My Memory of German History’s Proudest Day

I will always remember the morning after the Berlin Wall came down because it was the day I almost got run over by a Trabant. That ugly little car made of cardboard in East Germany had got lost in the bourgeois part of West Berlin where my school was, while I was sleepily riding my bicycle through the cold air of an early November morning. Twenty-five years later, I remember the scene exactly: the way the Trabant seemed to have found a life of its own, driving in a mix of excitement and confusion on a road it had clearly never been down before, wildly emitting dirty-smelling fumes.

That morning, my mother had looked at the morning papers and screamed “Die Mauer ist auf!” (“The Wall is open!”) and our Polish nanny had reported in tears that the previous night she had seen East German cars on Ku’damm, the main street near our apartment — “on the Ku’damm,” she repeated, as if to reassure herself it had indeed happened. In those words lay the same sense of joy, relief and bewilderment that this car in front of me seemed to exude, a sense that I couldn’t quite place even though I felt something momentous was going on.

The fall of the Wall and with it the Iron Curtain was the first historic moment I witnessed. Did I understand what was going on?

I had just turned ten, and my days were probably shaped more by learning Latin and skateboarding than by current affairs on television, even though I would watch the news every evening with my parents. But like every child growing up in West Berlin in the 1980s I had an acute sense of history. You couldn’t escape it — the Wall would always remind you that the past was an integral part of your present.

Our Sunday walks were confined to parks, because the countryside around Berlin was GDR territory; you couldn’t get off at some subway stations because they were in the East. Sometimes we would go to a French-German funfair held in the part of the city that was still formally occupied by the French according to the division of the city among the Allied forces at the end of the Second World War, and occasionally you would witness an Allied military parade, the tanks rattling through the streets. This was, of course, all part of the West Berlin experience — the encounters with the Eastern side were somewhat more grim.

I remember eight-hour drives in our bright red Saab on a grey GDR autobahn on a designated transit lane to get to West Germany to visit our family. Crossing the border was an ordeal — or a clumsily executed form of humiliation (which I would usually get over by starting a fight with my little sister). To my child’s eyes, this was a grey, colourless country with grey, colourless people who made you feel uncomfortable because you were the opposite. Of course, therein lay a peculiar appeal, too. The older I got the more I found these encounters with officials at the border thrilling; their greyness seemed to serve some sinister purpose, even though they didn’t know it.

My parents, both left-leaning intellectuals, had friends in the GDR and my father smuggled manuscripts from dissident writer friends over the border. I didn’t know this growing up (and it was well before my time), but I got the sense that these were unhappy people that had to be helped.

I remember one family friend, Bernd, a reclusive man who lived in East Berlin surrounded by five or six ancient turtles, who kept saying that he just wanted to sit on our sofa and drink tea, nothing more, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why he couldn’t just do it.

In that sense, I had a notion of what the GDR and its power dynamics felt like, even though I had no intellectual grasp of the situation. Would I have understood the momentous question at the press conference that brought down the GDR regime? “What will happen to the Berlin Wall?” Of course not.

A few weeks later, when things had calmed down a bit, my friends and I were taken to the Wall itself, somewhere near the Brandenburg Gate, where hundreds of people were happily picking away at it, collecting souvenirs or simply putting their mark on history. The sound is one I will always remember, like the strangely leisurely work at a building site. We did the same and I still have this piece of the Wall today, a rather boring-looking, little grey piece of no particular value.

The wall itself just disappeared at some point. For years there was the glib notion of “the wall in our heads” supposedly still dividing East and West but this had undoubtedly been overcome when Angela Merkel, a born-and-bred Ossi and politically active in the old GDR, became the most powerful figure in the country.

However, people often ask Berliners whether the wall still exists today — culturally. Berlin Mitte, the fashionable district in the middle of the city and formerly in the East, has turned into its own little borough, neither East nor West but international (you hear almost as much English as German). It’s on its way to becoming culturally indistinguishable from certain corners of London or New York.

Former Ossis of my generation still have some moments of resentment or feel a peculiar sense of loss because the country they grew up in simply disappeared. Wessis, by contrast, are still prone to moments of belittling and patronising them. (I still think the image of an East German woman — all stonewashed jeans and bad perm — happily holding up a peeled cucumber, with the headline “my first banana” is one of the best jokes ever made in Germany.)

The other day, I visited Berlin Legoland with my little cousin, who is now almost the age I was when the Wall came down. They have a replica of the fall of the Wall: a crowd of people stands in front of a grey wall and screams, then all of a sudden, the wall collapses and David Hasselhoff’s “Looking for freedom” blasts from the speakers, as terrible now as it was then.

“What was that?” my cousin asked before running off to something more exciting, and I couldn’t help but feel some elitist joy to have been born on the right side of the Wall and a slight melancholy for my cousin, who will never have that sense of history instilled in him.

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