my friends and I traveled to Györ with a group of East Germans and entered Austria with them before returning to Budapest without them.
As we left Budapest, the East German government suspended travel to Hungary for its citizens. East Germans on their way to Hungary, their route now blocked, stormed the West German Embassy in Prague. Eventually, they too, were allowed to leave.
My friends and I arrived in Berlin on November 8th with the intention to visit the Picture Gallery in West Berlin. On November 9th, we made our way into the East and called Anika. We agreed to meet at her apartment, to understand better, what was happening.
Insight Cities’ East Berlin: City of Shadows Tour will transport you back to East Berlin, a place now shrouded in mystery and nostalgia, to reveal a vivid picture of daily life behind the Iron Curtain, and comes highly recommended.
By November 1989, demonstrations and civil unrest in East Germany presented a radical problem for the communist leadership. In order to relieve the pressure, the Politburo decided to allow its citizens to travel to the West if they had the proper documents. On November 9th, in the early evening, Günther Schabowski, the Politburo’s Press Secretary, prematurely announced this decision, but since no one had established the rules and procedures, the guards on the Berlin Wall were uninformed and caught completely by surprise when thousands of East Germans began to gather at the border crossings.
Faced with a potential public safety catastrophe, the guards at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing lifted the barriers at 10pm, relieving the pressure, and allowing the crowds through. Thousands of East Germans flooded into West Berlin. The Wall was history.
We saw these events on television in Annika’s flat, as most East Germans could receive West German radio and TV broadcasts. We recognized these events as a profound change in the world order, but soon became concerned that our day visas to East Berlin were about to expire. Luckily, the borders were open and we walked across the Bornholmer Strasse crossing into West Berlin without our passports even being checked.
Once in West Berlin, a German who had been stockpiling liquor in preparation for this event, gave me a beer and a bottle of champagne.
Berlin on an autumn Thursday evening: the party had begun, and would continue into the nineties.
My most striking memories of this weekend were of East Germans coming into West Berlin to have a look around. They received a welcome gift of 100 West German Marks, and headed directly to the grocery stores. By November 11th, there were no oranges, bananas, or boom-box style loudspeakers left in West Berlin. I saw an East German woman crying at the KaDeWe department store in the fresh fruit section. By Monday, November 13th, most East Germans were back at home, going back to work.
Eleven months later, East and West Germany became one country and Berlin one city.
The last 30 years have been interesting times for Berlin. The city has had a lot to do; cobble itself back together, become the capital of a united Germany, come to grips with its historical baggage, and reestablish itself as Europe’s coolest. All of these things cost a small fortune. There were winners and losers. The winners got into the real estate game early and picked up 19th century buildings for pennies on the dollar. The losers were forced out of the city center as the rents in these buildings began to skyrocket. Berlin is still relatively inexpensive, but wages are also fairly low. Decades of a planned economy in the East and the easy subsidized life in the West created a new Berlin that is oddly proud of being the least well organized city in Europe. The Berlin dialect of German is disappearing, replaced by huge groups of English speaking immigrants who refuse to learn it.
The one thing of which we are immeasurably proud, is that Berlin is once again a multicultural haven where people from all over come together and live in relative peace. Berliners celebrate their diversity and the 100,000 Jews who call Berlin home, are a symbol of the rebirth of a community all but destroyed 75 years ago.
The opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, began its ultimate destruction. The border infrastructure cut through Berlin’s prime real estate and the demolition of these sections began almost immediately. There was initially no attempt to preserve the Wall for posterity and until about 1994. Visitors to Berlin could do almost anything to it that they wanted. Thirty years later, there is almost nothing left of the 100-mile structure that claimed the lives of over 140 people.
You can still see sections of the wall at:
On the border between the Soviet and American sectors, the last remaining original section of the wall in downtown Berlin is between the Nazi Air Ministry (the Ministry of Finance today) and the former Headquarters of the Berlin Gestapo.
Along the Muhlenstrasse between Ostbahnhof and the Oberbaum Bridge.
The longest section of the Berlin Wall left in Berlin is the eponymous East Side Gallery; a 4500 foot section of the wall painted, albeit in the 1990s, with 101 large format paintings. The Gallery is more a testament to the unabashed feelings of freedom in 1990s Berlin than it is an accurate presentation of the Wall. Until 1961, Refugees would take the train to the Ostbahnhof station and could literally walk across the street into the American Sector and freedom.
The annex of the Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit building is built around a section of the Berlin Wall. Although the painting is from the mid-1990s, the Wall is in its real space. The Wall is inside the building on the corner of Stresemanstrasse and Erna-Berger-Strasse. The last watchtower in downtown Berlin is at the end of the Erna-Berger-Strasse
Near the Chausseestrasse Border Crossing
There is a small, untouched, segment of the Berlin Wall at the far end of the St. Hedwigs Cemetery (Domfriedhof der St.-Hedwigs-Gemeinde) on the corner of Liesenstrasse and Gartneerstrasse. The cemetery became part of the “death strip” after the East Germany removed most of the gravestones.
For a complete history of the Berlin Wall and a reconstruction of the complete border fortifications head to the Berlin Wall Memorial Center
Inisght Cities’ Berlin: An Introduction Tour provides a broad view of the political and ideological forces that unleashed genocide and global war in the 20th century. Exploring Berlin’s iconic landmarks while emphasizing the tumultuous Nazi and Cold War eras, you will learn how in the 1700s tiny Prussia’s violent transformation into Europe’s dominant military power already set the stage for the great tragedies of recent history.
Article text by Lee Evans.
All photographs sourced under a Creative Commons License.