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November 20, 2014

25 years later: Eyewitnesses recall the fall of the Berlin Wall


Nov. 9, 1989. The world watched in amazement as newscasters reported that the Berlin Wall was coming down. East Germans poured through the gates that had divided Berlin for nearly three decades. Celebrations erupted in the streets and revelers joined in singing and dancing atop the wall, then in chipping away at it with hammers and chisels until, in the days that followed, heavy equipment was called in to dismantle the barrier between East and West.

As part of a series of events commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Pitt’s European Union Center of Excellence/European Studies Center (EUCE/ESC) brought together a panel of eyewitnesses to discuss their recollections of this historic event.

In November 1989, EUCE/ESC director Ron Linden was in West Germany as director of research for Radio Free Europe. History faculty member Gregor Thum was a student in West Berlin, as was Karen Lautanen, now the director of development at the Andy Warhol Museum. And Katja Wetzel, visiting faculty member in history, in November 1989 was a preteen who just months before had moved to West Germany from East Germany.

Moderator Allyson Delnore, EUCE/ESC associate director, opened the Nov. 11 roundtable by setting the scene for an audience composed mainly of individuals who were not yet born when the wall fell.

The Berlin Wall had its roots in the occupation of Germany following World War II. The country and the city of Berlin were divided into four zones, the east controlled by the Soviet Union and the west by the United States, Britain and France.

“Ideological divisions then between West and East now had geographical expression in Germany, and nowhere more clearly than in the city of Berlin, which was spatially and geographically within East Germany, but West Berlin was still a part of West Germany,” Delnore explained.

While movement between the east and west sides of the city still was possible after 1949, “permanent migration was pretty clearly unidirectional,” she said, noting that between 2.6 million and 3.5 million people left for the west between 1949 and 1961, with about 200,000 East Germans moving permanently to the west in 1960 alone.

“On Aug. 12, 1961, in response to what was clearly a brain drain — most of these people moving were young, educated and it was threatening the very existence of East Germany and its stability — the GDR (German Democratic Republic) Council of Ministers declared: ‘In order to put a stop to the hostile activity of West Germany’s and West Berlin’s revanchist and militaristic forces, border controls of the kind generally found in every sovereign state will be set up at the border of the German Democratic Republic, including the border to the western sectors of Greater Berlin.’”

Temporary barriers were erected the next day, roads between East and West Berlin were torn up, and in the following months a permanent wall was constructed.

The barrier did more than simply divide the city. When complete, it stretched nearly 100 miles to encircle West Berlin, separating the city from the surrounding East German territory.

Berlin became a symbol of the Cold War, the site of John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963, and of Ronald Reagan’s demand in 1987 to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Delnore said: “In the 28 years of the wall’s existence, the mundane daily activities of urban life always had a backdrop — they were always set against the backdrop and continuous reminder of the constant threats of the Cold War.”

Panelists Karen Lautanen of the Andy Warhol Museum and faculty members Ron Linden, Katja Wetzel and Gregor Thum, all of whom were living in Germany in 1989, discuss the fall of the Berlin Wall as part of a series of events on campus commemorating the 25th anniversary of the historic event.

Panelists Karen Lautanen of the Andy Warhol Museum and faculty members Ron Linden, Katja Wetzel and Gregor Thum, all of whom were living in Germany in 1989, discuss the fall of the Berlin Wall as part of a series of events on campus commemorating the 25th anniversary of the historic event.

Lautanen was an American studying abroad, a junior at Freie Universität Berlin in 1989. She remembers that West Berlin, although enclosed, felt “incredibly free.”

“It was a very unusual and dynamic city that was active constantly… a real 24-hour kind of town,” full of intellectuals, artists and radicals. “There was a lot of political discourse constantly. Protests would pop up out of nowhere and you would either partake or go home, but it was kind of this intellectual artistic and free environment, at least from my perspective, being a 19-year-old at the time.”

Thum, a West German who arrived in West Berlin in 1988 to study, agreed: “I think it was the biggest playground in world history.”

He said, “I was personally very fascinated by the wall: It was a big attraction in West Berlin — the bizarreness of the wall.”

West Germans could cross the border, he said. “But the East Germans were not free. I could jump on the metro and go back to the west. … They could never ever dream of that ever. That knowledge limited the joy of being there.”

Border security was serious business, said Lautanen, who spent her senior year of high school in West Berlin and traveled frequently to the eastern part of the city. On one visit in 1987 she was detained and held for several hours. “They pulled me out of the line and put me in a room. They took all my stuff away from me, including my passport and then quizzed me a number of times … It really snapped me into a lot of reality pretty quickly about what I was dealing with. Eventually I was allowed to cross into East Germany … It was really hard for me to understand how they really could have been worried about me at all. I was a 17-year-old girl moving back and forth to East Berlin.”

Quizzed about why she was visiting so often, she told them it was because she liked the architecture. “It’s funny now that I talk about it, but it wouldn’t have been funny had they really detained me,” she said. “They did take my passport and I was sorely out of luck at that point because there wasn’t any way that I could have contacted anybody. There weren’t cell phones. There wasn’t any way to communicate with anybody.”

Shortages were part of daily life in East Germany, said Wetzel, who was 12 when she and her mother were granted permission to leave the country. While people didn’t go hungry, desirable consumer items were not readily available. “To get new jeans, it wasn’t that easy. You would need to know somebody who knows somebody to help you to buy them,” she said.

She remembers being “very politically aware,” even in elementary school. “I was trained not to say things that I heard at home. For instance, I was not allowed to talk anything politically because it could affect our chances of being allowed to leave the east,” she said.

After a three-year wait, they were allowed to leave in May 1989. Wetzel said they were given 24 hours to pack and go. “I could not say goodbye to the kids at school. It was not possible.”

Her family was divided by the move. An older sister had decided she didn’t want to leave, and remained in East Germany.

After living with relatives for their first months in West Germany, Wetzel and her mother had just settled into an apartment of their own in Heidelberg when the surprising news of Nov. 9 came.

“We spent the rest of the night watching the TV,” she said. “That was just a miracle: It was really, really great because we knew things would probably change and now we would be able to see our family again,” she said.

“Had the wall not opened up we probably would not have been able to see each other because we were not allowed to go back, and my sister would not have been allowed to travel to the west.”

Linden arrived in Munich in the summer of 1989 “expecting the Cold War to continue,” he said. “With Gorbachev there was a little tinkering and I think most of us thought there would be some soft reforms and a little tinkering around the edges.”

Linden said he was at home when he got the call from the U.S. office of Radio Free Europe: “He said to me, ‘They’ve just opened the Berlin Wall.’ … I said what have you been drinking? It was absolutely the furthest thing from my mind.

“It was an absolutely astonishing moment.”

Lautanen, who lived in West Berlin near the wall, heard the news from a friend: “Turn on your TV. The wall has come down.”

“We walked immediately to the wall,” she said. “We followed the wall all the way to the Brandenburg Gate.

“People stopped their cars in the middle of the street on this night … Imagine Fifth Avenue in New York City and something happening and everybody on Fifth Avenue just stopping and getting out. That is really what happened,” Lautanen said.

“I had never seen the Germans so emotional. People were crying, people were hugging and touching each other. People were handing each other money, just opening their wallets and handing people money. People were opening up bottles of champagne, pulling out flasks.

“It was just this incredible relief almost. I think everyone was also stunned and wary. I think a lot of the people who came over, when we were talking to them, were unsure they would be able to return. I think this flood happened and everybody thought ‘My God, what’s going to happen now?’ … But we went and hung out and celebrated. … It was a really exciting time.”

Thum said he was in a university choir rehearsal preparing for a visit from a partner choir from Moscow State University when the news came. “We were playing, and someone said, ‘The wall is open.’

“I didn’t go right away to the wall. The next day we saw. This was unbelievable, the hole: You could really see that the state that had existed 40 years was in dissolution.”

The choir from Moscow arrived a few days later amid chaos in Berlin. “They were very interested in getting tape recorders,” a popular product not easily obtained in Moscow, he said.

But when he took the guests shopping, there were no tape recorders to be found. “Amazingly, for a first time in West German experience, the stores were empty because the East Germans came over and bought everything they could buy,” he said.

“I apologized, but my Moscow friends said, ‘Don’t worry, we never believed in the propaganda that these things were available,’” Thum recalled, laughing.

Despite the attention surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany was late to join in the reforms that were underway elsewhere in Europe, Thum pointed out.

“I think it sometimes gets lost that the dismantling of the eastern bloc started first in Moscow with Gorbachev … In June 1989 there were partially free elections in Poland — a stunning victory for that movement. … In summer, Hungary opened the border to Austria. A lot of things were happening.

“In whole it was a crazy year,” he said.

“The best television show was the news, because nothing was more exciting than the news. Every evening there was something new and unbelievable.”

Linden said, “Each of these European countries had a critical symbol during this amazing year that they could act on as a way of accommodating their now-revolutionary public: The Hungarians opened the border with Austria … it was a way for East Germans to get out …  The Czechs released (Vaclav) Havel from prison. The Romanians executed (Nicolae) Ceausescu. …”

In the weeks before the wall fell, the East German government led by Erich Honecker had been dismissed and free elections had been promised.

Thum said, “It was very clear everything was falling apart: Nov. 9 was the seal. … It was clear that the opening of the wall was the end of the GDR as a state: There was no future for the GDR. The wall was built to maintain the GDR.”

Wetzel said, “The opening of the wall was a sign of collapse because they didn’t know how to deal with all those East Germans who were leaving. They had thousands of East Germans just going into their cars once Hungary and Czechoslovakia began opening their borders. They had no way to keep these people. People would just leave. … They’d leave everything behind and go to the West German embassy in Prague where they could take literally nothing with them. …

“Once the whole brotherhood of socialist nations that had been working for years fell apart, the East Germans were forced to do something,” she said.

Uncertainty countered the happiness of the wall coming down and the borders opening, Wetzel said. “People in the east were still not sure what was going happen. They were still unsure about the economic situation. So people still continued to leave,” creating an overflow of refugees into West Germany. “There was a big refugee crisis because not everybody had relatives to go to,” Wetzel said.

The ensuing reunification of Germany created repercussions that continue to be felt today.

Thum said: “The opening of the wall was really a moment of true joy. … But then after a couple of weeks, the consequences became apparent: What does it actually mean for Germany, East Germany, for Europe, for the world? If unification happens it changes the entire architecture of postwar Europe.

“And I think we are seeing in the 25 years since then the politics in Europe have become much more complicated with a very big Germany in the middle of it. … This is not what the (post-World War II) plan was.”

The University’s commemoration of the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall will culminate with a faculty research conference, “1989 and Its Aftermath: A ‘New’ Germany? Taking Stock of the Berlin Republic,” set for Feb. 27 and 28. See for details.

And University Library System Special Collections materials related to the fall of the Berlin Wall are on display through March. The exhibit, “Berlin 1945-1989: From the End of World War II in Europe to the Fall of the Wall,” is in the second-floor exhibit cases at Hillman Library.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 7