November 9, 2014

Personal Experiences of German Citizens the Day the Wall Fell

From Reddit:

Shaking in front of the telly. I remember my dad coming home from work before the usual time, completely messed up stammering: "The border is open!" No one could actually believe it until we were crammed into the car and stuck in line at the border crossing for hours...


At home in the West, glued to the TV. We watched the fateful press conference with Gunther Schabowski, who fumbled with his written press statement (prewritten for him, not by him) and struggled to make sense of it. He announced that all East German Citizens would be allowed full travel privileges. This was true as far as this was in the press statement, but they actually wanted to slowly implement this after a few weeks - probably hoping desperately that they could later stall and go back. Now, these press statements, like everything official in the GDR, were written in a particularly incomprehensible socialist-party-speak and even Schabowski was out of his depth. So next, a reporter asked when this would be implemented. Schabowski leafed back and forth, stuttered, and then said "Immediately... as far as I can see here this is in force immediately."
Well, that was it really.
Now, the past weeks had seen an increase in demonstrations and an increasingly nervous East German Government. A few minutes (hours?) after the press conference, we saw the crowds standing directly behind the barriers, chanting "Open up! Open up!" while the border patrol stood around, visibly outnumbered and unable to cope - they had no orders for this and hadn't heard of the press conference obviously. As it turned out later, they were warning their superiors back in the government that the situation was volatile. The government was equally unable to cope as it turned out, and just helplessly told them to sit tight. The crowd grew increasingly restive. As a means to relieve pressure, someone at the Stasi had decided that people could lave the GDR towards West-Berlin, but had to have a stamp in their Passport. What nobody was told was that later, reentry for those people was to be refused.
However, this stupid bureaucratic process leaving out a single person at a time was not enough, the crowds grew and even exerted physical pressure on the barriers. At long last an officer of the border forces decided, alone and in contradiction to his orders, to just open the damn thing - the border guards later claimed that they were fearing for their lives. An incredible cheering and shouting arose and the crowd broke free, dashing across the bridge with complete abandon.
At home, my family and I had briefly toyed with the idea of driving to the border, but then we heard about 50km traffic jams on the way and decided not to. Looking back, it is a bit sad that we weren't closer to the events.
Anyway, at that moment the barrier opened? We all knew full well that the GDR and all the horror it embodied had just gone out with a squeak (their government) and huge cheering (by the people).
In the weeks and months that followed, the faltering East German Government, some West German politicians (notably Oscar Lafontaine) as well as Thatcher tried to somehow prevent a reunification, all for their own stupid little reasons. It's just as well that in the end everybody agreed, because we'd have done it anyway. They might as well have tried to keep the sun from shining.


Well, I was 10 at the time, so all first-hand experiences come from a child's perspective. I actually grew up in this 5km zone close the German-German border (outsiders need a permit to enter this zone, even people who wanted to visit their relatives). That also means that I saw the border -- which was usually two lines of fences in rural areas -- on a more or less daily basis. But when you were born and raised in this awareness, it just seems normal: Well, looks the same over there, I just cannot go there.

Politics were never really a topic at home, at least not in front of me. Since both my parents were normal blue-collar workers, none of them was in the SED (ruling party of the GDR), which was mandatory for any kind of higher ranking job and even when you wanted to study.

Still, even as a kid it was very easy to sense that something was going on. While not many had a telephone, a TV as reasonable common. And most East German could actually receive West German station, which were definitely the better source of information (and the only time I was looking forward to watch ads for toys and sweets I never could get in real life). But of course I had not full sense of the possible consequences, both good and bad. But the general excitement was certainly tangible.

One of the most ingrained memories was our first visit to West Germany, inlcuding a larger town. For a little rascal from a very small East German village like me, this was wonderland. The lights, the smell, and all the stuff I only knew from TV. After the Fall of the Wall and particularly after the Reunification, living close the the former German-German border was kind of a blessing. Easy access to already "developed" areas, and many East German found a job on the other side.

As for me, I switched to secondary school in West Germany. Since then it only went uphill. I still remember the times when they were still searching for landmines between the two rows of fences. This and all the things I learned when getting older made really acknowledge and appreciate what was going on.


Not a German, but I spent half my life in West Germany. I was there when the wall was built and when it came down.

The best analogy is to imagine your sister has been married to an abusive asshole for forty years and finally escapes his iron grip. It's a hell of a party and the celebration goes on for days, but when she moves in with her five kids, the party is over.

An unexpected effect for me was the complete elimination of any doubts I ever had about racism. Just about every racist slur, joke or stereotype I had heard about blacks, Jews, Latinos, whatever, I heard applied to East Germans by West Germans. The only thing that separated them was 40 years and yet there was hate. It was hard to comprehend.

It actually started before the wall went down when an East German girl showed up at our hang out. She was a nurse that had joined the massive wave that left when Hungary opened it's border to Austria. She was stunningly beautiful and when our eyes locked the first time we saw each other, we both knew it was going to be a good night, maybe more.

We spent time dancing and while we were chatting she made a jibe about Jews. I gave her a funny look, decide it was just one joke and let it go. But later, when we were slow dancing, she made one of the ugliest slurs about Jews I have ever heard. I told her I can't take this, lebewohl, and walked off the floor. Lebewohl is a final form of good bye used when you don't plan on seeing someone again.

My friends came over and asked me what the hell I did to her because she was crying. I told them she was a total racist and I wasn't going to waste any time on her. They're response was 'Yeah, she's East German.' I didn't give a damn, that's no excuse.

To make a short story long, they finally convinced me to talk to her again and she spent hours explaining the way she was raised in East Germany and how racism was encouraged and part of the fabric of their society. She had no idea why it could be wrong, but she wanted to learn. She learned, I learned and we were both better for it. It helped me understand and come to terms with members of my own distant family that are racist.


Late to the party, but was readying for university in UK (I live in US) when the wall fell. Eight or so months later I went to Berlin. Still an extremely divided city at that time: we were advised with American passports not to cross into East Berlin as they still routinely turned tourists back and we could find ourselves stuck. It was not a magical "everything's open now!" situation. (Although the West Berliners said crossing the border was not hard and a poorly kept secret to get back if we ended up there.)

Hard to explain how very much West Berlin felt like a "typical" beautiful, bustling European city, and East Berlin - what we glimpsed - was dark, heavy, oppressive, and poor. Checkpoint Charlie was super intimidating, and after seeing it we felt very a-ok about not crossing.

The part that I hated was the opportunistic tourism around the wall. People were grabbing pieces of it, chiseling things off; the girls I traveled with picked up pieces laying on the ground or bought them off hucksters. It was naive of me but I felt like this thing, this awful wall, was not something to be memorialized or taken home as a war boon. It was a man-made symbol of oppression and shittiness, and we were in the middle of someone else's cultural identity, and it wasn't something to bring home as a fun trophy. (I lost. Everyone stole something and gave me shit about it.)


My oldest son was in the U.S. Military in Germany just before the wall came down...According to his fellow soldiers, my son was involved in helping East Germans escape into the West...

A bomb went off in his car while he was driving it...Very tragic but I am proud of what he chose to do...


I was a kid, but I remember the lines for the banks being CRAZY LONG. The government apparently said something like any East German can show up at any bank and get handed cash. The banks were essentially closed for like a week.