I was 14-years-old watching the incredible events unfold on television. The military guards put down their guns and thousands of people cheering, crying, holding hands; soldiers handing roses down to the people on the west side of the Berlin Wall. The world hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. I cried with them, knowing this was a big moment. A small crack of sunlight crept through the thick disillusionment of my young mind. If an imposing, concrete wall running through the middle of an entire nation could be brought down, then maybe there is hope that the world can change, that people collectively can do the right thing.
The beginning of the Cold War and installation of the Berlin Wall in 1961 marked the birth year of many who identify with Generation X. As young adults, Gen-X entering the workforce and in high school, witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago on November 9, 1989. This is the story.
“No one has any intention of building a wall.”
— Walter Ulbright, German Democratic Republic Head of the State
Walter Ulbright’s statement on June 15, 1961 was in response to the rumors that had been circulating in Germany over increasing geopolitical instability. A month later the construction began of what would eventually become a massive wall that would separate Germany in two. The Eastern government intended to prevent Eastern Berliners from escaping the Soviet sector of Berlin, cleverly deceiving the German people by reporting that its intentions were to prevent the West from invading the East. Approximately 138 persons and children died attempting to escape beyond the Wall.
“Between 1945 and 1961, well over four million East Germans left their homeland for the West, the greatest voluntary mass migration in recorded European history.” – Peter Wydon
The erection of the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall” or Rampart marked the beginning of the Cold War. In just a few years, the arm of Communism incased Eastern Germany in a brooding gray barrier that stretched 111.9 kilometers from the north border to the south border. The citizens of Germany were unwillingly torn from their families, thrown out of their homes and stripped of their freedom for 28 long and painful years. Helpless citizens took out their aggressions by painting visual images that echoed their cries for freedom on the face of their intrusive enemy – the Wall.
In 1998, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Berlin. Several pieces of the Berlin wall were salvaged for public display. I visit the museum at Check-Point Charlie. I could never fully comprehend the significance of the Wall coming down in 1989. Visiting Berlin nine years after the event, I felt the deep impact the Wall had on those who lived on either side of it. There was a deep feeling about the place, a kind of residue. It was present on every street corner, every shop, every alley; I could feel it at the Saturday market in front of Humboldt University and the silence of Babelplatz, the place where Hitler burned the books. Despite it all, industry was booming in the East and one could see thousands of cranes for miles into the horizon.
Layers upon layers of paint covered the Berlin Wall. Author, Terry Tillman photographed the endless murals before its destruction in a book entitled, The Writings on the Wall: Peace at the Berlin Wall. Tillman was a motivational speaker who had traveled to Berlin on several occasions and was profoundly influenced by the emotional turmoil of Berlin’s divided people.
The artist of the mural (below) is unknown. A cracked gaping hole in the wall forms a skull exposing walls behind walls in a labyrinth of dark gray and black. Two tall buildings in the distance appear as hollowed out eyes. In between stands the T.V. Tower, a powerful symbol of Germany. The German flag ripples in the wind at the top of its point against a dismal sky.
The cracks and jagged edges form abstractions and materialize as other parts of the skull – a nasal cavity, a deformed jawbone with the mouth slightly agape as if shrieking in horror. Piles of bloody human skulls and bones lay crumpled at the base. Written protests can be seen in various places along the shattered walls of the mural. “If you think the system is working ask someone who isn’t,” cries one. Others say, “What you think and do comes back to you,” and “Kilroy was just another brick in the wall.”
Today, 25 years later, marks the anniversary of when the Wall came down, not only as a significant moment in history, but an important one in the development of the Generation X psyche. It was one of a small number of victorious moments that proved that things could change to a generation that harbored no hope for the future. Regardless of how some feel about the politics of Ronald Reagan, we were all inspired on June 12, 1987 to hear him speak the words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Stuttgart, Baedeker. Allianz Travel Guide: Berlin The Complete Illustrated City Guide. Trans. Jarrold Andsons Ltd. New York, NY: Macmillan Travel, 1988. page 100-101.
Tillman, Terry. The Writings on the Wall: Peace at the Berlin Wall. Santa Monica, California: 22/7 Publishing Company, 1990.
Wyden, Peter. Wall the Inside Story of Divided Berlin. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1989. Page 46.