On August 13 1961, people in the Allied sector of Berlin awoke to find their part of the city completely surrounded by barbed wire. Within days construction began on a large edifice the world would soon know as The Berlin Wall.
Yet 20 years ago this month, the wall - the definitive symbol of The Cold War - was no longer a barrier, but a symbol of the collapse of Communism in Europe. On November 9 1989, the wall fell and under the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, Germans from East and West Berlin, crossed the frontiers freely, pulled sections of the wall down, and danced in the streets.
To mark the anniversary, the Galway Advertiser spoke to Prof Hans Walter Schmidt-Hannisa of NUI, Galway, from the former West Germany; Katrin Schreiner, from Leipzig in the former German Democratic Republic; and Jenny Farrell of the GMIT, who was born and raised in East Berlin, about their experience of the wall, East/West Berlin, life in the GDR, and the night the wall fell.
The wall goes up
After WWII, Western Germany and the western section of Berlin was divided into French, American, and British zones. The eastern section of the country and Berlin was taken over by the Soviets.
This led in 1949 to the creation of two separate German states. The Allied occupied zones, including West Berlin, became The Federal Republic of Germany. The Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic with East Berlin as its capital.
The USA poured money into West Germany and encouraged its expertise in innovation and engineering, leading to West Germany’s post war economic boom and returning it to a position of strength in Europe. The GDR however had to endure the Soviets stripping it of most of its industries and forcing it to pay massive war reparations.
The young state struggled hard to make itself viable and meet the demands of its 18 million citizens. However many were emigrating to the more prosperous West Germany. Others would find work in West Berlin (which took money and workforces out of the GDR ) or defect to the west by going to West Berlin and not coming back.
This massive ‘brain drain’ on human resources and did not help the GDR’s struggling economy (the ‘brain drain’ is estimated to have lost the state between $7-9 million ). There was also suspicion about the Allies having a zone in the middle of a Communist state.
In 1961 East German leader Walter Ulbricht and Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to build a wall around West Berlin to stop people leaving the GDR and to restrict Western access to East Berlin. The wall now physically dividing families and made contact difficult.
“If you lived in West Berlin the wall was a daily reality as you were surrounded by it,” recalls Jenny Farrell. “Living in East Berlin the wall wasn’t as prominent. However if I wanted to go to Potsdam, which is just outside Berlin, I couldn’t go the short route, directly through West Berlin, I had to go all the way around the outside of the city to get there.
“I had a grandmother living in West Berlin and I couldn’t meet her in Berlin. I would have to meet her in Prague. That changed in the 1970s when West Berliners were allowed to visit and retired East Berliners could go west, That’s the strongest impact the wall had on everyday life.”
Prof Schmidt Hannisa, from northern Bavaria made day trips to East Berlin during his student days and found crossing the checkpoints at the wall intimidating.
“It was terrible,” he recalls. “You felt exposed. You didn’t know what the guards would do. They carried weapons and were most unfriendly. You had queues, and you were made wait and didn’t know why. They would take your passport away and check every detail. If you came by car, that was investigated. I think they tried to create the impression that you were unwanted as a visitor. You could feel the negative atmosphere physically.”
Such experiences were very real for Westerners, but East Germans feel that too often their country is depicted as nothing more than a cold, grey, terrifying, Orwellian dictatorship. Their experiences were very different.
“The GDR was the country I was born and grew up in, it’s where I went to school and fell in love,” says Katrin Schreiner. “I never felt uncomfortable. Some of the houses were grey and not in great condition but we all lived under those circumstances and it produced a more sociable and socially minded society.”
“Growing up in the GDR it was normal not to have to pay for health care, medicine, and education,” says Ms Farrell. “Childcare was free. It was normal for everyone to have work and for women to work. In this society I grew up thinking that women were in no way inferior to men, that women had control of their own bodies. Birth control was available and everybody had the right to divorce.”
Both women acknowledge that the GDR had it flaws.
“You were told from above what’s good for you and you didn’t have complete control,” says Ms Farrell. “The Party [the ruling Communist SED] decided what you could and couldn’t do in the big issues. If you wanted to travel to the West you had to get official approval. That lack of trust in the people was the big thing. There was a lot of small mindedness.”
“As students we wanted to change the system,” says Ms Schreiner, “but not get rid of it.”
The wall falls
In 1988, Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced that Soviet troops would not enter Eastern bloc nations that wished to determine their own internal affairs. This unleashed a series of events that by 1989 would see Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, etc, oust their Communist Governments. However East Germans took to the streets of Leipzig demanding, not an end to Communism, but a reform of Communism in the GDR.
“Those demonstrations were not calling for reunification with the west but for reform of the existing system,” says Ms Schreiner. “It makes me angry that people don’t realise that.”
“There was a feeling that reform would be possible - more democracy, get rid of the Stasi, more accountability, and freedom of the press,” says Ms Farrell, “and it was felt it could be achieved within the system.”
Events moved faster than anyone imagined and in order to appease the protesters the SED removed the ban on travelling to the West. Owing to a mix up in communications, it was believed this included travelling through the wall. On November 9, thousands of East Germans clogged the roadways to get a chance to visit West Berlin. So many turned up there was no choice but to let them through. The wall was breached, it had fallen. Ms Schreiner was there to see it happen.
“My former partner was watching the news and he said ‘The wall is open’. Leipzig is not far from Berlin and we knew something momentous was happening and decided to go. We left at 8pm and arrived at 10pm. I will never forget the motorways with all the Trabis beeping their horns and people waving. We knew everyone would go towards Checkpoint Charlie so we chose another entry but still had to wait three hours as only one car could go through the Wall at a time.
“We got on the S Bahn and went to Bahnhhof Zoo and there were huge screens saying ‘Welcome To West Berlin’. We were fascinated to see these shops with cars for sale in the windows. People were dancing on the streets, drinking sparkling wine, hugging people they never met. People were trying to climb over the wall and lift buggies and prams over. The atmosphere was great, people were delirious.”
Prof Schmidt-Hannisa points out that events moved so fast that reunification became inevitable. In 1990 the GDR and West Germany became the new Federal Republic of Germany. However the intial euphoria over reunification did not last long.
“I don’t think anybody would oppose or question reunification,” Prof Schmidt-Hannisa says. “Many East Germans wanted to have the things that West Germans had, but a lot went wrong in the process of reunification and there was a high price paid for the quick process.”
Many East Germans felt their country was swallowed whole by West Germany as industries were closed and sold off and an entire culture and way of life was swept away.
“November 9 produced a feeling that we are one nation and a sense of nationhood but 40 years was enough to produce two different feelings and opinions in the two states,” says Ms Schreiner. I would say they are big and I feel them. In the recent German elections, the Left party Die Linke did well in the former East German area. There is still a sympathy for an alternative political system to the one we live in. We don’t want to get rid of democracy or have Communism back, but we want to see a fairer social system and a change to the way things are distributed.”