The night the Berlin Wall came down, Nov 9, 1989, I was living in New York. I got a phone call around 6pm that night, less than an hour in real time after East German Border guards had received the orders to let DDR citizens travel freely into the West, shortly after 11pm Central European Time. My friend Marlies, a born Berliner now living in New York, was on the other end:
Marlies: Danny! The wall has come down!
Me: Yes I know, the Czechs have made the Wall obsolete.
Marlies: No, Danny. The Wall really has come down! Turn on the news radio. They’re broadcasting live from Berlin!
Let me explain my misunderstanding. Only four of five days earlier the Czech government had declared it would no longer prevent East Germans from passing into West Germany through its borders. With that decision the Iron Curtain had effectively been rendered obsolete. After a summer and autumn of ever growing peaceful but insistent demonstrations at home, and ever more thousands of East Germans flooding into the West German Embassy grounds of Hungary and other East Bloc nations, eventually making their one-way voyage into the West, the Czech government’s refusal to keep East Germans from easily reaching the West via Czechoslovakia effectively neutralized the Wall’s ability to keep the citizens of the DDR from leaving.
That decision was already pretty momentous, and that was what I first thought Marlies was referring to when she called. Because even with the Czech government effectively making the Wall ineffective as a containing barrier, it didn’t occur to me that the DDR government, in its desperation to stem the ever growing flood of its citizens leaving the country, would completely open up the border. But they did, and word spread quickly and within hours thousands and thousands of East Berliners were pouring into West Berlin and the night of dancing on the Wall commenced.
(It could have gone another, horrible way. Weeks earlier, Erich Honecker, then leader of the DDR, had ordered elite troops to move against the growing demonstrations. It would have been a blood bath, but cooler heads prevailed, and Honecker was replaced by his second in command Egon Krenz, who then later gave the order to open the borders.)
Back to my phone call with Marlies. She had just heard about the Wall coming down from a friend in Berlin. I turned on the radio and heard live reports of the celebrations, the dancing on the Wall.
I was amazed. Like I said, even though the Wall had already become ineffective four days earlier, I still hadn’t anticipated this. For someone who was born in West Berlin, who grew up with the Wall as a constant feature in his life, it was as if the structure of the planet had fundamentally changed. Like some sort of a reverse Christopher Columbus. You might as well have told me the Earth was flat. That’s how significantly the Fall of the Wall changed my perspective on the World.
I was born in 1967, five years after the Wall was erected. My earliest memory of the Wall is when I was four, and my family started the 8 hour car trip to vacation in Austria. West-Berliners had to wait in long car lines to get through the border into the DDR, then drive through it on designated highways until passing through the next border between East and West Germany. At the time I thought every city must have a strictly controlled border surrounding it, with walls, and death strips and something called No Man’s Land (I wondered who this “Noman” was who lived in this thin strip of land between border control posts).
But then while driving on to Austria, I would notice that Munich didn’t have a heavily policed border around it. Eventually I would grasp that Berlin was special. And that its situation was almost entirely unique in the World.
In the parlance and mentality of the time, I didn’t grow up in Berlin. I grew up in West Berlin. Both halves were effectively two different cities. I wouldn’t even visit East Berlin until I was 16, entering on a class trip organized by my political science teacher. Later I would visit more often, because a close friend, Christina, was the daughter of a high level diplomat in the American Embassy in East Berlin. Her family lived in the East, but she traveled through Checkpoint Charlie every school day to attend the John F. Kennedy School, a 90 minute drive away. (Her parents and she would joke about their certainty that the Stasi was bugging their home, and how they would sometimes blithely converse with the walls.)
When Christina threw a party she would have to arrange for all of her school friends from the West to get special visas, and a special van would take us through Checkpoint Charlie. Through her parties I met some East Berlin kids, even spending the night once in their home. I also once smuggled some American books into the East as gifts for one of them when he celebrated a joint birthday party with Christina.
Growing up in West Berlin in the 1970s and 1980s was almost ideal. You had all the advantages of being in a big cosmopolitan city with very few of the big city drawbacks. The Wall kept crime low, since leaving the city unnoticed was pretty difficult, and subsidies from the West kept the economy of this isolated Western island within the Communist bloc thriving. Luckily West Berlin had many lakes and parks and even large forests within the city limits, so that the Wall didn’t force us to live in a solely urban environment. Unless you lived right by the Wall, spray-painted and funky on the Western side as it tore through the city, death strips and guards with shoot to kill orders on the Eastern side, you could almost ignore its existence.
Nonetheless, I lived in the American sector, went to a bicultural, bilingual school with other American kids, many of whom had parents who were part of the U.S. military force stationed in Berlin. Regularly I would hear and see a long line of American tanks loudly drive down Clayallee, just 100 meters from my home. I was born into the city most clearly and obviously effected by the Cold War. East/West division was a fact of life for me.
It was therefore mind boggling to see that division come down so dramatically, so effectively, so jubilantly Nov 9, 1989. The Wall has fallen! Only months earlier such an event did not seem possible in my life time. Even during the weeks prior, while events were quickly evolving and the Cold War structures were quickly unraveling, this particular event still was unfathomable to me.
I actually was performing in an Off Broadway show at the time. And that night was our official opening night. Suddenly that seemed completely unimportant to me by comparison. I still made my 7pm call time, but until I did, I had less than an hour to get off the phone with Marlies and call all my Berlin-connected friends in America, people who had also attended the John F. Kennedy School before returning or moving to the States. Most of them would first hear the news from me that night.
The last call I made was to a friend living in Japan. It was by then after midnight in New York, after our opening night, and late afternoon in Tokyo when I made the call. My friend Katharina was at work, but I left word with her roommate, who then called her at the office. She first didn’t believe what she was told, thinking I had gone crazy or her roommate had misunderstood, but just then the Japanese TV news aired the images from Berlin into her office.
“Kindchen, that can’t be right”, she groggily told her daughter calling her long distance from Japan. She had been awakened by the phone in her bedroom. “If the Wall had come down I would know that.”
She then walked downstairs to the kitchen to make some coffee, turned on the radio and got the confirming news.
Thus the news of the Wall coming down traveled all around the world via the phone, from Berlin to New York to Japan and then back to Berlin, before reaching Katharina’s mother, who only then heard it from the local news.
Back then, before the Internet created the “Global Village”, and long distance phone calls were still a big deal, that story made a pretty cool impression.
A month later I was in Berlin visiting my folks and taking in the momentous changes shaking up the city, only the beginning of many years of continuous political, social and infrastructure changes. I remember how bizarre it was seeing an East German Trabant driving down our suburban Zehlendorf street. I remember how odd it felt while hanging out in Zehlendorf Mitte, the shopping district near our home, to be asked by a passerby how they could get to Potsdam – the satellite city on the Eastern side of the wall – and realizing it was just an easy straight drive down that road over there, the road actually called Potsdamer Chaussee, that road that won’t stop you at the Glienicke Bridge and the Wall any more, but now lets you keep on going on to Potsdam. These were directions that would have impossible and inconceivable to give just a few weeks earlier.
And I remember going with my father to the Brandenburg Gate. And being able to visit it from the Eastern Side, and actually stand under it, the physical Wall just a few meters away. This spot, underneath the Brandenburg Gate, for all of my life had been inaccessible to anyone, unless you were East German border guards, one of their German shepherds, or an errant dove. And here we were, blithely standing below the Gate, listening to the Mauerspechte, the “Wall-peckers” on the other side of the Wall, pecking away at the cement and asbestos with their little chisels, breaking off pieces of the Wall as keepsakes.
Little holes made by the Mauerspechte were already turning this section of the Wall into a kind of hard gray Swiss cheese. What had once stood so implacably, ruthlessly and dangerously appeared almost comical, and certainly quite harmless, while the peck peck peck of the chisels underscored its transition from instrument of oppression and division to popular tourist souvenirs.