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.