A few people are posting on Facebook about the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened twenty years ago, so I wrote the following at a Note to post there, but also thought I’d share my memories here of that amazing point in history and our trip to Germany the following year.
I and my husband, who arrived in Berlin (courtesy of the Air Force) six months after The Wall went up, watched it come down on TV 20 years ago. It was something we never thought we’d see in our lifetime. I’ll always regret that I didn’t hop on a plane and get over there to join the party.
We did visit Germany in December of 2000, three months after unification. We flew into Frankfurt, picked up a rental car and headed towards Berlin. I remember crossing the old border between West and East on a country road and coming to an autobahn Kreutz (intersection “cross”) with abandoned guard towers looming over the road in the half-light of a late winter afternoon. It was snowing and very quiet. We took an exit, drove into a village as night was coming on and suddenly found ourselves in the 17th century. Old, old houses and muddy dirt roads. I half-expected to see a horse-drawn cart amble by. The only gasthouse was closed and had obviously been so for many, many years. So we had to scoot back across “the border” to a “west” German town to find a place to stay.
The next morning we crossed the old border again. There were fence posts, but the wire was gone. Tacked to one of the posts was a campaign poster for Helmut Kohl, who had rammed through reunification, knowing it was the right thing to do. I thought the symbolism was very powerful and neatly summed up the dramatic change which had happened the previous year.
We drove on to Berlin through Erfurt. I have ancestors who came from around there and I wanted to see the medieval Cathedral, which has some statues (of Count Erhard and Countess Uta) that I had been struck by when I had seen them in a costume book. As we walked around the city, we drew some stony-faced looks, especially when people saw my camera. We were probably the first western “tourists” they had seen in a long time, if ever. I remember walking past a building that was completely collapsed on the inside and realized that it had probably been bombed during WWII and had never been repaired or replaced.
We found the Kristkindlemarkt in the main square and bought Nuremburger bratwurst and glugwein for lunch. Someone was doing a brisk business selling small, unassuming Christmas trees. There were no merchant booths like we saw in the west German cities. People seemed cautiously happy.
When we got to Berlin, we went down to the Brandenburger Tor or Brandenburg Gate. It was blocked off, but on either side were rows of tables and blankets laid on the ground. Covering both was the flotsam of the end of a country. For sale were East German military coats and hats, ID books, medals, various other documents, East German currency and pieces of the Wall. We bought one big chunk for ourselves and some smaller ones for gifts. I remember that the sellers weren’t speaking German, but a variety of other Eastern European languages.
We then walked all the way around the nearby Reichstag. The walls on all sides had obviously patched bullet holes from the final battle for Berlin.
It’s no longer there, but we also visited the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and saw all the desperately creative ways that people used to try to get from the East to the West, including a small convertible car whose doors had been filled with concrete to stop bullets. It was a convertible because the plan (which worked) was to duck down with the doors for cover and drive right past the guards and under the horizontal gate bars at the border.
Outside we found that Checkpoint Charlie itself, the gates and guard booths, were already gone. As we drove past where it had been, there, on the right hand corner of the first block, was a United Colors of Benneton store. I’ve always wondered how in the world they were able to negotiate a lease and get a store up and running in three months. It was the only western store we saw on that side. I’ve joked over the years that, yes, we got to the old East Germany ahead of McDonald’s. But not Benneton.
We drove around for awhile and then back to the west side of the city past enormous apartment buildings that were the personification of East “bloc” housing.
We went to Templehof airfield (where my husband worked for part of his tour), the sole remaining example of Nazi meglomaniacal architecture, courtesy Albert Speer. The scale of it, even though it was never finished, is almost obscene. But outside is the Berlin Airlift Memorial, which commemorates one of our country’s finest hours and that of the Allies who also participated.
My husband also did part of his tour at a location south of the city. We drove out that way one afternoon and he saw the Berlin skyline from the south for the first time, looking back across what had been no-man’s-land. The farmer’s fields were covered with sparkling frost and a few burned out lime-green Trabant cars lined the road. These quintessential communist-era cars were the subject of many jokes back then, such as “How do you double the value of a Trabant? Fill it with gas.”
Our stay in Berlin at an end, we drove back to Frankfurt via the east-west autobahn that was one of the only ways in and out of Berlin during the Cold War. The East Germans timed travelers. They knew how long it took to get to Berlin and you were asking for serious trouble if you stopped along the way. For us, it was a beautiful drive through the green forests of a Germany that was whole again.