I remember the first time I visited Berlin. It was late July 1989. The talk in Germany was of change in the USSR, Poland and Hungary. I had spent the summer interviewing politicians and academics about inter-German relations, and they all agreed: unification would not come soon if at all, and that East Germany would not reform. Thus when I made my first and only venture into East Berlin, there was no sense that within a month East Germany would be in crisis, and in just over three months the wall would come down.
Americans sometimes like to take credit for what happened, but the fall of Communism was driven by internal economics — the system couldn’t work and was in collapse all over the eastern bloc. It ended the way it did because East Germans and then other East Europeans took to the streets. You can’t credit Gorbachev, Reagan or Bush — if anything their ability to cooperate made it so the big powers did nothing to halt the collapse.
While traveling Germany that summer I bought a Sony Discman at Kaufhof in Munich for 290 DM. The CDs I bought to accompany me were Billy Joel Live in the USSR, Jackson Browne’s World in Motion, and Udo Lindenberg’s Gänsehaut. I had become a fan of Lindenberg since getting his album Odysee the first time I was in Europe, and remember sitting in a West Berlin hotel room and listening to Mädchen aus Ostberlin the night after I visited the east side of the city. I had never really felt what the division of Germany meant.
But on that day, July 29, 1989, I realized how absurd the situation was. I got off the train at Friedrichstrasse, walked to Unter den Linden and went down to the Brandenburg Gate. It was blocked by the east side of the wall, unapproachable. I could see people on a platform in the West looking over into the east the same way I had done the day before. I turned around and walked to Alexanderplatz, going by the Marx-Engels statue, the television tower and city hall. A couple of guys tried to convince me to exchange money, offering me a great rate (compared to the official 1 DM = 1 Ostmark), but there was nothing to buy.
At Alexanderplatz I got lunch at a cafeteria, bought some ice cream and then went in the central store. It was the main store of East Berlin meaning it had the best consumer goods East Germany could muster. It had nothing worth buying. I roamed the city all day, covering probably 12 to 15 miles on foot, taking in all I could about this “other world” of Communism. I was awed by the beauty of the historic center of East Berlin, and realized that while it wasn’t a torturous hell hole, it was clearly dying. “Das kann nicht so weiter gehen,” I thought — it can’t go on like this. This is absurd.
Lindenberg’s song was about a love affair between a West German and a “girl from East Berlin.” It was also a metaphor for a country. “We simply want to be together,” was the plea as the couple — and the German people — were separated due to political machinations beyond their control. The song was poignant to me having been in the East that day, at some point listening to it a third or forth time and thinking about the division I suddenly had tears running down my cheeks. Now I felt the division.
The video below has some (very poorly translated) English subtitles, but gives an inside look at the moment the wall opened, how East Berliners pressured the guards who finally gave in – it is a moment where history was made. It’s ten minutes, but it captures the moment communism broke and freedom expanded:
Walking around Berlin in 2012 is surreal in some ways. I’ve been back here many times in the last twenty years, watching the city transform itself dramatically. On this trip students kept asking if they were in the East or West, and wondered how different it had been. Lacking a camera in 1989 I only have the photos in my head of how things looked, but I walked many of those same stretches and compared now and then, as best I could.
When I was in Berlin for four months in late 1991 it was still obvious who was from the East and who was from the West, the wall’s location was clear, and the early difficulties of bringing the two sides together had become undeniable. Now the city is whole. Construction continues, but former West Berlin is getting a facelift, as the Ku’damm pales in comparison to Friedrichstrasse and Potsdamer Platz.
As I thought about the changes and my time there in 1989 I came across this:
Udo Lindenberg. A musical built on his songs tells the story of the the division of Berlin and the coming together of the city in terms of a love affair. I thought of myself in that hotel room in late July 1989 and wished I could go to the musical. Alas, the demands of teaching the course and working with the students kept me busy. I tried to create an image for them of what I experienced in 1989 and even 1991. But now the everyday of that era is captured in museums like the DDR Museum (a great hands on experience) and the “Berlin Story Museum.” Still, knowing that Udo Lindenberg’s music is now used to tell that story is satisfying. Someday I will see that musical.
I have been to Berlin in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2010 and now 2012. Though I am a foreigner there, the city means a lot to me, it fascinates me, its tradition of tolerance/openness dating back to Friedrich the Great intrigues me, and no visit there seems long enough. Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin.