Not too long after the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, my wife and I visited Berlin. Crossing into what had been East Germany was like going through a time tunnel. It looked like it was still the 1940s. Through its physical environment, East Germany highlighted the difference between Western freedom and Communism. This difference was even more evident in Berlin. What struck me was the complete absence of color in what had been the Eastern Zone, which said quite a lot about the quality of life under communism.
West Berlin was full of bright colors, from shop windows and pennants flying on buildings, to the clothes worn by Berliners on the street. All of the buildings in East Berlin were gray and dirty. Some were still unoccupied and had bullet holes; they had never been repaired or renovated after the end of World War II. West Berlin was full of bright, sparkling vistas and shops filled with consumer goods of all kinds. East Berlin was dark and dingy. The few shops were empty of the everyday necessities and luxuries that give us the quality of life we enjoy. All of the differences between the liberty and prosperity of the free West and the prison conditions and poverty that characterized life behind the Iron Curtain were easy to see.
Even driving to West Berlin in our rental car was quite an experience. We were surrounded by Trabants — East Germany’s version of the Volkswagen, and one of the worst cars ever made (it sounded like a sewing machine). At that time, there were still only three highways leading into what had been East Germany. Close to the former border, a huge traffic jam on the autobahn brought the traffic to a stop. We got off the highway hoping that a secondary road would be a way around, but we ran into a major problem — the road ended when it got to the old border. All of the roads ended, except for those three major highways, because of the barbed wire and minefields that had divided Germany for more than 40 years.
East Germany was ruled by a Communist elite that imprisoned dissidents, killed defectors who had managed to flee to West Germany, and had hundreds of thousands of informers in every neighborhood and every apartment house spying on their neighbors and even their own families. It is estimated that more than 1,200 people died trying to escape this horrible regime by crossing the 860-mile border. The last person killed in Berlin was 20-year old Chris Gueffroy, who died in a hail of bullets on the night of Feb. 5, 1989. The last known border-crossing victim died just days before the fall of the Wall in November 1989, attempting to swim across the Oder River at the German-Polish border.
East Germany’s ex-leaders and top Stasi secret-police officials always denied they had ordered soldiers to shoot people who were trying to flee across the Berlin Wall. But in 2007, a seven-page document surfaced in the Stasi archives that contained an explicit firing order, including women and children: “It is your duty to use your combat . . . skills in such a way as to overcome the cunning of the border breacher, to challenge or liquidate him in order to thwart the planned border breach. . . . Don’t hesitate to use your weapon even when border breaches happen with women and children, which traitors have often exploited in the past.”
When I visited Berlin, I spent time with my second cousin. Her father was a doctor who had settled in Berlin in the late 1940s. He was there during the Berlin Airlift, when the only thing that kept West Berliners free was the dedication of Allied pilots and the determination of an American president who used an air bridge to feed and supply West Berliners for more than a year. My cousin took us on tours of what had been the Eastern Zone, including one of the churches in East Berlin where the German revolution had simmered.
Many people don’t realize how important the churches were in helping inspire and give confidence to the East Germans who wanted to bring down the Wall and end the Communist dictatorship that ruled them. Although atheism was the state religion in East Germany, churches like the one we visited in Berlin or St. Nikolai Evangelical Lutheran Church in Leipzig remained open. The pastor at St. Nikolai in 1989, the Rev. Christian Fuhrer, held a weekly prayer service for peace that grew and grew as everyone from Christians to non-Christians to those who wanted to leave East Germany came to his services. There were always Stasi spies at the prayer services at St. Nikolai and the churches in East Berlin, but it seemed to make no difference to the attendees. People would leave the services and then march through the streets, holding candles and saying prayers. In October 1989, after the beating and arrest of protesters in Leipzig, St. Nikolai held another prayer service that was crammed full. The churchgoers then joined 70,000 other Germans to march through the streets.
My mother is from Silesia, which is southeast of Berlin. Fortunately, my grandmother, one of the most resourceful and bravest women I have ever known, managed to get herself and all four of her daughters out of what had become the Russian-occupied zone before the border was fortified. My mother and her sisters got out separately with family or friends. My grandmother and her youngest daughter, who was only eleven at the time, didn’t have to cross a mined border — they only had to dodge Russian army patrols (who were shooting escapees) in the woods in the dead of night.
The Berlin Wall stood as a physical symbol of the evil that Communism represented. It imprisoned millions of people and protected a murderous regime that saw no limits on what it could do to its own people. On this 20th anniversary of its fall, we should remember the evil that the Wall represented, and also remember that there are many suffering today behind similar, if not as obvious, walls in places like North Korea, Cuba, and Tibet.