Monday, November 16, 2009

1989-2009: Berlin, when the wall came tumbling down

I was in what is now Slovenia the night the Berlin Wall was opened, but was able to get the visas and train tickets to travel from Budapest (where I was an exchange student) to East Berlin, arriving at Lichtenberg Station 20 years ago this morning. "In accordance with my ass-backward approach to Europe," I wrote in my journal, "I visit West Berlin for the first time via East Berlin."

Lichtenberg Station was swamped with thousands of East Germans pouring into the city from other parts of Brandenburg, Saxony, and Prussia, rushing to see the West for the first time. Crowds filled every platform and had overwhelmed the underpasses. People pushed one another, children screamed, and police shoved people around. I had to lift and carry a stranger's child to rescue it from being trampled. My two traveling companions and I were swept along with the crowd -- there wasn't any choice in the matter -- flowing under the station hall, out onto the street, back into another entrance, and down into the subway system.

Even in those days, you could travel by subway from East to West. The East and West Berlin U-bahn systems connected at Friedrichstrasse Station, which had customs stations where one would normally expect turnstiles. In the upper galleries of the transit hall, guards with automatic weapons paced back and forth, on the lookout for trouble. The crowds that day were enormous; I noted in my journal that the lines outside the women's bathroom were 80 to 90 persons long. We were on 24-hour East German transit visas, so needed to exit to West Berlin immediately, but under the circumstances, none of the guards seemed to know where to send us to get our exit stamps. (Most lines had been allocated for East German and Polish citizens only.) I remember a long Kafka-esque ordeal trying to fight through massive crowds in claustrophobic underground passages, going from bewildered guard to bewildered guard, trying to find a way out of the DDR.

Once on the West Berlin U-bahn, we passed through several dimly lit ghost stations that had been sealed off after the construction of the wall in 1961. I remember some of them looking like something out of Fallout 3, but the videos I see on YouTube from the period show them clean and vacant, as if they might open up again the next day.

The 16th was a Thursday that year, and the calm before the storm. We heard at our West Berlin hotel that the DDR had issued almost 8 million transit visas for the weekend, and that they city was about to be overwhelmed. That morning I walked along the graffiti-covered wall from Checkpoint Charlie to Potsdammer Platz where, every hundred yards or so, somebody was chipping away at the wall with a hammer and chisel, either to get a souvenir or to knock their own hole in the fortification that had hacked their city in half (photographed at top left). A man let me borrow his tools to chip out my own piece. (I still have it, sealed in a Ziploc bag because the wall was said to have incorporated asbestos.) At one point I was able to prop a discarded gate against the wall and climb to the top (photographed on right).

At Potsdammer Platz, the East Germans had removed an entire section of the wall, creating a new checkpoint for their citizens to cross No Man's Land by car or on foot. People crossed back and forth, although at that time, funny enough, there were more East Germans heading home (with car-fulls of goods) than heading into the West. West Berlin policemen and East German border guards were chatting and drinking coffee together, pausing to let passersby take pictures with them. The British Army had set up a field tent and dispensed free tea to one and all. (Later, we'd see East Germans lined up outside certain West Berlin banks to receive their "welcome gift" of DM 150.)

I've not been back to Berlin since, and its bewildering to look at photographs of Potsdammer Platz today. Back then there was nothing there: just a stretch of grass (and perhaps mines) between the inner and outer Berlin walls.

As the day proceeded, the crowds grew larger and larger, and by evening there was a huge crowd in front of the Brandenburg Gate, gathered in the hopes of seeing the East Germans knock the wall down underneath. (They did so six days later.) Hundreds of reporters had gathered from all over the world, and had set up dozens of satellite trucks and camera stand-up stations. Lights bathed the wall and the party continued into the frigid night.

The next day, my friends and I got day passes to cross back into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie, my sneaker filled with an enormous wad of Ostmarks changed (at the street rate) at a West Berlin bank. While the East Germans were buying televisions and Sony Walkmans in West Berlin, I filled my knapsack with DDR-made drafting instruments and blocks of Erich Honecker-adorned postage stamps. "We never traveled outside the central portion of East Berlin, but I was favorably surprised," I wrote that night. "As far as socialist countries go, East Berlin was pretty nice. The buildings and Jetsons-like architecture were tasteless and bland, but they weren't bleak (as in modern parts of Budapest or Warsaw) or falling apart (as in Romania)." So was the 20-year old's first impression.

We returned to West Berlin for a final trip to the Brandenburg Gate and to get our bags. Unable to get hotel reservations in the west, we had to return to Budapest that night. Getting back to Lichtenberg Station proved even harder then getting away from it. At the customs point at Friedrichstrasse, thousands of East Germans were massed to return home with their "welcome gift" goodies. Exiting the overcrowded S-bahn at Licthenberg, the crowd was so enormous, many were in danger of being pushed off the platform and into the tracks. This was made worse by the East Berlin police, who blocked the exits for a time to reduce crowding within the station itself, where the platforms were also overflowing. I watched hundreds shove their way onto an already completely packed train to Karl Marx Stadt, causing some on board to cry out in pain as they were pressed against the walls of the corridor; babies were handed aboard through the windows. The scene seemed so desperate, we actually wondered if the Soviets were invading. Eventually the police arrived to force the crowd away from the train so it could close its doors and leave the platform. The scene was repeated a few minutes later for a train bound for Dresden.

Thankfully, fewer people boarded our international train and we were able to "escape" to Czechoslovakia before our return transit visas expired. As our train made its tortuously slow journey across the CSSR, protesters were beginning to gather in Prague, where the Velvet Revolution was about to begin.

For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain and visits to Ceausescu's Romania and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.

Photographs (c) 1989-2009 Colin Woodard.

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