Posted by: Jeff | November 9, 2009

Twenty Years Later: Remembering The Fall of The Wall

On Nov. 9th, 1989, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) caved to growing social pressure and announced that all East German citizens were free to visit West Berlin and West Germany.  Just a week prior, more than a million East Germans crowded into Alexanderplatz to protest the GDR’s strict border control policies and clamor for more individual rights.  One needn’t be deep in a coma to feel like they missed something.

Remnants of the Berlin Wall

November marked the high water point of the “peaceful revolution”, a movement gathering steam all across Eastern Europe.  As the gradual opening of society began to melt the authoritarian control of communism and create space for the public to give voice to demands for reform, the leadership of the GDR felt compelled to relax restrictions on movement between East and West.  An offiical of the GDR misinterpreted tentative plans to open the border to some individuals at a later date, and it was soon widely reported that the border had been made completely open, effective immediately.  Thousands of Germans flocked to the Wall, and after a few tense moments of confusion, the Wall started to come down.

The fall of the Berlin Wall had an enormous impact on the course of history.  It contributed to the fallibility of communism and the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union.  It reunited East and West Berlin for the first time since the Berlin Declaration of 1945 first separated the city into zones of control after World War II.  It ushered in what some scholars describe as a “unipolar world moment”, wherein the United States survived the Soviet Union to become the world’s sole superpower.  More than anything else, it symbolized the end of an era synonymous with the Cold War.

For me, there’s also some personal importance to the Mauerfall.  November 9th just happens to be my birthday, and on the day the wall fell, I can remember celebrating.  Or I should say, I can remember everyone being distracted from celebrating with me (I also remember being highly annoyed by this).

The fall of the wall and the captivating television coverage that followed it is one of the first memories I have where I can connect my personal life with the world around me.  Though I didn’t understand the implications at the time, I realized that it was an event of some significance and one worth watching.  To a young kid, the event had to be pretty important to distract my parents from cutting my birthday cake, no?

Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

The event has had some lasting impact on my life.  To this day, I’m fascinated with the events surrounding the demise of the GDR, and equally amazed by the economic recovery that followed integration.  Today Germany stands as a power within the European Union, an organization that spans both sides of the Iron Curtain and that makes internal borders of any sort seem like a relic of the past.  The political evolution of Germany over the past twenty years has truly been remarkable.  And some see a brighter future ahead.

The memory of the Wall, and more importantly its connection with my birthday, led me to choose German as my foreign language.  Though there has not been much practical use to that choice (French would have been oh so much more functional), it has made observing this commemoration in German papers – which still focus largely on issues remaining in reintegration – very interesting.

The link between birthday and Berlin was further cemented in my junior year of college.  I was a German minor by this time, and had enrolled in a German Film course held once a week for three hours in the evening.  Naturally it fell on my (21st) birthday.  At the insistence of my friends, I politely emailed my professor and asked whether it might possibly be feasible to perhaps leave just a little bit early if she was amenable.  Like I said, very politely.  She wrote back that it was more than ok, and to make sure to ask for next week’s assignment before leaving. At the designated time during our viewing of Goodbye Lenin, I gathered my things to go.  My professor kicked into gear, exclaiming that I couldn’t leave just yet and that she had to go get something.  Naturally everyone looks to me like I know what’s going on (I didn’t).  The professor soon returns with forks, plates, and yes, a cake.  I swear it was homemade too!  I hope you can appreciate that this story has now come full circle – in my mind the event that, at such a young age had deprived me of my birthday cake, suddenly and unexpectedly provided a new cake for me!  Yes, the connection between myself and the fall of the Berlin Wall is obviously a close one.

In a completely unrelated note – in speaking with friends about the connection between my birthday and the Berlin Wall, I stumbled across an amazing(ly) random fact: my good friend Kate, of Egomania Strike fame, was born on the day the wall was built.  I’m not sure if this fact has the predictive power of my horoscope, but I do think you should take the time to check out the good folks at Egomania.


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