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Reflections: The End of a Divided Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Polish leader Lech Walesa (center) and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. PHOTO: EPA.

Some dates are so significant that they define the identity of whole nations. For Germans, November 9, 1989, is such a date. It was the day the heavily mined border known as "the death-strip" between East and West Germany was opened or, as popular shorthand would have it, the day the Berlin Wall came down. It was a day of celebration, hope, incredulity, and exhilaration.

As the German magazine Der Spiegel wrote from Berlin this week: That night, the whole city celebrated a new Day of German Unity.

The fall of the wall changed the lives of millions of people so profoundly that even after 20 years, some are still struggling to make sense of the day that united a nation but divided their lives into two chapters: before and after the wall.

I grew up in West Germany during the Cold War, with one side of my family from the East and the other side from the West. And even though I've lived in the U.S. for well over a decade, I am still deeply moved by what happened the summer and fall of 1989.

My strongest memories were largely missing from this week's coverage. I remember the courage of the demonstrators who assembled first in Leipzig and later across East Germany calling for an end to the regime.

During the last few days, I've read numerous articles commemorating the anniversary of East Germany's collapse. I came across former President Ronald Reagan's famous line "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down the wall," again and again, even though he gave the speech two years earlier and was criticized for it, by the opposition and his own party.

I enjoyed the Wall Street Journal writing about the historic blunder by East German Politburo member Gunter Schabowski, who misread an embargoed memo from the socialist leaders and inadvertently announced the immediate opening of the borders, even though it was not what the regime had wanted.

In the confusion that followed, thousands of people marched toward the border posts. The guards never received clear orders about what to do and as shouts and protests grew louder, they eventually opened the gate and let people through.

But my own strongest memories of the time were largely missing from this week's coverage. I remember the courage of the demonstrators who assembled first in Leipzig and later all across East Germany calling for an end to the regime.

Starting in September 1989, every Monday, thousands, tens of thousands and, eventually, more than 100,000 East Germans gathered on the streets chanting: "We are the people;" "Free elections" and "Free the political prisoners."

A section of the Berlin Wall. PHOTO: Mad Max/Pixelio.

Even before September, thousands of East Germans had been occupying West German embassies in Hungary, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia hopeful that the West German government would allow them to leave the Eastern bloc. Hope was all around: Gorbachev's "glasnost" (openness), Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement, and the historic opening of the border between Hungary and Austria on September 10, 1989, all fueled a sense of possibility and urgency. If something was going to change, this was the time.

At first, security forces tried to stop the protests in Leipzig and some protesters were arrested or beaten. In October, when East Germany celebrated its 40th anniversary, the army tanks came out in a celebratory display of power but also to send a warning to those on the streets. The massacre in Tiananmen Square had happened just weeks earlier, and the East German government sent tacit approval, calling the Chinese protesters "counterrevolutionaries" that the Chinese government had no choice but to crush.

Two years earlier, I was sitting in a political science class discussing the probability of reunification. I remembered thinking: "This is never going to happen."

Two years earlier, I was sitting in a political science class in high school discussing the probability of reunification. I remembered thinking: "This is never going to happen." The two German states had existed all my life and East Germany felt farther away to me than Italy, Greece or even Turkey.

So it was euphoric for me to see people walking across the Bornholmer Strasse from East Berlin to the West, taking those first few steps that changed the political map forever.

I thought I'd never see it and neither did East Germany's leader Erich Honecker, who had declared as late as January 1989 that the wall would stand 50, even 100 years from now.

Yesterday, I called my friend Mareike Grover who grew up in East Germany and now lives in Brooklyn, NY, to ask her how she was feeling. "It's a very emotional day for me," she told me. She remembers tanks moving into the center of her hometown Chemnitz, which was then called Karl-Marx-Stadt. "The armed forces called on reservists to stop the protests, but many of them refused to turn against their fellow citizens, their neighbors," she recalls. "That certainly played a big role in the fact that the protests didn't end in violence."

Another friend, Matthias Hohensee, who is now West Coast bureau chief for the German business weekly Wirtschaftswoche spent the fall of 1989 as a 19-year-old recruit in a military camp about 30 miles east of Berlin. The young men were only allowed to read the official East German newspapers and watch state-controlled television.

In early December, on his first vacation day, he traveled to West Berlin. "It was a completely different world," he recalls.

"This really influenced my opinion about mass media," he says. "I realized how dangerous propaganda is and how easy it is to poison the minds of people." The official papers claimed that the protesters beat up pregnant women, and some of his fellow recruits were so upset by the reports that they talked of going to Berlin to shoot at the demonstrators. Hohensee had some privileges, which allowed him, albeit clandestinely, to watch the coverage from West Germany.

Still, even that didn't prepare him for the fall of the wall. "I could not believe it," he says. He wanted to cross the border to the West as quickly as possible, but because he had only a military passport, he had to stay put. In early December, on his first vacation day, he traveled to West Berlin. "It was a completely different world," he remembers. "The people were dressed differently, there were advertisements everywhere and even the air smelled differently -- of perfume and food. It was like stepping out of a black-and-white film into a color movie."

As a young journalist, Hohensee covered the dramatic changes in East German society. "This was a really important education for life; I experienced first hand how history is made," he says.

Years later, after he had moved to California to write about Silicon Valley, he was confronted with the Berlin Wall again. A chunk of it was in a parking lot outside an office building in Mountain View. There was no explanation, no commemorative plaque. Intrigued, Hohensee found out that the segment belonged to a businessman who had fled East Germany and made his fortune in the U.S.

He owned the office building, and this small piece of the wall was his reminder of the twists and turns life can take.

Because my father was not active in the socialist youth movement, he was denied a university education.

I have spent the better part of 20 years living outside Germany and still have not visited the town in East Germany where my father grew up. When I called him for his recollections, his education was an enduring memory: "I had decent grades in school," he says. "They were certainly good enough to get me into university." However, because he was not active in the socialist youth movement, he was denied a university education. Nobody explicitly told him that. Instead, he was advised he could redeem himself by doing an internship in a metal refinery with dismal working conditions, often standing over open pools of molten lead inhaling fumes. He did this for six months.

Eventually, he saw no future in the GDR and fled to the West in 1957, four years before the wall was erected. Having to start over in West Germany was difficult, but he worked his way up on construction sites and doing office work. He fulfilled his dream of going to university and eventually became a high-ranking officer in the German army.

Shortly after the wall came down, he and my mother traveled to the places where he grew up and reunited with friends he hadn't seen since he fled the country.

At his 40-year high school reunion, he faced a difficult choice. Teachers had kept two sets of registers; one public with homework assignments, attendance records and grades; the other a secret file.

At his 40-year high school reunion, he faced a difficult choice. Teachers had kept two sets of class registers; one public with homework assignments, attendance records and grades; the other a secret file with as many personal details as the authorities could gather to assess how loyal a student and his family were to the socialist regime. Information was gathered incessantly, and even the slightest off-colorful remark could spell doom.

My father remembers the day Stalin died; he and his teenage classmates had to sit through hours of official speeches. Several Stasi security agents sat in the auditorium with the students. Being teenagers, some students grew restless, especially during the long commemorative silences, and a few of the boys began to giggle. One of them, my father says, disappeared. He never returned to school and my father never saw him again.

At his class reunion, my father was given a chance to look at the secret class register. He declined. "What if you find out that the one person you trusted had betrayed you? What do you do with this information? You can't do anything about it, but your good memories will be lost forever."

Although he feels enormous gratitude for the events of 20 years ago, he also sees another legacy. East Germans are often envious of West Germans, and vice versa, he told me, and real unity will take at least another 20 years.

REACTIONS

Jim Johnson - Lexington, KY
Thanks for a beautifully written story! Ms Schubert's father's recollection of the Stasi agents at the school assembly, and the secret class register brought to mind the film The Lives of Others. And the ability of ordinary people to do extraordinary things (which may seem merely ordinary at the time) to bring about change in social-political structures is a potent message. (I am reminded of Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark.)