I found a tweet this morning with a photo of someone breaking down the Berlin Wall and was instantly taken back to that day in 1989.
In late September of that year, some German friends took me and my husband from Würzburg in West Germany through the border to Leipzig in East Germany. It was the stuff of spy novels. Forests stretched for miles on each side of the road as the line was crossed. The east was demarcated by the quality of the roads suddenly changing from super-smooth autobahn to what appeared to be cobbled roads. The Trabants chugged by merrily, while we in our BMW were totally out-of-place.
I remember the last thing before crossing the border was the order to take a deep breath of fresh air as it would be the last we would have until we came back. A strange request, but once over there, the smell of poor quality coal being used in homes and factories and the 2 stroke-Trabant engine exhaust soon made my chest hurt. It really was like stepping back into the 1950s. Quite surreal.
The reason for visiting Leipzig was that one of our friends, Marcus had lived there as a child and had escaped from the East through the Berlin Wall. I had not been aware of his history and as he told us about it, I felt as though we had stepped into a Le Carre spy novel. Marcus and his family had been smuggled out in the false bottom of a US VW camper van at great risk to both the US serviceman and his family. He had truly been a child of the GDR.
Leipzig seemed quite dull in many ways. The buildings greying with age, slightly ramshackle and run down like a ill-cared for elderly aunt. The famous square where the demonstrations about opening the borders was huge. It was only when I was shown the placements for the state TV spy cameras on tops of buildings that I fully realised how oppressive life must have been for the ordinary citizen. The shops were functional, not much to see, not much to buy. Flea markets were starting to spring up here and there, relics from the war still available as were good quality Russian army hats and coats.
Staying in the hotel by the old railway station, the room was small and yes, oppressive. The ceiling had been lowered in each room and it was obvious that somewhere overhead there would be a camera to monitor what was going on. The newest hotel block was one apparently run by the Stasi, used to entrap business men when they came to visit, probably at the annual book fare.
Over dinner talk ranged over many topics. Marcus told us the whole tale about escaping to the West, about why his parents had taken that option. How frightening that must have been for a boy to leave school one day knowing that you would never be returning, of friends being lost, of not being able to tell anyone for fear of Stasi informers. It was for choice his parents left: choice for the children. As his mum and dad were both doctors, the state would have made it virtually impossible for any of their children to even consider that as a career option such was the control it had.
Of course we talked about Berlin and the situation there.
Even though the borders were starting to open, this was the jewel in the crown of state and Russian control. I asked my friends if they ever though the wall would come down. The stark reply was not in their lifetime, if ever. For well-informed professional people that showed the extent of how entrenched things become in the years after the war. Change was coming, but it was not possible to even consider change could reach the ultimate state symbol, Berlin.
It was somewhat of a shock when the first pictures were shown on television here in the UK on this day. We phoned our friends. Tina couldn’t believe it was happening and was so excited. Such change! So quickly! I reminded her of our conversation about this only a few weeks before. It was absolutely stunning what was going on. Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable.
Driving home from his work, Marcus could see the news on TV screens in shops and through the windows in the homes he passed. It wasn’t sinking in. He thought it was some fabulous TV drama, like Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds on the radio. His mind could not take in what he was seeing. It was unreal, the wall wouldn’t – couldn’t – come down. Yet there it was, happening in front of his eyes. Stunning. The world was changing.
The difficulties of the coming together of both parts of Germany were yet to come. The fall of the Berlin wall marked a change in the world. It was the start…