Tuesday, November 10, 2009
The Berlin Wall has been in the news quite a bit recently as yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the day it officially "fell". All the news coverage really takes me back to my own personal experiences with the Wall, limited though they are.
I was born in the early 70's and so growing up the Cold War was going strong and it often inspired much of the culture we were exposed to growing up. There were the James Bond movies whose villians usually were, or had dealings with, Soviet Union. And of course, Pink Floyd's 'The Wall". There were also popular songs about the Cold War. One song in particular made me much more aware of Germany's role in the Cold War and that was "99 Red Baloons" by Nena. Nena was a German pop singer and as the song gained popularity in the early 80's, the original German version - "99 Luftballoons" was also released. I developed a bit of interest in Germany and Berlin and the Wall in particular. I remember President Reagan's famous "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech in 1987. And I remember watching news footage the day the Wall finally fell and Berlin became a united city again. I'll never forget the images and the joy and celebrations...you just could not help feeling the enormity of what was happening. But alas, I was in my freshman year of college and was too preoccupied with other things to really take it all in.
In 1998 I joined the Army and went to Germany. I was a bit older than most of the other people in my company so I had much more interest in the history of the country and being stationed there, I was just constantly inundated by the history I'd only read about or seen on TV growing up. It was probably the main reason why I became so enamored with Europe to be honest. I took my first trip to Berlin in the spring of 2000 and spent a few days touring around, taking in as much of it as I could. I was completely floored. It was like being in a living museum. So much of the history I grew up learning was literally all around me; the platz where Hitler held book burnings, the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the remnants of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie...I was just overcome. I spent several hours in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and could have spent several more if I'd had time. The Checkpoint Charlie museum is filled with the history of the Berlin Wall, complete with photos and stories of hundreds of escape attempts (there were about 5,000 successful attempts). It was, by far, one of the most amazing museums I've ever seen. As I was seeing all of this, I just kept thinking to myself "This was all happening while I was growing up a world away." Seeing what those people were going through compared to what I had in the US at the same time, it just made me realize how lucky I was. I also went up into the Fernsehturm, the 1,200 feet tall TV tower in the former East Berlin. There's a revolving restaurant at the top now and I sat there drinking a beer staring down at Berlin...it was so high up that you could literally see what used to be East Berlin and what used to be West Berlin, even 11 years after the Wall had come down. But there was construction everywhere and I just had the feeling that if I came back a few years later, I probably wouldn't even recognize the city. And I was right.
A few years later, in 2003, I had a great opportunity to see Berlin again, completely free. I had to go there for work but all I had to do was bring some passports up there to an Army officer and then wait for him to process some visas. The process took a week so I basically had nothing to do except sightsee for the whole week which was right up my alley. I spent an entire afternoon in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and then walked around looking at the few pieces of the Wall that still stood, most now covered with graffiti. But sure enough, the city had changed. So much of it was new and nowhere was the city's progress more evident than Potsdamer Platz - once a veritable wasteland, it's now a modern area with some futuristic looking buildings and bustling city traffic.
The Berlin Wall has really become one of the most inspiring and influential parts of my European experience. I'm still fascinated by the history of it and the stories of the people who were affected by it. The most memorable moment for me came during my first trip to Berlin; as I was sitting in an outdoor cafe enjoying a beer and taking in the scene around me, I noticed that there were elderly people all around me, just sitting there eating and chatting and it struck me how similar Berlin is to any other major city I've been in like Paris, Rome or London. Then the thought occured to me as I watched the old people who were probably in their 80's...imagine the history that those people have witnessed in their lives. Everything I learned in school or saw in the movies - the rise of Hitler, World War 2, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Berlin and Germany - these people personally witnessed all of it.
Just made me realize how much I have to learn.
(I've got a bunch of pictures of the Wall, the escape attempts, the Fernsehturm and more on my website: Click Here.)