November 9, 2009, marks 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was in 9th grade when the news came across CNN that the physical symbol of the East/West divide was on the verge of toppling. And my mother reminded me today while I was reminiscing about the event that I sat for hours and hours watching East Berliners chip away at “die Mauer” and West Berliners extending their hands to their German brothers and sisters as they scrambled to scale the wall.
I didn’t know at the time that less than two years later I would be a resident of Germany, a teenage exchange student in a small northwest-central town near Osnabrück. But I did know that I wanted to be there in Germany at that moment, experiencing history as it happened. I’m trying to think of moments that have happened since then that have spawned in me true elation. Of course my wedding day and my babies’ births were incredibly happy days. But while those were personal milestones, the fall of the Berlin wall was one of those occasions where you knew that you and the rest of the world were all watching a momentous event at the same time. If only we had Twitter back then! The only thing that could possibly compare was the election this year in the U.S. of Barack Obama. There was euphoria coupled with the understanding that much work needed to be done.
In retrospect, the events of 9/11/89 (the date written in the European way) are almost more moving now than they were then. Perhaps it is because I know – or once knew – Germany and the Germans so well. Like I said, I lived in small-town Germany from 1991-1992 and completely immersed myself in the culture. In spring 1992 I had the chance to attend a week-long student seminar in Berlin. During that week, my fellow students and I used Berlin as our playground: visiting Kneipen (pubs), at 17 already able to handle our beers responsibly thanks to months living with Germany’s relaxed drinking age; stumbling down Ku’Damm late at night, riffing and joking in our adopted language and guided by the eerie blue light of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, a symbol from the ravages of World War II; shopping for vintage clothing in Kreuzberg; and taking strong coffees at a little café on the upper floor of a building on Lindenstraße, a main street in the former East.
A lot of the Wall was already gone by then, having been divvied up for sale to tourists. And the vast transformation that Berlin would undergo had yet to be initiated. This was all before Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag and before the empty spaces of Alexanderplatz – East Berlin’s main square – got a Western makeover with fast food restaurants, shopping centers, and neon. The mood was uncertain, with Germans still referring to each others as “Wessis” (from the West) and “Ossis” (from the East). Still there was also a sense of general happiness and possibility. Perhaps it was my teenage naïveté, but it was an exciting time.
Save for many transits through Munich and Frankfurt airports, I have been back to Germany only once since returning to the U.S. in 1992. But the memories of 9/11/89 and my exchange year visit to Berlin remind me of how far the world has come – and how far we have also fallen.
There are so many moments in history that you can point to that signaled the end of innocence. The fall of the Berlin Wall was one of those rare instances that felt like a beginning of innocence, rebirth, hope. Indeed, that monumental night two decades ago in Berlin effectively ended the post-war period and ushered in the happy era before the next 9/11.
Photo by Sue Ream