Twenty Years On: My Memories of Divided Germany

Twenty years ago today, I woke up, turned on the TV, and saw people massed atop the Berlin Wall. It took a minute to sink in. Eight years and a few months earlier, I had been in Berlin and seen the Wall with my own eyes. I had touched it. Thanks to my American passport, I had crossed through it at Checkpoint Charlie. When I left Berlin a few days later, I'd seen the massive Red Army base just past the border crossing at Drewitz (Checkpoint Bravo), along the transit corridor to Hamburg.

The idea that the Wall would ever be breached with the permission of the East German authorities never entered my mind. The thought that it would be dismantled in my lifetime was simply, well, unthinkable. And yet it was happening. In the past weeks and months, I'd seen the video on CNN of East Germans traveling to Hungary in order to cross into Austria, the East Germans swarming the West German embassy in Prague, and the unprecedented demonstrations in Dresden and Magdeburg.

Clearly, the regime was in turmoil, and the abrupt transfer of power from Erich Honecker to Egon Krenz was a sign of the desperation of the East German authorities. It would prove to be futile, of course; the Communists (officially, the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or Socialist Unity Party of Germany) would soon be ousted, and it was a Christian Democratic government--the last government of the German Democratic Republic--that eventually negotiated the terms of its takeover by the western Federal Republic.

In the end, the refusal of Mikhail Gorbachev to prop up the eastern regime led to its downfall. But in 1981, none of this was foreseeable, at least not by me. I was fifteen years old, on a student trip to Europe, and my first glimpse of the other side's Germany came when the train in which I was a passenger crossed the intra-German border at Gerstungen. It was a classic Cold War experience, and quite exciting for a fifteen-year-old kid: the train pulled into an area with high berms on each side, isolating the train. Out came the dogs and the guards, and mirrors were used to check the undercarriage of the train. Green-uniformed Grenztruppen (border troops) climbed aboard, and as we got underway proceeded through the length of the train, stamping passports and issuing transit visas. The guard who stamped my passport couldn't have been much older than I was.

The train proceeded slowly. The locomotive of the western Deutsche Bundesbahn had to be replaced for the journey across the GDR by one from the GDR's Deutsche Reichsbahn . Because of track conditions, it couldn't go much faster than about 45 mph. Thanks to the sooty exhaust of the Eastern engine, coupled with a lack of air conditioning that mandated open windows on a warm July afternoon, we arrived several hours later in West Berlin feeling rather grimy. A border crossing is one thing; catching sight of the Berlin Wall was something else entirely.

As memorable and intimidating as the crossing into East Germany had been, it took place in the open countryside, where one expects a border to be. To see a city cleaved in two by a twelve foot high wall of concrete was unprecedented. It was breathtaking in its audacity. There was a sense of being on the front lines of the Cold War. Even more than that, there was a sense of being inhistory . Here was the fallen capital of the Third Reich, still evident in Speer's Olympic Stadium in the West and Goering's massive Air Ministry building in the East, split into four occupation zones that had coalesced into two opposing sides. The Nazis had been vanquished, and the victors had rebuilt their sectors according to their own philosophies. You could see what the Americans, British, and French had done with the West, and what the Soviets had done with the East. As late as 1981, there were still a number of ruins in the East, such as the Französischer Dom, that were weed-choked and desolate. The only ruins that I saw in the West had been left as artistic and political statements, such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.

It was a stark reminder of how priorities differed between East and West. East and West really had become two cities by then. West Berlin was technically not part of West Germany, but had special status; because of this, it had become popular with West German youth seeking to avoid conscription into the West German Bundeswehr . Certain sections of West Berlin had buildings that had been taken over by squatters, and graffiti was common, especially on the western side of the Wall. In contrast, East Berlin was the capital of the GDR, and to my eye still had something of the old German military spirit, with the East German Volksarmee wearing traditional German-pattern uniforms with the traditional cuff titles and insignia. At the Neue Wache, what was then the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism, the honor guard even practiced the goose step, the irony of which was apparently lost on the regime.

Most of what I remember about divided Berlin, though, was what I perceived as the vibrancy of the West and the bleakness of the East. Whereas West Berlin's roads were clogged with Volkswagens, Opels and Mercedes, the streets of East Berlin echoed to the two-stroke clatter of Trabants and Wartburgs, leaving a trail of oily smoke in their wake. The brutalist, poured-concrete aesthetic of the Alexanderplatz, impressive though it was in its way, did not compare with the elegance of the KurfĂĽrstendamm. The East, with its planned economy, simply could not compete with the consumer-driven economy of the West, and when given the chance in 1989, the people of the East could not resist the allure of a society that produced not only the basics but also the luxuries in prodigious quantities. Having had the opportunity to use East German toilet paper, I can't say that I blame them.

Nevertheless, after only a few days, I was reluctant to leave Berlin. The divided Berlin of 1981 was simply the most fascinating city I had ever encountered, and twenty-eight years later that is still true. As the tour bus rolled through the Marienborn checkpoint on the way to Hamburg, I promised myself I'd go back someday, spend more time, and get to know it in more detail.

Sadly, that was never to be. When in 1989 I awoke to the jubilation of Berliners atop the Wall, that door closed forever. For better or for worse, the East was swallowed whole by the West, and the essential nature of Berlin changed. No longer would it be a place where a calamitous past collided with two different visions of the present, competing in a contest for the heart and soul of the future.

Still, I hope one day to return, to breathe the Berliner Luft, to walk the Unter den Linden, and to see what has become of my favorite city now that the Wall has passed into history. I saw many places in my fifteenth year, famous cities like Paris and Amsterdam, and have seen many more in the years since, yet it is Berlin that has remained at the forefront of my imagination. I suppose that is because in no other place, and at no other time, have I ever been fortunate enough to stand on the front lines of human history. Somewhere in my heart, deep inside, a part of me will always be able to say, "Ich bin einen Berliner ."