I still remember how it felt in the fall of 1989 – let me know if you do, too
Maybe I should have written something about Germany’s big anniversary earlier, but I have been pushing it back. Everybody else is publishing specials and stories on the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Why add to the noise?
Then I read this interview in the German Spiegel magazine: Tom Brokaw, legendary NBC news anchor, on how he remembers the 9th of November, 1989. That reminded me to overcome my procrastination and to put in words what I can recall of that exciting time.
So I finally managed to write a little piece for Chattarati. I copied the entire text at the bottom of this post. As much as I would like you to read it and comment on it, please take a look at the video clips first to get you in the mood. I’ve been watching some old TV footage from 1989 lately and I have to admit that it still gives me goose bumps 20 years later.
Please feel free to comment and share your memories of Germany’s peaceful revolution.
This is a feature report by Spiegel TV with English subtitles:
A CBC News report
A 6-minute piece with a little pathos
Tom Brokaw narrates a short video, prepared by NBC for the Atlantic Council
This is what I wrote for Chattarati:
When the Wall came down
My first contact with American culture was in January 1988, when I began my foreign student exchange program in Northwest Minnesota. I was a teenager of 17 years from a small town in the German state of Bavaria, and I didn’t know much about the world. The time I spent in Callaway and Detroit Lakes changed my life forever—and laid the foundation for my present life here in the United States.
Representing Germany in Minnesota
One of my responsibilities as an exchange student was giving presentations about my home country. I was surprised to encounter so much interest in my little corner of the world. Everyone wanted to know what life was like in (West) Germany. While many younger students at Detroit Lakes High School were eager to find out about things like the drinking age and speed limits, almost everyone had a common cross-cultural inquiry: Do you think the two Germanies will ever be united again?
My standard answer would be: “Yeah right! Wishful thinking. Not going to happen.” Growing up during the 1970s and 1980s in West Germany, I was taught there were several good reasons for the separation of our country. In my generation, no one I knew had any doubts about this: Our forefathers made some severe mistakes. Germany initiated two world wars and brought destruction and suffering to Europe. Taking away territories and splitting Germany in half was a just punishment for our ancestors’ crimes.
Reunification? No way! Why?
“Why should we be reunited?” I asked then. The world is split into a Western, capitalist part and an Eastern, communist one. Much of this is a result of events that started in Germany, and now the frontier line between East and West is the “inner-German” border between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. Of course it would have been nice if the world had decided to end the Cold War and just get along, but not even the biggest optimists expected that.
Even though I had what I consider the privilege of growing up in the West, it is my understanding that this mindset dominated on both sides of the death strip that seperated Germany. My generation expected the status quo to remain the same.
Boy, were we wrong!
The Summer of 1989
Back in in Germany in the summer of 1989, I did what most of my peers did: go on vacation during summer break, travel to Italy, Spain, France, Greece, etc. When I got home there were occasional reports of East Germans seeking refuge in Western embassies in Budapest and Prague. Interesting news, yes. But not overly exciting. After all, there had been security breaches within the Warsaw Pact before, we had all heard about people successfully fleeing from the East before.
But in September 1989 things started to heat up. The Monday demonstrations began in Leipzig, Dresden, Halle, Magdeburg, Karl-Marx-Stadt (now: Chemnitz) and in other parts of the GDR. People were shouting “Wir sind das Volk!” (”We are the people!”). This was new—and unheard of. We started to take notice. We became anxious. Would the Stasi start shooting at people? We all remembered how violently the Solidarnosc movement in Poland had been pushed back. What if this turned into a disaster?
Gorbachev’s “Let ‘em be”
Amid this emerging uproar, the GDR celebrated its 40th anniversay in October 1989. During his visit to the festivities in East Berlin, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly said: “Trudnosti podsteregajut tech, kto ne reagirujet na shisn,” or, “Difficulties lurk for those who do not react to life.” This quote was later transcribed to mean: “Those who are late will be punished by life itself”.
It was the signal many had been waiting for: the Soviet Union would not stand in the way of the liberation movements in Eastern Europe. And it was Gorbachev’s answer to Ronald Reagan’s famous appeal in June 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
It was then that we realized: This is serious. However, we still didn’t expect change to happen so quickly. Just a few weeks later, on November 9th, 1989, GDR leaders formally opened the borders. For the first time, East Germans were free to travel to the West. My family sat at home in front of the TV, watching in awe as people lined up in droves at the checkpoints. By the thousands, they crossed the inner-German border to get their first taste of the West.
All of a sudden, the worldview of an entire generation crumbled like the Berlin Wall. Every TV station in Germany covered the events live from Berlin and the border checkpoints. We watched as people from East Berlin and West Berlin climbed the Wall around Brandenburg Gate despite the fact that East German border patrol was still there, guns in hand. We looked at each other in disbelief and wondered: what’s next? And then I remembered what I had told my friends in Minnesota a year earlier. Exciting times.
20 years later — Reason to commemorate
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall and the 19th anniversary of German reunification. For me as a “Generation X-er” this is a big deal. I grew up in a divided country with a guilt complex. Today Germany has regained much of the respect it had lost throughout the 20th century. We are far from being a perfect nation, but the peaceful revolution of 1989 tought us an important lesson: Germans can change their destiny without violence. We’ve come a long way.
This past weekend, George H.W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl took the stage inside the Berlin Friedrichstadtpalast to share their memories of 1989 in front of a silvery curtain at an historic cabaret venue. “Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush were Germany’s most important partners,” said Kohl, 79.
Giving Germans something they can be proud of
It was Kohl’s first public appearance since a fall last year at his home in southwestern Germany left him hospitalized and wheelchair-bound. “In German history we don’t have many reasons to be proud,” Kohl told the audience. “I have nothing better to be proud of than being proud of German unity.”