Edward W Batchelder

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When the Wall Came Tumbling Down: Berlin 1989

photo of people standing on Berlin Wall

I arrived in West Berlin on October 7, the weekend that East German communism celebrated its fortieth birthday in a dissent-free party staged by and for the country’s leader, Erich Honecker. By the time I left five weeks later, Honecker had been pressured into stepping down; his successor, Egon Krenz, had been forced to dissolve his government; and the Wall—for twenty-eight years the most overt symbol of the State’s distrust of its own citizens—had been opened. It was a time of an enormous, swelling exhilaration, tempered by everyone’s awareness of how fragile the democracy movement was, and of how easily it might be crushed at any moment. What appeared to be a headlong rush toward freedom was more of a balancing act, a relentless pushing forward within the carefully prescribed guidelines of non-violence.

That this happened for the most part by common consensus, and with a minimum of organization from above, is perhaps the most astonishing thing about it. For years the East Germans had been held in check by the power of the State Security, and their silence had been misinterpreted by the regime as a form of tacit approval. Instead, as the East German writer Christa Wolf understood, “protest begins with this silence in which more than one takes part.” It begins there, and carries on in a somewhat louder fashion.


It’s hard for an American to apprehend how strong the fear and hatred is that the East Germans harbor for the Staasi (to use the common term for the State Security). One can, however, learn to mimic it, much the same way one learns elaborate rules of etiquette in any foreign country. It took me only a few days in mid-October to develop the operational attitude of paranoia that is an instinct for most residents. I had already become accustomed, over several trips, to the strangeness of crossing the border—the long lines for the visa, the blank but prying stares of the border guards, the doors which open only from the Western side (as if all of East Berlin were locked in a bank vault)—but this was my first visit in which I was searched. Returning from East to West Berlin one night after visiting a friend, I was diverted into a small room, frisked, and delayed for twenty minutes while a border guard carefully examined every page of my notebook, my pocket calendar, my passport, and the entire contents of my wallet.

Was there a reason for this, I asked a friend. There was no reason, or if there was, one could never learn it. The border guards, like the Staasi, operated according to their own secret logic, and in any case operated capriciously. One learned to live according to a mixture of personal experience and hearsay, in a net of suspicions and unverifiable rumors. The precise limits of what was accepted and what was not were written in sand, erased, and rewritten, and most people stayed well away from any grey areas. Don’t take notes, don’t say anything important on the phone, be careful whom you talk to. People got ahead by laying low.


By early November, however, I could sit in the coffee shop of the state-run National Theatre of Weimar and interview political activists. “Is it really alright to discuss these things here?” I asked, looking around, “Can I take notes?” “Oh, yes,” they answered. “Of course, just a month ago we wouldn’t have dreamed of doing this, but now things are different.”

The speed at which things were changing could be measured by this refrain. “Just a month ago . . .” Just a month ago no one bothered to read the East German papers; now people spent hours a day reading and comparing them. Just a month ago, no one discussed politics except with their closest friends; now they argued with total strangers in the street. Just a month ago, few risked publicly opposing the government; now three-quarters of a million had marched on November 4 in East Berlin for freedom of the press.
Alexanderplatz, the site of the November 4 demonstration, is a sprawling concrete plaza in the center of the city, the size of several football fields. It’s bordered by an elevated transit line, several major thoroughfares, and examples of the grimly functional architecture that has characterized East Berlin since the war. By the time I arrived, shortly after the demonstration’s scheduled start, the plaza was already half-full, and Karl Liebknecht Street, running along the plaza’s northern perimeter, was a steady stream of marchers. Some ten to fifteen people wide, the procession filed slowly past the square, making a loop around the Palace of the Republic (which houses the legislature), and returned up the wide pedestrian walkway toward the rally in Alexanderplatz.

What was most remarkable about the demonstration, considering its size, was its subdued tone. While it seems odd to describe a crowd of nearly a million as being shy, it’s hard to come up with another word for it. It was as if everyone were a teenager out for a first date, simultaneously bashful and proud about being seen in public. The vigorous chanting of slogans which I had seen on so many newscasts was relatively absent; at one point a small group behind me began a slow, fragile version of the “Ode to Joy,” but it dwindled out after a few minutes. Mostly, though, I kept noticing furtive little glances between people, which seemed to say, “Is this real? Am I actually here, doing this? Are we actually here, in such numbers?”

As the procession reached the Palace of the Republic, though, it became a little bolder. Earlier marchers had climbed up on the wide balconies that ran around the building, and they hoisted up banners and placards for the appreciative laughter of the crowd. Forty years of stifled dissent had bloomed suddenly into a new art form of caustic political sloganeering, most of which involved elaborate and untranslatable word plays on Egon Krenz’s name. The favorite, though, without a doubt, was a painting depicted Egon Krenz as the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood. Tucked into bed with furry ears poking out from beneath a sleeping cap, Krenz wore his unusually hearty and somewhat threatening grin. “Grandmother,” it said underneath, “Why do you have such big teeth?”


I attended a second demonstration three days later, this one a protest against the election fraud of the preceding May, in which the Communist Party had claimed to have received some 98.9% of the vote. Unlike the November 4th demonstration, this one was neither officially sanctioned nor formally organized. Perhaps a thousand people gathered in Alexanderplatz at five in the evening, carrying banners, and started to march once again towards the Palace of the Republic. Three blocks away a small cordon of police blocked the road. The crowd, younger and feistier than the Saturday one, paused for a few minutes to shout “We Are the People” into the impassive faces, and then turned and took another route. The police quickly regrouped and moved to block that avenue as well, but this one being wider, they weren’t quite able to manage it. Isolated individuals managed to break through, and within a few minutes the entire demonstration had flowed around the overwhelmed police.

My friends were astonished. “Just a month ago they had three times as many police out here, now there are hardly any.” The election fraud protests, it turned out, had been taking place on a monthly basis since May, and had evolved a regular circuit among the three main government buildings in East Berlin—the Palace of the Republic, the City Hall, and Communist Party Headquarters. At each location the crowd would gather and shout slogans for ten or fifteen minutes, and then move on. Any show of police or soldiers evoked the chant of “No Violence,” although I was never quite sure if the demonstrators were admonishing the security forces or themselves. The crowd had a restless, unfulfilled quality to it, and as we looped by each of the buildings for a second time, I began to wonder if they would be satisfied merely by shouting slogans. An American demonstration of similar passion, I suspected, would have smashed something.

It wasn’t until later that my friends pointed out something I had missed, that the entire demonstration had at one point come to a complete stop at a red light. “It is extremely important that we show that we are in complete control of ourselves,” they explained. “We cannot give them the slightest grounds to arrest us. We break through the police lines only because it is the police, not us, who have no legal right to be there.” By such fine distinctions did the revolution in Germany move forward.


Two nights after that I stood at midnight with a crowd of a thousand rowdy West Berliners before the gates of Checkpoint Charlie, waiting for the first East Germans to arrive through the newly opened Wall. If the demonstrations in the East had been models of self-control, this was more like a citywide frat party, albeit one to which the kids from the poor side of town had been invited. The crowd drank beer, stole hats off the heads of the terrified young East German border guards, and pressed so tightly against the gates that no East Germans could make their way out, even after their paperwork had been processed. Welcome to democracy, I thought. Now that the government has stopped impeding your actions, all you have to worry about is your fellow citizens.

Eventually a path was cleared, and the East Germans wended their way through in every conceivable state of emotion. Some triumphantly waved their identity cards (now the only document need to travel to the West), others wept and held their heads in their hands. Punks came through with disdainful expressions, families came through dragging children terrified by the raucous crowd, young couples came through proceeded by Western video cameras that recorded their every expression for the media. Towards the back, older West Germans passed out free beer and chocolate, or shook the hands of each new arrival and welcomed him or her to the Western half of the city. Cafes near the border had abandoned their tills, and West and East Berliners clustered around tables together, disturbed only by journalists in hot pursuit of sound bites.

By three or four in the morning I had made my way, along with a West German friend and two East Germans we had met, to the Wall by the Brandenburg Gate. Fire hoses, reportedly used earlier in the night to drive people off the Wall, had now been draped over the top, and were being used to climb up and down on either side. My suspicion, not easily verifiable, was that most of the people who celebrated on the Wall that night were from the West. Certainly the two East Germans were not so eager. “No thanks,” one said. “It’s not particularly fun for us. Twelve hours ago we would have been shot for standing up there. It’s not easy to forget that quickly.”

For my part, I clambered up and took my turn with a broken pick-axe that was being passed around, and finally managed to dislodge a couple of small pieces from the eastern side of the Wall as souvenirs. As I finished, a sober-faced East German loomed up out of the shadows and asked where I was from. “America,” I told him. “Then you shouldn’t being doing this,” he replied quietly, “This is our wall, and it should be our decision to take it down.” He walked away shaking his head.

That night, filled with the exuberance of the moment, I dismissed him as a crank, someone who had lived with his misery so long that he had become proprietary about it. It was only the next day, looking at the small piece of beige concrete, that I recognized it as the empty totem it was. In one of the ironies that were fast becoming commonplace, I recognized that my freedom to stand on top of the Wall that night had very little to do with me, any more than it did with the boisterous crowds who piled on top of each other to chip away at it. We were celebrating the victory of a battle we hadn’t fought in. It had been the East Germans’ victory, the ones who may not have been there that night but who had been there in Leipzig and Berlin, overcoming forty years of silence to express themselves.

More than that, though, I understood that his proprietary attitude had less to do with the Wall than it did with the spirit of the democracy movement over the previous month. A woman I had met in Weimar had asked rhetorically, “What do I have to take pride in? German history? The West German economy? The people who rule my country?” She had shrugged her shoulders and then answered herself, “There’s really nothing, except myself, my own actions.” I remembered another woman who, asked by a reporter at Checkpoint Charlie if she was staying in the West or going back, snapped, “Of course I’m going back, that’s where my home is. What do you people think, that none of us have lives over there? That we’re all willing to abandon our friends and our family just for a higher standard of living?”

Months later, seeing the growing demand in East Germany for re-unification with the West, I recalled yet another conversation. A professor I met at Checkpoint Charlie had actually been running a symposium on “The Development of a New Cultural Identity in East Germany” when he heard that the Wall had opened. His response was to disband the class immediately, collect his wife and son, and cross over for the evening. He had related this to me with a bemused smile, fully aware of the implications.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from The Boston Phoenix)

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