Twenty years ago, the Wall came down

When traveling to East Germany in 1985, Oakland University German associate professor Christopher Clason had his luggage searched by gunpoint.

“We crossed the East German border in the train to Berlin … the East German guards came onto the train to have a look before letting it pass on to Berlin … and one of them poked through my luggage with the end of the barrel of his AK-47,” said Clason.

Later in the trip he recalled having an East German policeman lower his rifle at him while Clason attempted to take a photo of a Soviet airline building.

Experiences like Clason’s were not out of the ordinary for travel between East and West Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

Tension between the two sides ran high, as East Berlin fought to remain communist and its Western counterpart worked to strengthen democracy.

Nov. 9, 2009 marked the 20th anniversary of the reunification of Germany and the start of the end of communism in Europe.

The wall, which was built in 1961, was originally constructed by the East German government in order to discourage young professionals from moving west where they would be able to earn higher wages under the Federal Republic of Germany.

Described to Eastern Germans as an “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall,” the divide separated Eastern Communism and Western Democracy.

“It was a propaganda line that they were keeping fascists out,” said Clason. “The East was bleeding young and professional people, you can’t run a state like that.”

By 1989, Clason said, Eastern Europe could no longer afford to oppress the citizens.

“The United Sates had exerted a great deal of pressure on the Soviet Union with the arms race, and the Soviets were not keeping up … it was just too expensive,” he said.

That pressure, along with events such as the opening of Hungary’s border to East Germans and the Eastern Europe liberal movements, convinced Eastern German officials to discuss laws that would allow travel between East and West Germany.

On Nov. 9, 1989, rumor had spread that travel would be permitted to either side of the wall, and when questioned when it would occur, government officials answered, “right away.”

“Someone called the guards at one location on the Berlin Wall and said the border was now open … with that little miscue, what had been brewing for months became the world as we know it today,” Clason said.

Waterford landscaper, 79-year-old Heinz Hoffman, who grew up in Eastern Germany, remembers the days following the fall of the wall as being “jubilant.”

“Everybody had relatives on both sides. The wall hurt everybody because they couldn’t keep in contact with any of them,” he said.

In the past 20 years, the transition has not been easy.

There are Eastern Germans who still feel life was better under communist rule, with universal health care and lower unemployment.

However, those in favor of reunification believe that the removal of the wall was a step in the right direction.

Krijn Faase, a German teacher at West Middle School in Rochester, grew up in West Germany, but had moved to the U.S. in 1984, before the wall came down.

“Germany is united but you still see differences even after 20 years.  Unemployment is higher and salaries are lower in the East … They are still trying to catch up,” Faase said.

Problems aside, Faase believes the 20th anniversary is a huge milestone and reason to celebrate.

“There are still problems, but it unified Europe. It’s safer and people are learning to tolerate people better. Overall, it’s overwhelmingly positive,” he said.

Recalling the feeling of the fall from Romania

OU assistant professor of journalism Adina Schneeweis, was 9 years old and living in Communist Romania when the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago.

“I went into my room and found some fabrics from my toys and dolls and I tied the national colors on my arm, because that’s what the revolutionaries were doing on TV and I was just so proud,” said Schneeweis, smiling.

Although young and hundreds of miles away from Berlin, Schneeweis was able to see the wave of changes that would eventually sweep across all of Europe following the fall of the wall.

Not only significant to the reunification of East and West Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall began the unification of Europe as a whole.

“We were all so proud. It was so exciting,” said Schneeweis. “It felt like Romania did this too, we got rid of the dictator. It was really celebration and pride.”