The Fall of the Berlin Wall – 30 Year Anniversary
There are certain events that will always stay engrained in your memory as vividly as if they had happened yesterday. Kennedy’s assassination, 9-11, or the Fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 – 30 years ago.
I grew up in Germany and was six years old at the reunification of Germany. While I was too young to understand what was going on at the time, it is a topic that hits close to home. Let me share some of my memories and discoveries about the Fall of the Berlin Wall and how it changed life in Germany for the past 30 years.
Memories of a 6-Year Old
I was 6 years old when the Berlin Wall came down. The border to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was about 45 miles north-east from where I lived, so November 9th, 1989 was a big deal at my house.
We all sat in our living room on that Thursday night, watching the videos of people dancing on the Berlin Wall, hugging and celebrating. I still feel my mom clutching my hand, hugging me with tears of pure emotion wetting her cheeks. In my heart, I felt the life-changing importance of this event.
Of course, my 6-year old self was quite ignorant about the actual meaning. I asked our family friend: “Where would you rather live – East or West Germany?” And for me one of the biggest hardships of Eastern Germans: They didn’t have Bananas, Oranges, and Pineapple (my favorite fruit). How could they live like that? Thank God this horror was over for them!
Welcome Packages and Begrüßungsgeld
The following Saturday, my mom came back from the grocery store with boxes of tropical fruit. I was eager to help. We packed them into “Welcome packages”, drove to the nearest Border crossing to Thuringia on Sunday and handed them to our new German brothers and sisters. They were there to collect their Begrüßungsgeld (Welcome Money) and taste the freedom of open borders – many of them for the first time.
I remember strangers hugged me and I stuttered a shy welcome to them. There was a strange mix of fear and hope in their eyes. Their lives had changed overnight and many of them were pushed well outside of their comfort zone and everything they knew.
From Grey Mice to Sparkling Gems
My dad worked closely with the Treuhandanstalt, the Government trust agency the oversaw the re-privatization of government-run enterprises. He traveled to Thuringia and Saxony at least once a week for many years, often taking my mother and us kids along to show us around.
We didn’t have any friends or family members who had lived in the former East but formed new bonds with my dad’s colleagues.
I remember from the first few visits how uniform everything looked. Everything seemed to be the same: The houses, the cars, everything was so orderly that it was boring from my childish point of view. Little did I know at the time that people did this as a way to survive in the GDR, as standing out from the crowd instantly made them a target.
Within a few short years, some of those small towns and cities transformed themselves from grey mice to sparkling gems. They dusted themselves off from their dull and triste past and rediscovered their own beauty.
Uncovering an Inconvenient Truth
As I grew older, I gained a better understanding of the things that went on behind the iron curtain and that access to tropical fruits were the least of their problems. I learned about the STASI and the people that were killed as they tried to cross the border.
I learned that not everyone from the Eastern states was happy about the Reunification and its ramifications. The warmth and hospitality of Westerners soon after turned into discrimination and hostility.
Westerners saw how much the Fall of the Berlin Wall cost them and during the economic downturn that followed the Reunification, Easterners and Westerns were now competing for the same, scarce jobs.
Easterners, especially the ones who grew up in the GDR, suddenly became aware of how much they had missed and wanted all the comforts and luxuries that Westerners had worked for over the previous 40 years NOW.
Older GDR citizens, who had known a reunified Germany before the wall was built, had to discover how much everything had changed. People who re-connected with family and friends on the other side realized how much they had grown apart and how little they still had in common.
Some of them, who had decided to join the system, rather than fight it, lost everything. Families and friendships broke apart as they discovered the spies among their circle of relatives and friends. But also people who simply picked the wrong profession, like Civics and History teachers, who all of a sudden were out of a job because their career was based on a system that didn’t exist anymore.
Thankfully, as time passed, the new became the new normal and as people mixed and mingled more and more, many of the prejudices and the resulting discrimination has been reduced quite a bit. While better is not good enough, it is slowly moving in the right direction.
However, many of the areas in the former Eastern states, especially rural areas, still suffer from very high unemployment rates and lack of access to necessities such as doctors, work, and education. It is sad, that this is still an issue – 30 years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
DRR Museum & STASI Museum
Learning More About My German History
I had been to Berlin several times before, and seen Checkpoint Charlie and the Mauerpark. On a recent trip to Berlin, I was invited by the Berlin Tourism Office to visit two incredible museums that really taught me a lot about the history of the GDR and the STASI.
It filled in some of the gaps of knowledge I had about Germany’s recent past and I highly recommend those museums to anyone who is visiting Berlin and is interested in Germany’s Reunification and how life was like in the GDR.
DDR (GDR) Museum Berlin
This interactive museum is great if you want to learn more about the day to day life in the GDR. It is a great choice if you travel with children, as it is very “hands-on”. You can walk through a typical apartment, drive through Berlin in a Trabi-simulator and more.
STASI Museum Berlin
The STASI Museum in Berlin is incredible. It is not as interactive as the DDR Museum but it presents the information about the STASI very well. I highly recommend the guided tour, which is available Thursday through Monday at 1 PM (German) and at 3 PM (English). It is included in your ticket price.
You will learn about how the network of STASI spies infiltrated the population and created a society where parents could not trust their children and husbands couldn’t believe their wives.
Please take a look at the STASI Museum website to plan your visit.
30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall Events
If you find yourself in Berlin at the End of 2019, take a look at this list of events that commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
The history of East Germany and the reunification of Germany is still a touchy subject. I am not an expert on the topic. I don’t claim that what I have written here is the absolute truth. It is a mere recollection of my childhood memories – tainted with the privilege of growing up in West Germany and childhood ignorance, supplemented by what I later learned in school and on my own through films, books, and talking to friends and family (both, from East and West Germany). However, it is a topic that hits close to home and an event that changed my life.
Fall of the Berlin Wall – 30 Year Anniversary was written by Maria Haase.