There are few events that occurred in my lifetime that perhaps have had such an impact on the Western world as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I recall as a young child hearing President Reagan’s famous words and watching the aftermath from thousands of miles away, not really understanding the impacts of history. Today, pieces of the once 155-kilometer wall stands as a monument to a history that will hopefully not be repeated.
Following the end of World War II, Germany was split into four sections in the Potsdam Agreement. The Allied powers- France, Great Britain, and the United States had occupation of the West- while the Soviets occupied East Germany. This split would set the stage for the ensuing Cold War. In 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was established with a free market economy and aligned with Western politics. Also in 1949, the German Democratic Republic was formed and was under Communist authority. It is written that living conditions and economic opportunity in the GDR were very poor; the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 to prevent the movement of people from East Germany to the West. People were separated- families, friends, lovers- and where once folks could move freely in Berlin even with the issues imposed by the ongoing Cold War, there was confinement.
We paid a visit to Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall our last full day in Berlin. There was a threat of rain earlier in the day, which I thought would put a literal damper on our plans, however, also considered that a darker day would befit the mood of the places we were about to see. By the time we arrived at Checkpoint Charlie the day had turned beautifully sunny. We walked around the exhibit, reading of escape attempts, both successful and not. Talking to the younger kids who have yet to take high school World History was tough. The world that they live in, with all of its problems and fear, is a far reach from what they would have experienced in a divided Germany at the height of the Cold War. Freedom of movement, of expression, of opportunity are not things to be taken for granted. This was a reminder to me that all it takes is one generation to lose it.
After looking at the outside portion of the exhibit (there is a museum inside for a small fee), we crossed the street. There stood the checkpoint, and the sign signaling the boundary between the American Sector and the Soviet. Folks took selfies behind the barricade. I felt a bit weird about the idea of taking smiling photos at a place that has seen some of the darker parts of history; I decided that Chris the Puppy could take one in our place. We walked on toward the Topography of Terror Museum standing on the former site of the Gestapo. There we read about some of the atrocities that were committed during the time of Nazi persecution. There are indoor and outdoor sections at this free permanent museum; we stayed outside. While the kids are probably old enough to take in the exhibits, it is intense. Emily visited the museum on her first trip to Berlin and was staggered by the events of the war. We thought that the entirety of the museum might be too much for Nate and Sami at this point. I hope to one day to return with them; there is both warning and memorial contained in the museum.
As part of the museum, there stands a section of the Berlin Wall. In parts the rebar is showing, and there is graffiti from years gone by, but it is still a stark reminder of a time when Berlin was divided- when Europe was divided. I cannot begin to imagine what life would have been like walking the streets in those days.
In the 28 years that the wall divided Berlin and the rest of Germany, my father was stationed in the American-occupied south. He spent a few years there, about a decade before I was born, and I was fascinated by the stories that he would tell. When I was a kid, he attempted to teach me German, told tales about learning to drive in a different country, and his many adventures. I was too young to comprehend the actual work he was doing as a military journalist or some of the harsher things he may have witnessed. I wish I had asked more questions in the years before he died, to really understand his life in the service. I wish I had more time. But it was amazing, and humbling, to walk in some of the same places he would have been years before I was ever thought of.
It confounds me to consider that were the world as it was just over 30 years ago, we would not have been able to lodge in the AirBnB in the eastern side of Berlin. My daughter would not be able to attend university in Prague, as it would be east of the wall and part of the Soviet Union. Families would still be separated, the global economy that we have now would look so much different. These monuments in Berlin stand as a testament to the history of a country once divided- now unified, vibrant, and free. May it continue to be so for generations to come.
History.com Editors. “Berlin Wall.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 15 Dec. 2009, https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/berlin-wall#:~:text=at%20high%20speeds.-,The%20Berlin%20Wall%3A%20The%20Fall%20of%20the%20Wall,to%20cross%20the%20country’s%20borders.
“The End of WWII and the Division of Europe.” CES at UNC, https://europe.unc.edu/the-end-of-wwii-and-the-division-of-europe/.