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Twenty years ago today… November 9, 2009

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in German culture, Random musings.

rip“The Berlin Wall (German: Berliner Mauer) was a concrete barrier erected by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (East Germany) that completely encircled the city of West Berlin, separating it from East Germany, including East Berlin. The Wall included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, which circumscribed a wide area (later known as the “death strip”) that contained anti-vehicle trenches, “fakir beds” and other defenses.” – Wikipedia

The East German government built the Wall on August 13, 1961 to stop East German citizens from fleeing to West Germany. Once the Wall was up the vast majority of East Germans could no longer travel or emigrate to West Germany. Families were separated and East Germans who had worked in West Berlin could no longer go to their jobs. Around 5,000 people attempted to escape over the Wall after it was built, with death toll estimates between around 100 and 200. I had always been fascinated with German culture, and after I watched the movie “Gotcha” starring Anthony Edwards I decided I wanted to be a spy in East Berlin and studied German and Russian in college.in_wall

I was living in Salzburg during my academic year abroad. The previous year I had taken a German culture class, and my professor had stated we would never see the fall of the Berlin Wall in our lifetime. That professor was our Academic Year Abroad (AYA) adviser that year, and our group had just returned from a trip to Vienna, Austria. We were all amazed when the first dominoes started falling, when Hungary proclaimed itself a democratic republic and opened its border on October 23rd. The inflow of Hungarians into Austria was immediately apparent. East Germans were also fleeing to Austria through Hungary. Hungary tried to close the border again, but the damage was done. East Germans clogged the West German embassy in Budapest and refused to return to East Germany. This then triggered a similar incident in Czechoslovakia and mass protests within East Germany.


I remember November 9th being a very exciting day. The East German government announced that East Germans would be allowed to cross through the border checkpoints, and the people started flowing through. It was chaos. The border guards didn’t know what to do or how to react. East Germans walked through the West Berlin streets, unsure what to do with themselves. Lots of people climbed onto the Wall once they realized the border guards weren’t going to retaliate. Strangers were hugging and kissing each other. I remember sitting around the TV in my Austrian dorm watching the happenings in Berlin, crying. My parents told me later they were looking for me at the Wall, but I had an art history exam that Monday so I stayed home to study (what an egghead, right? That is one of my biggest regrets in my life…).

101_0073I got my chance to hammer away at the Wall in February when I traveled through Berlin during our month off. We still needed transit visas to enter East Germany and to cross the border into East Berlin, but we were free to visit the museums (the Pergamon Museum was and is amazing!), shop in the East Berlin stores, and chop away at the Wall. It was bizarre. The photos you see above were taken there of me – in the Wall and in front of a hole in the Wall with a guard house behind it – and I didn’t realize a guard stopped and posed behind me.

When I visited Haus der Geschichte while living in Bonn as you got closer to the late 1980s in the exhibit they had a recording of the “chink-chink” sound of chisels and hammers chopping at the concrete that you could hear along the Wall back then. It brought tears to my eyes and transported me back to February 1990. My pieces of the Wall are among my most prized possessions.

My dream of being a spy was crushed that day, but I stuck with the languages, graduating with a double major in German and Russian and a minor in Political Science. I went on to get a Master’s in translation and the rest is history. All’s well that ends well.

Congratulations Germany on a peaceful transition of power 20 years ago and a successful reunification.



1. Sarah Dillon - November 9, 2009

It’s funny how we remember where we were when the wall fell… it’s definitely one of those defining periods in history. Watching it on the 6pm news in my family’s sitting room in the west of Ireland is one of the only memories I have of both my parents being engrossed in exactly the same thing at the same time. Outside of that impressive fact, I wasn’t aware enough to understand what it meant in a wider sense!
I had my final academic study-abroad period in Jena (former GDR) in 1999, when they were celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the fall of the Wall. I felt privileged to be privy to the massive social and political review of the previous 10 years which was taking place in every home, classroom, pub and news outlet that I had access to. From that side of the Germany, at least, there was much discussion about the wall that still existed in the mind of many Germans… I wonder what the consensus is today?
I can’t believe it’s been 20 years! Where will I be in another 10 years?
Thanks for prompting such a lovely walk down memory lane.

2. Sarah Dillon - November 9, 2009

And interesting addendum to my comment above: I’m in Melbourne for a few days at the moment, sharing a hostel dorm with 4 Germans from different parts of Germany… guess what we’ll be discussing over beers tonight!

3. Victor Dewsbery - November 9, 2009

I was right here in Berlin, but I missed it on 9th November and only heard about it on the next day from a colleague at work. That evening (10th Nov.) I climbed on the wall at Brandenburg Gate with our 3 kids (at the time 12, 9 and 8) and a friend and enjoyed the mass festivity (and pitied the poor border guards who happend to be on duty that night). I was amused to watch the East German news on TV next day and learn that all those of us on the Wall were “hooligans” (I’d never been called a hooligan before, and I never have been since).
We live close to the former border around the west of West Berlin (not far from the “Heerstrasse” crossing point), and the teacher of our 9 year old decided to take her class for a walk to “see history happening” (i.e. the stream of GDR people coming across for the first time in their lives).
At secondary school all of our kids were in classes that included a couple of kids who had started school in the GDR. In fact, the mix of East and West has become fairly commonplace here, and often we don’t even know which side of the Wall people grew up. And there are plenty of “mixed” marriages, too (including my youngest son).

4. jillsommer - November 9, 2009

Victor, the thought of you being called a hooligan is cracking me up 🙂 Thanks for sharing your interesting perspective.

5. Thierry - November 9, 2009

nice to hear all those nice memories, at least the wall inspired you to become a translator.
All I know is from books, I was too young in 1989…

6. Kevin Lossner - November 13, 2009

“Gotcha”? Hated it! I’m not thrilled with art imitating life in such matters. Be glad you never got your wish.

The fall of the Wall was quite a liberating event, something wonderful I never hoped to experience in my lifetime. And now I am pleased to live peacefully in a suburb near Berlin where I would have had to keep looking over my shoulder before. I can even hop in the car and drive over the Polish border in an hour. Simply fantastic.

jillsommer - November 13, 2009

How could anyone hate “Gotcha”? It was so unrealistic and over-the-top, there’s no way art was imitating life. I think you might have it confused with another movie. It was just a fun little movie with some paintball in it 🙂

7. Melissa Field - November 13, 2009

Hey, I loved that movie, too!

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