When the Berlin Wall came down
Twenty years later, the rest of the world is a different place because of that event.
Tom Stoddart/ Getty Images/ File
She was born in a country that no longer exists, in an East German hospital on Nov. 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
Jamila al-Yousef's birthday is part of history, the date a marker between the past and the future, between Europe's bloody 20th century and all that came after.
The daughter of a German mother and a Palestinian father, Ms. Yousef has known only freedom in her life, traveling through Europe, attending university in London, connecting with friends around the globe on Facebook, and talking on a cellphone.
Whatever she knows about the Berlin Wall and the old East Germany has come from history books and family stories. Like millions of others in her generation she has grown to maturity in a world where the wall no longer casts a shadow, where Germany is reunified.
"Every time I see the wall on television, I get goose bumps," she says. "I don't know why."
History didn't end with the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago – but a new chapter began. The world we now live in was born on that confusing, joyous, and unbelievable night in Berlin. It began when a hapless East German official mistakenly announced on live TV that restrictions on East German travel to the West were immediately lifted.
By the tens of thousands, people headed for the wall. The masses yearned for freedom and were eager to see what was on the other side. So they streamed through gates and hugged those waiting in the West. Some climbed the barrier; others took pickaxes to concrete.
The wall that had divided a glorious capital city and separated East and West was breached.
European communism would begin to die in cities and countries across the Soviet bloc in those fateful months of 1989 and '90. From Bulgaria in the south to Poland in the north, the old order gave way to the new, change sweeping through Europe and later sweeping the Soviet Union into history.
And the cold war would eventually end. The United States and its allies won. The Soviet Union lost.
Europe's eastern half was liberated. Germany was reunited.
"What looks like an inevitable placid march was far from that [while the world was] going through it," says Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under US President George H.W. Bush. "We did not know how decisive it was or was not going to be, what the consequences would be."
New York University historian Tony Judt points out in an e-mail that from the Russian perspective, "1989 triggered the collapse of an empire which dated – territorially at least – from Catherine the Great.
"The areas lost to Russia, from the Baltics to the Crimea and on to the Caucasus had been [Russia's] for over 200 years in some cases," says Mr. Judt, author of "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945." "That's quite an imperial collapse."
Rarely, though, does history come so neatly packaged. The truth is that the fall of the wall was only one moment in a series of events that shook Central and Eastern Europe and rattled the rest of the world. But it "is a wonderful symbol for the end of the cold war," says Melvyn Leffler, a University of Virginia historian and author of "For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War."
We can look back on it now without emotion. We can see the fall of the Berlin Wall for what it was, the culmination of decades of history, the final chapter of World War II and perhaps the 20th century itself.
Berlin needed to be conquered to extinguish Hitler's rule and end World War II in Europe. And Berlin needed to be defended in the long struggle between communism and capitalism.
It was a city scarred and divided by a wall first put up hastily in the early-morning hours of Aug. 13, 1961, barbed wire erected to stem the tide of people streaming west. The wall was fortified over the years, locking people in, keeping out the world.
Now, Berlin is simply a European capital like any other, filled with offices and bureaucrats. Its politics are mundane and its politicians charisma-free. There is a genteel elegance in the western side, a shabbier feel in the east which is a gathering place for journalists, politicians, hipsters, and other newcomers to the city.
"The fall of the Berlin Wall made my hometown disappear and gave birth to another Berlin," says Kira von Moers, an employment consultant. A native of West Berlin, Ms. Von Moers says that in the years after the fall of the wall, everything changed, from bus numbers to street names. "I like to live here, but it doesn't touch my heart anymore," she says. "Sometimes, I feel like a tourist."
The tourists are back in Berlin, have been for years. Next month, they'll have another reason to gather – 20th anniversary celebrations of the wall's fall.
Mercifully, though, there is no longer a "Berlin Crisis" to rivet the world. The world has moved on to other crises. Terrorism, not communism, now keeps world leaders awake at night.
"When the ice melts, all these things that have been sleeping under the house come out, including the likes of Osama bin Laden and several other characters," says British historian Frederick Taylor, author of "The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989."
"You had wonderful things that happened and much less desirable things that were permitted to occur," he says. "There were power vacuums, there was only one superpower [the US] which everyone could concentrate on disliking. Yes, it set things in motion, again."
IT'S OFTEN SAID IN GERMANY that the wall came down but the wall in people's heads went up, dividing those who grew up in the West from those who were raised in the East. The old state-supported industries of the East were scrapped. It may take decades for the eastern regions to catch up economically to the western ones.
Among some older people who once lived in East Germany, there is a sense of ostalgie, a German word combining "the East" with "nostalgia."
But the old East is not coming back.
When the wall came down, Kathrin Röschel was a college student in East Berlin. In her own small way, she was part of that history, participating in a candlelight vigil weeks before the wall was breached, a fissure that helped trigger the break.
"There is a theory that to overcome things takes as long as they were present," she says. "Maybe it will take 40 years to overcome the wall. I hope not. I hope people know about it, know the experience that people can have so much power, [to] take candles and take down that wall. It worked. That is the most amazing thing."
Ms. Röschel tries to tell her students what life was like when the wall was up. But to them, she says, it's as if she's describing a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
One of her pupils is Marcel Stearfinger, a senior born two years after the fall of the wall. Like others at the school, he participated in an oral history project, called "Wall in the Mind." Marcel always knew of the wall, he says. His father carted away a single brick from its fall, and that brick is in the family's living room.
But the wall divided his family. His aunt lived in the East. The family, though, often reunited for vacations in other Soviet-bloc countries. Marcel says he interviewed his father and learned that the Stasi, East Germany's secret police, had spied on them during their vacations.
"He had the actual documents, and [they listed] what they were doing, whom they were talking to, where they drove," Marcel says. "It was frightening to see those documents."
Like his teacher, Marcel says his fondest hope is that within the next 20 years "the differences between east and west will vanish.
After generations of division and two world wars, Europe was melded together, united around a single currency. And the European Union rose to prominence, an imperfect government attempting to bring a sense of order to many different countries and peoples.
Globalization, for all its promise and perils, would be unthinkable in a world divided between capitalism and communism.
But the fall of the wall also led to less savory moments. Yugoslavia's collapse was perhaps inevitable. In some ways, though, European countries hastened the country's demise by recognizing breakaway states. And Europe stood by as ethnic cleansing roared through the Balkans.
"We didn't realize how the world was changing because part of that change was held back by the cold war," Mr. Scowcroft says.
It was like a dam breaking, powerful ideas and technologies sweeping the globe.
"One of the important aspects of globalization was information technology," Scowcroft says. "What the radio and television was doing was politicizing the world's people. [For much of history] the population of the planet did not know what was going on past their own neighborhood, didn't much care; life went on. All of a sudden they saw what was going on in the world and they were energized."
Some took that energy and immigrated to the West in search of better lives, Scowcroft says. Others, though, were outraged by what they saw in the West, triggering a rise in religious fundamentalism.
It took Al Qaeda's strike on the US on Sept. 11, 2001, for the world to turn its attention to the currents that roiled the Middle East. Now, the US finds itself in two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, battling terrorism – shadowy, stateless foes.
In the next 20 years, Scowcroft envisions a world in which "we're going to see the continued erosion of national borders and the increase in the number of problems that can't be dealt with by national governments [alone], like healthcare and climate change."
"I think the world is going to be less of the nation-state system of the 20th century and more amalgamated in the sense that countries will have to work together to deal with their problems," he says.
LOOKING BACK 20 YEARS, you can see how lives were changed, how history was made.
You can trace the history of modern Germany through the life of Jens Reich, a doctor and biochemist who was a civil rights campaigner during the last years of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
He recalls being a child in the final days of World War II, fleeing the Russians and Allied bombers, hiding out in the woods around the city of Halberstadt.
He remembers studying in West Berlin, the excitement, the freedom, and then – on the morning the wall went up – being stuck in the East.
"They sealed off the country and put us into a cage for many years," he says. "Young as we were, we were in a state close to psychic depression."
Eventually, he and his family would move to Russia, later returning to East Germany where they adapted to life behind the wall.
"If you had visited us in 1985 as a friend or an acquaintance, after tea we would certainly have gone to look at the wall, this atrocity," he says. "We regret that it could not [have been] abolished 10 or 20 years earlier when we were still young."
He was 50 when the wall came down. He ventured into West Berlin three days after the opening, walked through streets filled with trash, the leftovers from a joyous national family reunion. "Up to your knees, you were running in papers and bottles," he says. "Of course it was nice, everybody was laughing and smiling."
But 20 years later, it's a memory, sweet and pure. He doesn't reflect upon it often. There is life to live.
His wife, a doctor, is about to retire. He has one daughter in Germany, another in Nigeria, and a son in America. He has seven grandchildren, including three he calls "Bostonians."
If they ask him, he'll tell his grandchildren what it was like, behind the wall.
"For them, it is a long bygone period for which they have no real feeling," he says. "They ask, 'How was it?' 'What was your life like?' If they ask these questions, then the answers are always alien to them. They cannot imagine [what] life was like behind the Iron Curtain."
• Bill Glauber was a London-based correspondent of The Baltimore Sun from 1995 to 2002. He covered the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.