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Americans, Germans Remember Fall of Berlin Wall as Turning Point


U.S. Ambassador in Germany Richard Grenell, right, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveil a statue of former President Ronald Reagan on the top of United States embassy in Berlin, Nov. 7, 2019.

There’s a new statue of Ronald Reagan, the 40th U.S. president, on a terrace of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, a stone’s throw from the iconic Brandenburg Gate.

It is a long time coming, for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and other supporters of the project. They had been pressing Berlin city officials for years to erect a statue in a public place, but Berlin officials demurred, noting that many factors and people contributed to the fall of the Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.

The Reagan supporters finally settled for a statue on the grounds of the embassy — American soil in the heart of Berlin.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the unveiling Friday, calling it a “monumental moment” as the artwork appeared. The statue memorializes Reagan’s 1987 speech in which he exhorted then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

Two years later, the Wall began to come down on live television. After a botched announcement by an East German official, in which he mistakenly implied Easterners would be allowed to travel to the West immediately, Berliners took hammers to the concrete barrier and started dismantling it themselves. (The official, Gunter Schabowski, had meant to say a draft law allowing East Germans greater freedom to travel would go into effect immediately.)

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Lori Farmer of Silver Spring, Maryland, was a teenager at the time. She remembers watching the coverage on television.

“When I saw the people dancing in celebration of it coming down,” she says, “I felt like crying out loud a little bit. It was far away from my world, but seeing the concrete in chunks felt surprisingly great.”

Jessica Greene of Morristown, Tennessee, was also in her teens when she watched the events on television. “I felt such hope,” she says. “I so wanted a piece of that wall.”

Michelle Adams of Atlanta, Georgia, was studying in Britain, close enough to make her way to Berlin. She describes a whirlwind visit to Berlin in January 1990.

“We passed through Checkpoint Charlie on one of the last days of passport control,” she said, describing the bleak streets of East Berlin and the presence of East German troops. She returned to Berlin more than a decade later and marveled at how much had changed.

Gerry Kutz of Falls Church, Virginia, was living in Aachen, Germany, when the wall came down. She remembers worrying about the flood of “Ossies” (nicknamed for “ost,” the German word for “east”) into West Berlin.

“No one anticipated that people from the East would flood into the West immediately,” she said. “No one looked at the toll it would take on people in the West.”

Kutz points out a problem with the way Americans sometimes understand the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite the dramatic images, it was not a happy ending so much as a new and complicated chapter.

FILE - East Berliners get helping hands as they climb the Berlin Wall, Nov. 10, 1989.
FILE - East Berliners get helping hands as they climb the Berlin Wall, Nov. 10, 1989.

‘Central mistake of reunification’

Journalist Anja Goerz is currently touring the United States to talk about her book, “The East is a Feeling,” and her conversations with former East Germans who still feel the division of the wall 30 years after its removal. She notes that East Germany was in effect absorbed by the West, with its laws and organization left in place.

“From today’s perspective,” Goerz says, “that was the central mistake of reunification.”

Goerz says in her prepared remarks that the social strain on East Germans may even have contributed to the rise of right-wing sentiment in the east, where the far-right AfD party, since 2017 the largest opposition party in the German legislature, has the base of its support.

“If today, 30 years after the fall of the Wall, we see that, especially in East Germany, people give their vote to the right in the elections,” Goerz says, “this may also have something to do with the fact that these people [are] feeling that nobody has been really interested in them and their stories for 30 years.”

“The mental wall endured after the fall of the physical wall,” says Dean Smith, an American who studied in Germany in the years leading up to and immediately following reunification. “It’s like the physical division is still there and gives people a reference point for identifying or justifying the differences” between the two cultures, east and west.

Smith, too, returned to Berlin after decades away and was shocked at the change.

“I was like a fish out of water,” he says. “I was beside myself.”

Despite the shock and hardship of change, there is a broad consensus that a reunified Germany is better than a divided one. A study by the Pew Research Center, released earlier this year, indicates many more residents of the former East Germany are hopeful about their futures in 2019 than were in 1991.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives with a rose at a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in Berlin, Germany, Nov. 9, 2019.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives with a rose at a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in Berlin, Germany, Nov. 9, 2019.

Child of former East Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a child of the former East Germany, says Ossies are the real heroes behind the fall of the Wall. Peaceful protests began in September 1989 in the East German university town of Leipzig and spread to other eastern cities, culminating in the November decision to open the Wall in Berlin.

“The peaceful revolution and November 9, 1989, was the work of the citizens of the GDR,” Merkel told the magazine Der Spiegel this week. “We are happy to share it, including the joy, but it was done by the citizens of the GDR with a huge amount of courage.”

This is perhaps why Berlin officials resisted the Reagan statue. To Germans, this was not Reagan’s win. It was Germany’s.

Matthias Stausberg, who grew up in the West German town of Betzdorf, was living in Berlin in 1999 when the city celebrated the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. He describes coming home from work to find his roommate watching archival footage on television.

“As I walked into the room,” Stausberg says, “he turned to me, tears running down his cheeks, saying ‘This was really our finest hour.’ And it was.”

Now based in London, Stausberg is well-versed in the discussions about how and why the Wall fell and why the Wall remains, invisibly, in German culture.

But, he says, “All of that doesn’t take away from the beauty of the moment itself. When do these profound political transformations ever play out peacefully? Those days beginning in the evening of November 9th were days of unparalleled joy. The world was watching Germany, and for once, it was good news.”