In the autumn of 1989, I was visiting my birthplace, West Berlin. I went for a leisurely stroll on the Western side of the infamous Berlin Wall. The bustling city dead-ended at the ten foot high fortification and there was a time-out quality to this stretch of concrete, forgotten by all but the graffiti sprayers who’d used the grey surface as a canvas.
I carried my baby in a snuggly and pushed my toddler in her buggy, telling her stories of my friends who lived on the other side. “Do you want to look across?” I asked her when we reached a spectator platform at Potsdamer Platz. “Yes” she cried and clambered out of her seat. We climbed the steps and I lifted her up so she could see. And then I wondered if this was a good idea: right behind the Wall, there was a desolate “death strip” of sand and gravel and an asphalt path for border patrol vehicles. A second wall sealed this no man’s land off from East Berlin. I could see apartment buildings beyond and hear the faint din of city life. The spherical glass top of the East Berlin television tower gleamed silver in the slanted November sunlight. My daughter saw something else. “Häschen!” she shouted and pointed at a rabbit scurrying between sentry towers manned by sharpshooters.
When we were back on the street, I looked along the wall snaking into the distance, so solid and insurmountable. I recalled the warm summer morning of August 13th, 1961, when Berliners woke up to East German soldiers guarding the barbed wire fence they’d put up during the night. A young girl at the time, I had felt the adults’ fear acutely: A barricade in the city? Impossible! But soon the fence became a Wall. For East Germans, the Wall was a deadly barrier, a giant “No Exit” sign; for all Germans, it was a painful reminder of World War Two and the decision made by the victorious Allies to divide defeated Germany. For the rest of the world, The Wall was the unquestioned dividing line of the Cold War. East and West were not longer geographic orientations, but opposing worldviews, competing governments and economic systems, hostile armies. An unfortunate fact of Realpolitik.
The Wall held everyone captive in a mindset of division; even though people abhorred this most fortified of all national borders, they could not imagine its collapse. On my autumn walk with my daughters, I had no idea I was looking at The Wall for the last time. Yes, Gorbachev’s Perestroika had changed politics in the Eastern Bloc and on November 3rd, one million East Berliners had gathered in front of their city hall to demand democratic reforms and the freedom to travel. So, everyone in Berlin could feel the energy of change. But the Wall opening?
No one saw that coming.