This is always an important anniversary for me, though this year especially, it makes me feel old. When I was 20, I spent a week in Berlin. in November of 1989. Change was in the air, but the Iron Curtain was still very much in place. I crossed the border – guards with machine guns! dogs! barbed wire! watchtowers! – several times and got a chance to see what life was like on the Eastern side. It was a bit surreal- one of those things you have to see to believe. My trip ended November 7th, and I went back to Freiburg, where I was spending a year at the university. Bad timing!
I was sitting in my dorm room the night of November 9, working on my Russian translation- Ironically, a bit of Soviet propaganda entitled “Narodnaya Uchitelnitsa,” or, “The People’s Schoolteacher.” I kept hearing shouts from the common room, but dismissed it as probably an exciting soccer game, until someone pounded on my door.
My first reaction was shock at the sight of people engaging in an activity that would have gotten them shot just a few days ago- as in, climbing over the wall. Next, I felt extreme annoyance that I was not there right now. Then, I felt even more annoyance when I realized that several of my American friends were there right now, on the exact same tour I’d taken the previous week. At least they were kind enough to bring me a piece of the wall when they came back.
The next few weeks were fantastic. We were already used to seeing a lot of East German refugees- they’d been coming by the thousands for the past several months, mostly through Hungary who refused to shoot at people crossing the border. But now they were no longer refugees. They were fellow Germans just coming to visit. There was a brief shortage of bananas (exotic fruit!) and tremendous optimism about impending reunification, which everyone seemed to take for granted.
The giddy atmosphere continued through the first of the year, as the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe continued to fall like dominoes. It was all very exciting until it was time to do some hard thinking about the future. For the West Germans, it meant higher taxes (the amount was pretty open-ended for a while) as they tried to absorb what was in many ways, a third-world country. For the Easterners, it was much harder. Sure, they had their freedom, but their entire way of life was turned upside down. For many, this would mean unemployment for the rest of their lives and a fair amount of social dislocation. Tough times were ahead.
But those first few weeks were amazing. Though I was mad that I wasn’t right there, I did appreciate the front-row seat! On an interesting side note, my father was in Germany, in the US Army as the Berlin Wall was being built, and had a true front-row seat, right on the border, watching it go up!