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Sun, 17 Nov 2019 10:06 GMT

#Throwback1989Berlin: ‘We Didn’t Even Know the Wall Had Come Down’


Basma Elmahdy

Sat, 09 Nov 2019 12:29 GMT

While the city of Berlin approaches a special day marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the divisions during the Cold War, two citizens of the now unified Germany reflected on growing up in a divided country: East and West and memories of the 9th of November 1989.

Stephan Schwarz, a 58-year-old retired biologist was born in a wealthy region of Western Germany, in the city of Mannheim. However, in 1983 he made his way to the west of Berlin at the age of 22. 

Unlike Schwarz who lived only in the Western side of Berlin, in the district of Schöneberg, until the wall came down, Suzana Müller, a 59-year-old psychotherapist, was brought up by a Berliner family in the east side, in Lichtenberg, which for 13 years was under the rule of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In 1977, an accident led her to West Berlin in 1977, where she lived for 12 years before the wall came down.

However, for both of them, as for the majority of Germans, the night of November 9th was like any other night until Günter Schabowsk, the former official spokesperson of the GDR) mistakenly announced at a press conference that East Berliners were allowed to visit the West side “immediately.”

Müller who saw Schabowsk on television in her living room, said “We understood his statement to mean that if East Berliners went to the police stations and applied for a visa, they would get one. So, we were very surprised the next day to hear that some people had already entered through the wall.”

“We didn’t even think of something like ‘the wall had come down,’” Schwarz remembered the moment when he was in a club with friends in the famous Berlin shopping street Kurfürstendamm and a DJ said, ‘We welcome our visitors from East Berlin, and they can all have free beers,’”  

He thought that the DJ was referring to visitors from Hungary until he eventually left the crowded club and found that “All the people were moving towards the Ku'Damm at the time, you couldn’t see the floors anymore.

“The wall might not be down, but at least it was open,” Schwarz said and recalled that he was surprised when he saw a street filled with East German Trabant cars. 

During the following days, Müller found herself in the middle of the historical event, as her flat was located near Ku'Damm, the centre of West Berlin. She witnessed several thousand East Berliners on a pilgrimage to the Ku'Damm, “making not a sound except from the weight of their feet on the ground. It was really spooky,” she said.

As Müller expected, the police stations were overcrowded the next day with East Berliners applying for visas and receiving a stamp, including members of her own family. They appeared on her doorstep saying, “Now you are surprised!” Müller remembered that she was not surprised.

Schwarz shared his memories of Berlin at that time. “The city was packed; people were queuing outside banks. Eastern Berliners were given money from the state every time they visited West Berlin because their currency was not being converted.”

Growing up in a divided world: lucky Westerners and nasty Communists

For someone who “didn't have any connection with East Germany at all,” Schwarz saw West Germany through rose-coloured glasses, “as West Germany was wealthy and protected by the Western forces,” he said. 

In school, he learnt about “these poor people out there, on the other side of Germany.” Now, he said, reflecting on his early years “It was not objective, it was all about the enemy and the Russians. At that time, we still had Nazi teachers.

“In 1982, the first time I had contact with the GDR I was shocked at those control stations. The GDR soldiers and officers were so rough and unfriendly,” he said. 

However, it seemed that Müller as a child experienced the GDR in a similar way how a ‘lucky’ German boy experienced the West. She said, “I had a very juvenile view of the whole thing. I didn’t get the political difficulties. I always felt that we were living in a very bright forward-looking strong young country. The bad thing was behind the wall. But sometimes, my grandmother or grandfather came and brought fantastic things from West Germany. So somehow, this was a discrepancy. The bad West, but also the golden West. And I couldn't understand it of course. Nobody could.”

Müller felt very identified with East Germany until she left at the age of 13 to live in a West African country, where her mother got married. “However, I think that if I had stayed for a bit longer, I would have asked a lot of questions,” she said.

Five years later, the 17-year-old teenager returned to East Berlin and realised that “something not so easy was happening here.

“I got to meet people who had applied to leave the country and were suffering. Members of my family were not allowed to meet me anymore because they were working for the secret police state,” Müller said. 

In 1977, a peculiar accident happened to her when she applied for a visa to attend her grandfather’s funeral in West Berlin. 

“The craziest thing was that usually they would have marked my visa for a single trip or many trips, but they did not mark anything. And when I got back from the funeral, the GDR officer said ‘Oh, it must be multiple-entry visa. 

“As a 17-year old, I had a visa with which I could go back and forth to the West, there was no one like me. A person like me did not exist. Somebody who was living in the Communist Socialist area and could come and go, just like that.”

Some Western Berliners were suspicious of her unusual status thinking that she was a GDR spy while others asked her to stay there. 

However, Müller did not consider leaving the GDR until she was applying to prolong her visa to West Berlin and the GDR officer said “You are now 18 years old, which means that your passport is no longer valid and you should decide where you want to live.” 

Müller, who experienced life on both sides of Berlin’s wall, appreciated above all the freedom to be whoever she wanted to be and to express herself. However, she had a hard time adjusting to the Western norms of consumption. 

She also thought that “There had to be two ‘Germanys’ after WWII because the tensions resulting from the war were so high that it had to split into ‘You are bad and we are good.’

“I think it is a very tragic price Germany paid for the war, but as a young person I could not see it in that way,” she said.

Thirty years after the wall was demolished, the country has one national flag, but Schwarz questioned the reunification process. 

“Some politicians warned that the process was going so fast that it would damage the people and the economy. It was a very expensive process. I think East Berliners paid a high price for the reunification as they lost their culture and identity,” he said.