October 6, 2009
I truly believe that some of the most interesting conversations to be had will happen over drinks. Especially as inhibitions lower and curiosity grows greater. No better place to test my theory than after Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. I had left the beer tent I had called home after 8 hours of celebration and was heading to a bar with a group of guys from Munich, when I began one such conversation.
He grew up in East Berlin and was 18 when the Berlin Wall came down. He had family in the West that he rarely got to see, despite only being a couple miles away from. He crossed into the West shortly after the Wall came down and left Berlin shortly thereafter. He doesn’t go home much, but it’s not a place that holds a lot of good memories, so he doesn’t see the point. He never enjoyed growing up under the Iron Curtain…
It’s hard to believe that when I arrived in Berlin four days later, that it had been almost 20 years to the month that the Wall fell. A large part of my decision to come to Berlin was the history surrounding the place. I was only eight years old when the Wall came down, but it’s one of the first major events I remember watching unfold on television (that, and baby Jessica being pulled from the well.) My father still remembers explaining that Germany, where his grandparents had come from, was a “divided” nation. Berlin had this wall that divided the city between East and West. As Americans, we helped control the West and the Soviets and Communists had a hold on the East. Even in elementary school, the teachers explained to us 3rd graders what was going on. Our teacher compared the Wall to the Civil War, explaining about how at one time our country was divided between the North and the South—two history lessons with one stone.
So now here I was in Berlin two decades later and there were plenty of reminders that reunification wasn’t that long ago: from the sections of the Wall still standing in Berlin, (the most famous being the East Side Gallery along Muhlenstrasse) to the cobblestone bricks on the road tracing its path. I made my connection with the Wall along Niederkirchnerstraße. It was hard to grasp that this chunk of concrete was able to hold so many people from friends, family and freedom. Men with guns were there to reinforce its existence. An estimated 5000 people were able to escape to the West; while a confirmed 125 had their dreams and end collide with bullets. The irony now was that this block of concrete that divided a city for 28 years, was surrounded by a fence to keep souvenir seeking hounds at bay.
Thanks to my conversation in Munich, I learned the history of the Wall, the chronology of the ease of borders in the Eastern Bloc and how Berlin tried hard to keep the East Germans from taking advantage of them. I was described the places in Berlin to see remnants of the wall and that if desired, a memorial of crosses to those who tried, but failed to cross the wall. My confidant told me the tale of how one man and a night out managed to bring the Wall down. I was already aware of how Gunter Schabowski’s lack of preparation before a press conference ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but I was intrigued to hear it from the German perspective. Based on research I had done prior to my trip, I was under the impression that eventually East Germany wouldn’t be able to contain its borders as it had hoped. The peaceful riots in nearby Leipzig and in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, had taken its toll on East German leader Eric Honecker, who eventually resigned. A man named Krenz took over and less than a month later Schabowski took to the podium to discuss new border crossing rules laid out by Krenz. I laughed knowing that one mans misinterpretation of a memo would be the spark needed for the East to join the West.
I pondered humanity for a long time along this stretch of the Wall. Despite knowing its history I still couldn’t wrap my finger around what it must have been like. I was fortunate to grow up with the chance to do what I wanted at will. Maybe I led a sort of sheltered small-town life growing up, but I had family scattered around the US and got to see them at ease. There wasn’t a government, watchtower or wall to keep us separated. Yes, there are still traces of the divide the Mason Dixon Line created in the US, but growing up in northern Wisconsin, that’s a history only seen in books. But now, with the Wall 5 feet in front me, history was coming alive.
I walked away thinking about the flaw in my theory of interesting conversations over drinks—as inhibitions lower, so goes common sense. I was fortunate enough to meet a man who would answer any question I had on life in East Berlin. For two hours we talked back and forth freely, spurred on by beer and atmosphere. If only I had remembered to ask his name.