Last year I used the 24th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to tell my personal “Wall fall” story. There are many that are more exciting, but few that provide that all important “view from Saskatchewan” perspective.
This year I’d like to share my memories of my first encounter with the Wall in the spring of 1985 and reflect on the reality that this structure imposed on the divided Berlin for the 28 years of its existence.
My first encounter with the Wall came in 1985 when I was in West Germany on a high school exchange. A highlight of this exchange program was a one week trip to the divided city of Berlin with the idea being to introduce our group to the political and social reality that Berliners/Germans faced. Naturally the itinerary included a visit to the Wall itself.
We were taken to what was the most “popular” viewing point of the Wall at what had been the Potsdamer Platz, previously the bustling heart of Weimar-era Berlin. The square had been flattened in the war was subsequently cleared by the GDR to function as the most famous section of the ‘death strip’ in the Wall fortifications. I remember that we were intrigued by what we were to see but that this curiosity made way for uncertainty and nervousness as we climbed the viewing platform. Looking out over what seemed a colourless wasteland, I know that I was unable to conjure the scene of what had been, in much the same way I suppose that many visitors to today’s Berlin find it impossible to imagine what the city was like not all that long ago.
The Potsdamer Platz was an unsettling place. From the watchtowers that were present at regular intervals, we could see East German border guards peering at us through binoculars, From time to time, a pair of border guards would scoot past in a jeep on a narrow ribbon of asphalt that served as a road in a sea of sand (this surface was preferred as it made would-be escapers easy to track). Our group really didn’t know how to respond to what it was we were seeing and we kibitzed with each other in false bravado as we took our obligatory photos of the Wall (Thank goodness I did take some; that was a phase where I felt a camera was superfluous – I would remember everything!). But I don’t recall reflecting on the unreal vision that filled the horizon at the viewing platform and perhaps that would have been too much to ask of a 17 year old.
Later our bus drove us to the frontier between East and West at the Brandenburg Gate and there at the Wall that ran behind the Reichstag, the once and future home of the German parliament, I came upon something that I found deeply moving. It was a group of white, wooden crosses attached to a mesh fence that had been installed to keep individuals from approaching the Wall itself. Each of the crosses had the name and dates of an individual who had been killed trying to escape from the East in Berlin. In instances where the victim could not be identified, the word “Unknown” was used to at least mark the loss of this life. I think it was the “unofficial” nature of this memorial that I found so moving as it seemed to reflect the desire of “regular” people to make visible this brutal aspect of the city’s division, a reality which most Berliners of the time tended, understandably perhaps, to suppress.
When I returned to the city to study German in early 1989, my visit was punctuated with the report of a shooting death at the Wall. I later learned that the victim was Chris Gueffroy, a twenty-year old waiter, killed while trying to escape to the freedom of West Berlin. The border guards involved in this killing were later charged with two acquitted and two convicted with the shooter of the fatal bullet receiving two years.
On November 9th, the emphasis is justifiably on the overcoming of division and violence that too often accompanied it. However, it is also an appropriate day to remember the sorrow and grief that came before this triumph and which, for the loved ones of those who died, lives on today even after the vanquishing of the Wall.