I’m in Berlin this week, which is probably one of my favorite cities in Europe. I’ve visited the city dozens of times in the past 25 years and I’ve always enjoyed my time here. Maybe it is my age or maybe it’s just past the 20 year anniversary of the fall of wall, but even though I’ve had a pretty busy work schedule here, I thrilled to be here again.I’m staying at the Marriott hotel, which is about a block away from Potsdamer Platz and a few blocks from Brandenburg gate in the other direction. The Marriott sits on the old border between east and west. The former wall is marked on the street and on the side of the building. In my room, technically my bed is in the west and the window and chair are in the former east side. A little more than 20 years ago, I was part of the history here. It wasn’t really something that I planned, it just so happened that a visit with some friends living in West Berlin coincided with the falling of the wall. We had bought our tickets months earlier, not knowing the events that would unfold in late summer, culminating in fall of the Berlin wall on Nov 9th. I’ll bore you with a some history for a moment, just so you can get a bit of the feeling of what was going on. The events started in late August, when Hungary removed its physical border defenses with Austria. This led to more than 13,000 East Germans who were vacationing in Hungary to cross the border into Austria, with many continuing onward to West Germany. To prevent more East Germans from crossing the border into Austria, Hungary began preventing East German citizens from crossing into Austria and returned them to Budapest. The problem was the proverbial cat had been let out of the bag, so to speak. The East Germans now flooded the West German Embassy, looking for asylum in Budapest and East Germany blocked further travel to Hungary. A similar situation occurred in Czechoslovakia. The East German government let the people in Prague escape to West Germany, but the train had to go through East Germany. As the train headed through Dresden, the police had to forcibly stop people from jumping on the train. This led to protests against the communist government, spreading all over East Germany. The protests were getting bigger and bitter in East Germany. It was quite an amazing time, but having lived it, it was a precarious situation as well. The Tiananmen Square massacre had occurred that previous spring and East German communists had publicly praised the Chinese Communist Party decision to use violence against those protesters. The communists prepared a huge police, militia, and secret police presence and there were worries that things were on the verge of turning very bad.Our visit to Berlin was planned for Saturday, November 11th and my wife was about 6 month pregnant with our daughter. The East German protest s were still ongoing and the previous weekend protest in East Berlin had over half a million people at Alexanderplatz. With my wife being pregnant and the ongoing issues, we debated if we should make the trip to Berlin that weekend. All of that changed on the evening of November 9th. On November 9th, during a 6pm news conference an East German Politburo official, Guenter Schabowski was handed a note regarding the updated travel regulations and it was suggested he talk about them. The government had come up with a new travel regulations to appease the masses, but the these new rules were still filled with red tape and there was nothing in these rules that opened the borders. The problem was that Mr. Schabowski didn’t really know what the new rules entailed and uttered a few key phrases that the press in the room immediately picked up on. He started to recant and change the story, but it was too late. At just after 7:00 the newswires were quoting the Berlin Wall was coming down. People of East Berlin heard the news from the western broadcasts and headed toward the new “open” border checkpoints, only y to find out that this wasn’t the case. Border police asked for clarification about the new open borders, but were told that nothing had changed by their superiors. Fearing their own safety with an ever growing crowd and not determining that violence against the crowd wasn’t going to turn on well, the checkpoint at Bornholmer Street opened the gate and let the crowds stream into West Germany at around 9:00pm. The rest, as the say, is historyLess than 36 hours later, my wife and I were landing in Berlin during one of the most historic events of my lifetime. In many ways, it still seems like a dream and I can’t believe I was there at the right moment in history. I remember all night celebrations, crowds of East Germans flooding the shopping districts and stores to spend their Begrüssungsgeld or welcome money from West Germany. The public transit was packed and many stores were so full, they had guards limiting the crowds. I think my wife and I mostly walked around in a daze, not really believing what was happening. To illustrate the point, I always have taken pictures, but I don’t have a single picture from that week. I imagine I was also a bit tired from all the excitement.Fast forward 20 years, and it’s hard to imagine that I was here to witness history. It is so much different now. Good or bad, Potsdamer platz is filled with modern German stores and malls. There is also the assortment of Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, Tony Roma restaurants, and a few other American places. The Christmas market is in full swing and for a few Euro, you even can tube down the man made 100 foot high snow hill or walk over to the Sony center for a movie or show. Heading the other way, you pass the Holocaust Memorial, the new US Embassy, and then the famous Brandenburg gate and the Pariser Platz.I find a great joy in walking through the Brandenburg gate every morning, thinking back to the time when it was on the other side of that impenetrable wall. I smile, watching the teenagers and young adults taking their picture from Pariser platz, making sure they get the whole gate into the frame. Like my daughter, they don’t have a real reference to the enormity of what was once here, so the Berlin wall is kind of an oddity for many. For my daughter, the Berlin wall never existed in her lifetime. While I had to live through the reality and fear of what it really stood for and the joy I felt when it came down, for her it is something that is in a history book. Being here in Germany at the time, I think there was a lot of luck on November 9th. A lot of things went right and the timing was perfect. If you look back, it could have been so much worse. This well written article illustrates this point. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10...Amongst the new buildings and windows, there are small reminders of the past, a few sections of the wall on display near Potsdamerplatz and the border is still marked on the ground here and in many other parts of the city. The funny thing is the remaining sections of the wall don’t seem that big today, but back in the 80’s I would have thought they were 50 feet tall as I walked along the border. I guess in my mind and many others, the barrier was much bigger than a simple slab of steel and concrete.
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