By Dieter Huth
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nov. 9, 1989. As a German citizen, I lived in Germany during the building of and tearing down of the Wall. It stood for 28 years dividing my country into East and West sectors. In 1945 at the end of World War II the four allied powers divided Germany into four sections with Russia controlling about a third of Germany. In 1948 the French, British and American zones were joined, forming West Germany after the Soviets refused to end their occupation, beginning what was known as The Cold War. Since Berlin was the capital, even though it was in the eastern part of Germany under Russian control, it was further divided into an east and west section. The Communist regime in Russia declared it illegal for residents to cross the border. More than 2.7 million East Germans got on trains or managed to somehow escape to the west to find new homes and jobs. People joked about getting onto the wrong train.
On June 17, 1953 people all over eastern Germany demonstrated against their Soviet occupiers. The Russians sent in their military to brutally crush this uprising. At the beginning of 1961 Walter Ulbricht, the leader of East Germany, was asked by journalists about rumors that a wall would be built since the citizens had noticed an increase of building materials and military near the border. If you live in a dictatorship, gossip becomes your daily bread. Ulbricht laughed saying, “Yes, wouldn’t the West Germans love that.” Then with the East being drained of its residents and its brain power, the Wall was constructed on Aug. 13, 1961. It was 11 feet high and close to 100 miles in length. Many East Germans were shot trying to escape to the West. Up to 200 people are believed to have died at the wall. Besides the physical wall, there were mines, barbed wire and bloodhounds. It is difficult to grasp, but in addition to surrounding West Berlin with a wall, the border between East and West Germany was sealed through watch towers, fences and mines.
I was born in 1940 in Magdeburg, a town in eastern Germany below Berlin. During WWII in 1944 my mother took her three children to a town near Cologne where her mother lived, after hearing that Magdeburg would be bombed. I am forever grateful to her for this move. However, now it became very difficult to travel to the East to visit relatives. My mother was once completely undressed by a woman border guard looking for illegal money being smuggled in. At the border, anyone with permission to travel to the East had to exchange 15 west marks per day for 15 east marks. This was a lousy rate of exchange for the westerners.
When you visited relatives in East Germany, you had to go to the police station to get a stamp to legalize your visit. In Magdeburg the office was on the fourth floor without an elevator, making it especially hard for older people. The communist regime made it as difficult as possible in order to discourage western visitors. Only folks who were 60 or older were allowed to leave East Germany.
In 1989 the Berlin Wall collapsed, partly because the government was collapsing and had no money to maintain the wall and partly due to revolutions against the Soviet Union. East and West Germany unified, becoming one country again. I lived in Germany during all these years and am a living witness to these developments. I became a much happier man when the Wall was gone. So-called “wall woodpeckers” took axes and hammers to the Wall, demolishing it. My piece of the demolished Berlin Wall, acquired in 1989, has a special meaning in my life.