November 9, 2013 marks the 24th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
My first visit to Europe in June 2013 brought me to Berlin and face to face with remnants of the wall I’d heard and read about for as long as I can remember. Once an ominous physical and symbolic barrier between East and West Berlin, the wall met its demise with radical political changes in the late 1980s. The East German government announced on November 9, 1989 that its citizens could visit West Berlin and West Germany.
It may sound trite, but I was awestruck standing on the very ground where the infamous wall stood, where so many would-be defectors lost their lives trying to escape their oppressors. Where 5,000 others succeeded in reaching the other side.
I snapped the photo above from atop a double decker tour bus as we cruised past what’s left of the wall, listening through earbuds to a recorded tour guide recounting the history from a native viewpoint. You can see holes and gouges in the wall where souvenir hunters (the locals call them “woodpeckers”) have chipped away their own piece of history. Nearly a quarter century after the fall its appearance is still ominous.
We jumped off the tour bus at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum to soak in even more of the story. It was a sobering journey through the dark years of Germany during the Cold War. At the same time it was an inspiring testament to the people and the objects they used to escape to freedom. The museum is full of vivid narratives and images of the heroic efforts of escapees and their helpers.
An entire room in the museum is dedicated to the US role in the East German citizens’ fight for freedom, including a looping video of then-President Reagan’s famous “tear down this wall” speech. The German people clearly hold the outspoken support of an American president in high esteem even to this day.
A marker near the museum entrance (pictured, right) serves as a reminder of the Deutsch Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic, the actual name of East Germany). I remember assuming as a schoolboy that it must have always been overcast and gloomy on the East German side, but bright and sunny on the West German side of the wall. It seemed that all of the photos I saw in my textbooks supported that perception.
The fall of the Berlin Wall ultimately led to the reunification of East and West Germany, which in turn made it possible for this American tourist to move freely through all of the streets of Berlin and experience its rich history. Check one off of the Bucket List.
Now it’s your turn. Have you been to the Berlin Wall? What was your experience?