I was fortunate enough to be present at one of modern history’s most remarkable events – the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although at the time, I was too young and inexperienced to realize just how significant this moment would be, I was smart enough to take some colorful and powerful pictures.
I was a 19 year old Army Specialist from San Jose, California stationed in Boeblingen Germany during the height of the Cold War. I was a tank driver in the First Infantry Division, deployed to protect West Germany from the apparent threat of oncoming Soviet Tanks through the Fulda Gap. Our unit often ran maneuvers along the East German-West German border within plain view of our Soviet enemies.
Due to the 1971 Four Powers Agreement on Berlin, Allied military personnel were allowed to visit East and West Berlin, but had to pass a background check and observe strict rules of conduct because of the need to cross Soviet controlled territory. Months before the historical event, my Army roommate suggested we apply for a 4 day pass to visit West Berlin. Through some act of good fortune, we had chosen to begin our 4 day pass on November 9, 1989 – the day the Berlin Wall fell.
We began the 4 hour drive from Boblingen on the night of November 9, 1989. We crossed over the Helmstedt-Berlin autobahn in full military uniform (Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo respectively) without incident. Unbeknownst to us, that same evening Gunter Schabowski (The Party Secretary for Propoganda) made the historic announcement on East German television that East Germans could finally cross the border into the West after more than 28 years of separation.
As we pulled through the final Soviet checkpoint and into West Berlin in the early morning hours, we were taken aback at the mass of people both lining the streets and cheering from the crowded overpass. In my naivety, I commented “Wow! This is a really wild city!” thinking that West Berliners were just merely excited to have visitors. Little did we know that these tens of thousands of people were waiting in anticipation for the opening of the Berlin Wall and that in just a few hours, East German border guards would succumb to the pressure and finally allow access to the West.
While tens of thousands of people crossed from East to West, we spent November 9, 1989 – as scheduled – touring Checkpoint Charlie and East Berlin. The differences between divided Berlin were obvious and staggering. West Berlin was as progressive and vibrant as any other modern city, with shopping districts with art galleries, designer boutiques and discotheques. The West side of the Berlin Wall was full of graffiti styled art, often promoting democratic ideals or poking fun at the Soviet regime. The people seemed obviously happy, safe and content.
East Berlin, however, despite its efforts to be a symbol of Communist success, was dark and drab with large ominous statues, such as the Brandenburg Gate, and government buildings. Everything looked formal and the people seemed depressed and serious compared to the colorful West. Their side of the Berlin Wall was pristine and protected on the top of with a smooth pipe, intended to make it more difficult to scale, reinforced by mesh fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire, dogs on long lines, and guarded by numerous watch towers and bunkers. The contrast between the two sides of the Wall was staggering.
Although we were swimming upstream from the excitement, our visit to East Berlin was also historically significant. We saw the rush of people fleeing East Berlin, the East German guards taunting the crowds with water cannons and were able to shop without abandon due to the absurdly generous exchange rate between East and West German marks. Looking back, I realize now that it was probably dangerous to go into East Berlin. There were many East German soldiers who were not happy about the fall of the Berlin Wall coming down or the presence of apparently wealthy American soldiers on their soil at this monumental moment. In fact, the following day a temporary restriction was placed on Westerner’s actions in East Berlin, in part, to prevent Westerners from raiding East German stores with strong Western currency.
On our return to West Berlin, we joined the celebration for the rest of our trip. We witnessed the American news crews arriving and setting up and the celebration of families and friends re-connecting after years of separation. We helped East Berliners obtain Western currency when the banks refused to accept East German marks for fear of economic collapse. We witnessed the mayors of East and West Berlin pick axing through a portion of the Berlin Wall and extending their hands through to shake in a gesture of reunification. And of course, we saw thousands of “wall woodpeckers” taking their piece of the Berlin Wall.
What will live on in my memory will be the democratic freedom that we experienced in that historical moment and the completely free spirit I had as a young American soldier traveling for the first time. If I didn’t realize it then, I realize it now, we are blessed to be Americans in the greatest democracy in the world.
I served in Berlin, Germany as a military intelligence officer from December 1988-May 1992. When I first arrived, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I was embarking on a new adventure and assignment, awed by the significance of the U.S. Forces Berlin military occupation mission dating back to 1945. This was after all, West Berlin, an historical, international city surrounded by the infamous concrete wall. Since 1961, the Wall signified the separation of the city into two parts--one free and increasingly prosperous in the West, the other enslaved and deprived under the tyranny and brutality of Communism in the East.
The reality of the "divided and surrounded city" hit me almost immediately. My U.S. carrier flight had to transverse Communist territory using one of three designated air corridors to reach Tegel International Airport in West Berlin. I had the opportunity to tour the Berlin Air Safety Center where flights were monitored by representatives of the Four Powers--the U.S., UK, France and USSR. By land only one ground corridor tightly controlled by the Soviets was available to Allied personnel, and another by rail allowed for egress from West Berlin to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) on one of the Allied Forces duty trains. We were permitted to drive into East Berlin through Allied Checkpoint Charlie to exercise our right of access.
For those of us in uniform assigned to West Berlin during the Cold War era, we had to reconcile ourselves with the fact that just beyond the Wall lay our enemy under heavy arms. Within the city, hostile intelligence agents and their recruits mingled among us, attempting to steal our secrets surreptitiously, or with the help of traitorous Westerners. My first duty station was at General Lucius D. Clay Compound, named in honor of the American Military Governor after World War II. Clay Compound was home to the Headquarters of the U.S. Command Berlin, the U.S. Diplomatic Mission, the 766th Military Intelligence Detachment (my unit), and other intelligence organizations. It was my unit's responsibility to detect such activity referred to as Subversion and Espionage Directed Against the U.S. Army (SAEDA). I later commanded a company of military intelligence soldiers at the former U.S. Army Field Station Berlin (FSB) in Teufelsberg after "The Fall of the Wall". Teufelsberg, the highest point in Berlin (120 meters), is a man-made land mass created by the debris and rubble cleared from the city during reconstruction after World War II. We referred to Teufelsberg as "The Hill". I was assigned to the Field Station when it ceased operations forever. Both organizations were still dealing with the aftermath of the espionage committed by U.S. Army Warrant Officer Hall while he was assigned to FSB. Berlin's dark history of espionage and counterespionage are the subject of many books, and movies. It was the primary occupation of all sides during the Cold War in Berlin, referred to as "the city of spies".
While in Berlin I was married to an Army military intelligence officer serving as a former Commander of the Joint Allied Refugee Center (JAROC). He was contacted in the event of an escape from the East or emergence of a defector. At the time we lived in a safe house which temporarily sheltered East Germans and others who were successful in their escape to the West. After debriefing, many were later flown out of the city for resettlement in West Germany. The Western Allies also investigated unsuccessful escapes such as the murder of Chris Geoffrey, killed on February 9, 1989.
In commemorating the 20th Anniversary of "The Fall of the Wall" in November 2009, we should all remember that freedom resulted in the courageous stand taken by the German people in the East whose protests were the catalyst for change. Previous uprisings by striking workers resulted in a severe crackdown with many arrests by the State Security and People's Police Forces on June 17, 1953. At that time in history, the Western Powers were unable or unwilling to intervene outside of their sectors of occupation in response to the Soviet Commandant's declared state of emergency and show of force in the Eastern sector. This time, however, the vigilance and determination of the Allied Forces in the West, and abandonment of Soviet support for the East German regime under Erich Honecker helped prevent armed intervention and to facilitate the massive demonstrations which began in Leipzig, East Germany. The unrelenting protests led to the eventual lifting of travel restrictions on November 9, 1989. Political developments throughout Eastern Europe in the spring of 1989, beginning with Hungary opening its border with Austria, led to the opening of the frontiers between the two German states, ensuing flood of East German refugees, and escalating demands for freedom of travel. Eventually, these developments led to the collapse of Communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I happened to be visiting East Berlin on November 9, 1989, and could sense a feeling of optimism from the Germans I encountered on the street. After hearing the initial announcement, Germans from both East and West Berlin went to the transit points and to the Brandenburg Gate to determine what the announcement actually meant. As they found out, the East German Border Guards were no longer stopping anyone from departing the East on foot or by vehicle. Spontaneous celebrations erupted at Allied Checkpoint Charlie on Friederichstrasse, a Cold War relic once the symbolic gateway between Eastern and Western Europe, and at the Brandenburg Gate at Pariser Platz. The next day I went to the Brandenburg Gate and stood on the Wall. Later that evening, I watched as jubilant East Germans freely drove their Trabies and Wartburgs, or walked across the border into West Berlin. For me, it was an incredible and moving experience I will never forget. In the days to follow, smiles were accompanied by tears on the faces of East Germans who realized they had been lied to for so many years by the Communist Regime of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (the DDR). More tears and anger were displayed in the weeks to come when Germans learned the truth about the atrocities and spying committed by the East German regime against its own citizenry.
After the celebrations, Germany set about the monumental tasks of restoration and revitalization of infrastructure and architecture, and the reform and transformation of government, industry and society. Scaffolding and construction cranes sprung up everywhere. The Brandenburg Gate was restored, as was the Quadriga resting on top. The historic Reichstag's role and appearance was transformed throughout Berlin's history. It offered a meeting place for the lower house of the West German Bundestag or Parliament, and served as a backdrop for many events and festivals. After reunification, it became the initial meeting place of the newly elected members of Parliament. It has also been restored, and Berlin is again the seat of the German Government.
Reunification began swiftly on October 3, 1990. A reunited Berlin also meant the end of the Four Powers status and occupation mission. The Allies had long since refrained from governing Berlin in the narrow sense of the word. The U.S. began a significant draw down and deactivation of military forces from Berlin and other parts of Germany. East German soldiers were integrated into the Bundeswehr or Federal Army. East Germany's special operations capable elite unit, the 40th Parachute Regiment was deactivated. Many may not have known that this unit had been issued live ammunition to be used against the demonstrators in Leipzig in October 1989. The Western Allies found out about the plan and confronted the East German authorities to avert any violence. The task of demolition and dismantling of the Wall, watchtowers, and death strip began in earnest and was mostly completed by November 1991.
My memories of Berlin will be with me forever. Berlin was my greatest military tour of duty. I still have great fondness for the city and its people who made me feel welcomed. I departed Berlin in May 1992, and returned for a visit in early 1994. The historic landmarks and architecture, beautiful landscape, and wonderful cultural attractions are why Berlin is truly one of the most interesting and picturesque cities in Europe.