The Berlin Wall Was Never Just a Wall

For anyone who saw it firsthand, as I did, the Berlin Wall was never just a wall. It was half a century of epic global conflict distilled into impenetrable concrete. In the city that had launched the bloodiest war in history and been reduced to an enormous pile of rubble, the 12-foot-high rampart snaking its way through spottily rebuilt streets marked the exact spot where the armies of capitalist democracy and communist totalitarianism had dug in for their nuclear-armed standoff. Divided here was not just a city, but the world my generation had grown up in.(Article continued below...)

Standing on one of the rickety wooden viewing platforms erected on the western side, you could look east across the floodlit death strip and see the guard towers, barbed wire, tank traps, and People's Army patrols, with their Kalashnikovs and attack dogs. The place was lethal to the end. As late as February 1989, those patrols pumped three bullets into a 20-year-old East German named Chris Gueffroy as he tried to make a run for freedom. They left him to die on the death strip. The wall was ground zero, where nearly half a century of Cold War began and where, one cold gray day in November 1989, I watched it end.

We're told every day that the world is changing, but these changes are incremental and largely imperceptible. (How, for example, does one experience the rise of a global middle class?) But being in Berlin in those days meant being in a singular moment and place where you knew that all the world's history had, in an instant and in front of your eyes, changed forever. The Cold War was all my generation had ever known. We'd grown up in its frozen, ultrastable confines. As obviously contrived and artificial as the Berlin Wall was, people who'd known nothing else found it hard to imagine any other world, least of all the Germans, most of whom had long given up on the reunification of their country. With the wall, four decades of global political order collapsed, visibly, starkly, monumentally.

When the world changed, I was actually watching Batman. Even a news-junkie grad student in political science needed a break from waiting for history to unfold. (Apparently, so did Germany's future chancellor Angela Merkel, who spent the evening in an East Berlin sauna.) I had spent the previous days hanging out in the East with demonstrating East Berliners, watching the communists install a new, reformist leadership in a last-ditch effort to avert their regime's collapse. I'd seen a growing stream of East German escapees who'd made it West via the increasingly open border in Hungary.

On the news that monumental evening of Nov. 9, 1989, the East Germans had announced that their citizens would in the future be permitted to travel to the West. We knew something like this was coming—they needed to stop the growing exodus of their people via Hungary, though it was unclear exactly how and when the new rules would go into effect.

My architect friend Ted and I had just watched Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton slug it out at the Odeon, a grimy arthouse cinema and the only place in town that showed undubbed American movies. But as soon as I stepped out of the movie, I knew something was happening. Down the deserted street came a cloud of blue fumes and a tinny sputter that signaled the passing of a Trabant, the Communist-made, two-cylinder plastic car that East Germans had to spend 25 years on a waiting list to buy. We'd seen them before, but only in the East (Westerners could travel east but not vice versa). The driver rolled down his window and in a thick, unmistakably East German dialect, asked for directions to Eisenacher Strasse, before sputtering on.

While we were inside the Odeon, East Berliners who'd heard the evening news started waiting at the border crossings, first by the hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. The border guards, overwhelmed by crowds that no longer feared them, could not reach their superiors to get instructions. Eventually they gave in and let the masses pass through. In the days to come, this was how several million East Germans would get their first taste of freedom. (Article continued below...)

At Checkpoint Charlie, the legendary border crossing where American and Soviet tanks had a tense standoff just after the East Germans built the wall in 1961, we found thousands of East and West Germans already celebrating, drinking beer and sparkling wine that pubs handed out for free all night, singing songs the Easterners knew from hearing Western radio—a crime that had landed some of them in jail earlier. Back then, it was easy to tell East and West Germans apart by their clothes and hairstyles. (That's nearly impossible today.) In street after street, crowds of Easterners were pressing their noses against the windows of stores that had long closed for the night, bewildered that consumer products were not only available but plentiful and cheap. On the Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin's main shopping street, there was no getting through. Half a million people, Eastern and Western, had showed up for a tearful and joyous all-night street party. A blast from the past even then, newsboys were passing through the crowds with special issues of the West Berlin dailies, hot off the printing presses with screaming headlines about the newly fallen wall: THE NIGHT OF THE OPEN BORDER IN BERLIN. That issue still hangs on the wall of my office today.

After just a few hours of sleep in the early morning, we climbed on the wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate and tested how far we could go. A few of us started lowering ourselves down to the eastern, death-strip side. The border guards looked on as more of us climbed down. Soon their reinforcements arrived; they encircled us and pushed us back over the wall. The guards were still tense—naturally, after years during which walking on that ground had meant death—but they were no longer intimidating. Some smiled, others looked worried, probably sensing that soon their services would no longer be necessary. I'd seen the no-man's land we'd stepped on many times from both East and West, and I'd never thought I'd be walking there.

The bigger question in those days was how the Russians would react. There were still more than 300,000 heavily armed Soviet soldiers in East Germany in 1989, most of them stationed on bases encircling Berlin. A few days later, I crossed with a friend into the East and took a train to a garrison town, where I practiced my college Russian with some Red Army grunts. They were shy and confused, and they looked at us like aliens. We were shocked by their poverty, their primitive bases, and their ragged uniforms. An officer asked us whether we had a car he could buy.

But things stayed peaceful, the Russians stayed on their bases, and there were no acts of retaliation. Earlier that year, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had told his East European dominion states that they were henceforth free to decide on their own affairs, and apparently the military had orders to stay put. After another People's Army had massacred hundreds in Tiananmen Square only a few months earlier, we knew that it could all have ended very differently.