Reminiscences of the Berlin Wall 30 Years After the Fall

Image Elyeser Szturm

By Flavio Aguiar*

This Saturday, November 09th, Berlin celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of its Wall, which took place in the early hours of November 09th to 10th, 1989. The high point of the celebrations was a concert with multiple artists on a specially built for this purpose next to the Brandenburg Gate. The epicenter of the show was in charge of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1570, under the direction of Daniel Barenboim. I describe below some reminiscences of my relationship with the Wall, first from a distance, then live and in color.

first memory

My first contact with images and the reality of the Berlin Wall happened in 1963, when I was 16 years old. He was active politically at the time as a high school student at Colégio Anchieta, in Porto Alegre. I attended a meeting at one of the semi-clandestine headquarters of the Brazilian Communist Party, located on top of the Cinema Cacique, on the popular Rua da Praia. I say semi-clandestine because the Party, as it was known, was illegal, but had well-known headquarters and meetings; it even had a bookshop and, in former times, even a bar, where a cousin of my father's had worked as a waiter.

In this session I attended (at which young university students were present who would later organize the so-called PC Dissidence and from there the future POC) a film was shown about the then recent Berlin Wall. The film advocated the construction of the barrier. I vaguely remember scenes showing images of electronic products – cameras, recorders, radios, among others – seized as contraband from West to East Berlin, in order to undermine the economic foundations of communist society. This would be one of the reasons for building the Wall: a defensive gesture in the face of capitalist aggression.

However, the film, as far as I remember, did not touch on one of the justifications already alleged for the closing of the border between the two Berlins: the flight of brains and skilled workers from one side of the border to the other. This flight took from East Germany to West, above all, engineers, technicians, doctors, scientists (among them the coveted physicists at the time of the Cold War), university professors and lawyers. The communist regime resented this exodus; he had invested heavily in rebuilding devastated East Germany, including in the education sector; and now he saw the first fruits of this effort slipping through his fingers, taken either for economic reasons or out of desire for greater political, personal and professional freedom that the “other side” offered them.

Since the quadripartite division of Germany and Berlin between the victorious powers of World War II, some 3,5 million Germans had passed from the East side to the West side. With the closing of the border between the two Germanys in 1952, Berlin became the main funnel of this passage. As it was actually made up of two twin cities, it was easy to pass from one side to the other. Apparently this was the practical reason for the decision to build the Wall, closing the passage in the divided city. There are estimates that this exodus caused between 7 and 9 billion dollars in damage to the East German economy. Until today there are doubts about who came up with the idea of ​​building the barrier, Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev or German leader Walter Ulbricht. What is certain is that the latter signed the construction order for the Wall on August 12, 1961. The following day, work began.

second memory

Two or three years later I saw, still in Porto Alegre, the film The spy who came out of the cold (Martin Ritt, 1965), based on the homonymous novel (1963) by John Le Carré, to this day one of my favorite authors. (Ditto, Martin Ritt as a film director). Richard Burton was the male protagonist, in the role of Alec Leamas, an agent of the British espionage and counterintelligence service, opposite Claire Bloom, in the female lead.

Strictly speaking, the title in Portuguese should be “The spy who came out of the fridge”, because the cold of the title does not refer to the temperature, but to the jargon of someone being “frozen” as an agent, to make his defection to the other side credible. Lemeas starts to drink too much (he will in fact become an alcoholic, like Burton in real life), gets involved in physical aggression, is arrested and sentenced to months in prison and thus becomes palatable for the other side to accept him as an escapee, providing his escape to East Germany, to Communist Berlin.

I won't tell details about the film: those who remember, will remember; those who don't remember or haven't watched it, review or see it, it's worth it. I will only say that Alec Lemeas discovers that he and his beloved Nan Perry (Claire Bloom's character), an idealistic British communist, have been involved in a sordid plot devised by both sides of espionage, and try to escape by clandestinely crossing the now famous Wall from Berlin.

What was the Wall at this point in time? Well, for starters, indeed a Wall, of bricks and cement, with the help of a lot of barbed wire and the armed presence of guardians from side to side, but, above all, from the Eastern/Soviet side, who had orders to shoot on anyone trying to cross it without permission. Over time, the Wall has become an extremely complex macrostructure. There were two walls: a first barrier, more imposing, generally made up of huge concrete slabs 3 or 4 meters high, and a second barrier further on, smaller in size, but in addition to bricks, also made up of barbed wire fences. . Both were in territory technically on the East side, and the space between the two was known as "The Strip of Death". Whoever entered there without authorization should die.

The Wall completely surrounded West Berlin, formed by the sectors controlled by the United States, Great Britain and France. It had a perimeter of 157 km, roughly speaking, ellipsoidal. Of these, about 43 km separated East and West Berlin; the remainder separated the capitalist side from other municipalities in the communist world. There were 302 control towers along it and 20 bunkers military. The Eastern side called it the “Anti-Fascist Security Wall”; but over time he became the most popularized symbol of the lack of democratic freedom in the communist world. There were serious consequences. Families were divided. Workers on the West side who lived on the East side lost their jobs. Passage from the West side to the East side was theoretically free, although it depended on obtaining visas requested weeks in advance. The vice versa was not free, except for the elderly and retirees.

There were nine passages from one side to the other. Three became famous. The first was the call (from the Western side) Checkpoint Charlie. There, in October 1961, two months after the border was closed, the Third World War almost began. Due to an initially minor incident, armed peace between the victors of the Second War hung by a thread: 10 US and 10 Soviet tanks stood face to face, in combat position, for hours on end, until a direct telephone contact between President John Kennedy and Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev began to dismantle the possibility of confrontation. The tanks were withdrawing alternately, one on each side.

The second passage was the metro station of Friedrichstrasse. Although situated entirely on the eastern side, it was the main crossing point for civilians. It became known as “The Palace of Tears”, because it was there that families with residents on one side and the other separated after a visit.

Finally, the third was the Glienicke Bridge which, across the Havel River, joined West Berlin and the city of Potsdam on the east side. It became known as “The Bridge of Spies”, because there prisoners were exchanged on one side and the other. Not all of them were spies: I know someone who, at a very young age, tried to cross illegally from the East side to the West side and was arrested for it. He ended up being included in a wave of these exchanges.

Other Contacts and the Fall

The Berlin Wall continued to follow me through life, or vice versa, through cinema and literature. I continued to read Le Carré's Cold War novels and watch movies: funeral in berlin, 007 against Octopussy, Goodbye, Lenin, The Bridge of Spies, in addition to others. There was also the reading of books by authors who had visited the former German capital, such as João Ubaldo Ribeiro and Ignácio Loyola Brandão. The latter had written that he considered capitalist Berlin the last medieval city in the world, because it had a wall that surrounded it and it was effective.

I was also able to reconstitute something of its history and tragedies. During its existence, from 1961 to November 9, 1989, it is estimated that there were 100 attempts to cross it clandestinely. All imaginable means were used: disguises, excavated tunnels, hot air balloons in favorable winds, car trunks, vehicles hurled against it, swim escapes (part of the “Wall” was by river) and so on. An estimated 5 of these attempts were successful.

However, many people died along the way. There are those who speak of more than 200 deaths. At least 140 are confirmed. A few soldiers on the eastern side were shot by fleeing people. There were poignant cases, like that of the young man who was shot trying to cross Checkpoint Charlie and was left bleeding to death, trapped in barbed wire, with images broadcast on television. Neither the West nor East guards ventured to seek him out, for fear the other side would take up arms. Only after he was dead did the guards from the East side come and remove the corpse. Anyway, the so-called “Anti-Fascist Security Wall” became a political disaster for the Eastern side.

With the crisis of the communist world that ended up leading to its collapse, internal and external pressures grew for the Wall to be abolished. Still, what happened was a total surprise. In January 89, less than a year after its fall, the then Prime Minister of Communist Germany, Erich Honecker, predicted its permanence for another half or a century.

I have news of think tanks held this year with discussions about what the world would be like two or three decades later: no one spoke of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But pressures from all sides and demonstrations from the East grew. Countries of the dying Soviet Bloc began to open their borders. For East Germans, Berliners included, Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia became routes of passage that would make it possible to go to the West side.

But the Wall fell completely unexpectedly. Faced with pressure and growing demonstrations in East Germany, including in the capital, the communist government decided to announce its intention to abolish the need for a visa or special permission, or even the possibility and facilitate them for citizens who wanted to visit the West side. The measure should go into effect from the 10th. However, the person in charge of announcing the measure, Günter Schabowski, was misinformed or got in trouble when talking to television reporters and other media, and ended up saying that the measure was immediate effect. Thanks to this mistake, crowds began to gather at some of the crossing points from one side to the other, demanding their immediate opening. The eastern guards were unable or unwilling to repress the demonstrators, and they managed to pass through. They were received on the other side by crowds that were already celebrating the opening of the Wall, with flowers and sparkling wine. And so the Wall “fell”.

Real anecdote tale to illustrate the surprise. A young couple lived on the West side. The husband had a large family on the eastern side, and they used to visit these relatives. On the night of November 9th to 10th, the couple went to sleep as usual, around eleven at night. They woke up at two in the morning with people knocking on the doorbell. It was the family – all of them – from the Eastern side. They (the couple) lived in a small apartment. “My God”, one commented to the other, “they ran away, and now how will they stay here in our apartment?” Then they noticed that the relatives were bringing bottles of sparkling wine or champagne, and they said: “We didn't run away; the Wall fell”. It was a bomb, in a good way.

Weeks and weeks of intense parties followed, reunions and disagreements of all kinds; friendships and marriages were made, broken and redone effusively. As time went by, life got back on track, old or new. And to this day the question looms: what actually happened? Was there a reunification of the Germanys, or the annexation of the defeated by the victor? Oh, cruel doubt...

eye to eye

In April 1996, almost five years after the Fall, I came to Berlin for the first time. And of course: I ended up meeting, eye to eye, and face to face, with him, the Wall. Or what was left of it.

Between mid-1990 and late 1991 there had been a Wall demolition frenzy. Everyone wanted to take their shell, to have their pieces of concrete from the infamous at home. And there was an official demolition. End the “Wall of Shame”. Apparently, little was left standing.

But things didn't go well like that. The Wall is imprinted on the spirits. I witnessed heated discussions between ex-Eastern and ex-Western Berliners, around the spoils of the past. In them I heard that one side had sabotaged the memory of the other. In one of these discussions, I even heard one side saying to the other: “hey, you, on the other side, speak up so that we can hear”. When the discussion was over, both sides left with a firm footing, with the air (both of them) of having put the “other side” in its proper place.

Over time, Berlin ceased to be a burgh “distant from the world” to become an increasingly capitalist metropolis and integrated into the international tourism route. Millions of tourists flock to the new German capital annually. Among other things, what do they want to see? Why, the Wall! There was even a politician who proposed its reconstruction, an idea that fortunately did not prosper. But today the Wall is protected with the force of law. It is a misdemeanor to take pieces of it. It will still become a World Heritage Site, via UNESCO, if it hasn't already.

And he is there. There are tourist and aesthetic corners, where its surviving concrete slabs are leased by artists who temporarily leave their works there, but are forever recorded in the digital world. I prefer to visit its farthest corners, now lost in the middle of dense thickets, or dividing cemeteries, whose tombs had to be moved from one side to the other during their construction. The city is re-appropriating its Wall in different ways. It won't disappear. It will transform. It's turning into a lieu de mémoire, in the sense of Pierre Nora. Object of veneration and worship. In the best German and Berlin tradition, one of the only ones that erects and venerates monuments to what… shouldn't be done!

I end this chronicle by evoking two other true anecdotes.

In East Berlin, the youth movement, with hippies, counterculture, etc., was barely tolerated by the communist authorities, only to serve as a postcard demonstrating that there was freedom in the communist world. They were corruptions of capitalist decadence. The movement was concentrated in some buildings on a certain street, occupied by young people.

When the Wall fell, it was a delirium: freedom was coming, it was the end of the oppression of the hated regime. And it was. As I said before, time has passed. And one fine day the police of the reunited city arrived there. There had been purchases and/or recovery of properties; there was a repossession process; and in the new world of freedom that was finally envisioned and present, young people had to voluntarily evict themselves, or they would be forcibly evicted. They left, enjoying this new hard-won freedom of movement, as far as I know.

Once, still in that first year of 1996, I went with my now partner to visit a touching corner, a memorial to the victims of the repressions of the 1848 and 1918 movements, in Friedrichshain Park, in the former East Berlin. Around a wide but cozy square of grass were cypress trees and small tombstones of the victims. In the center, a granite stone with the name of all of them.

A friendly old man approached us and asked what we were doing there, since, he said, no one else visited that corner. My then-possible girlfriend explained to him that I was a visiting professor, from Brazil, etc. and such. And he showed us one of the names on that rock, in the center of the lawn: “Ludwig” – I remember it well. And he explained that when they put the stone there, during the Eastern regime, the last name of that “Herr Ludwig” was not known. But later it became known, and he, who had been a history teacher, told his students about it when they came there. “Today no one cares about it anymore,” he said wistfully. We then asked him if he missed the previous regime. “No,” he said, “the regime ended up becoming a police regime, more busy controlling us than fighting the other side.” “I miss”, he added, “the dreams I had and today I no longer have”.

We had nothing to add. I don't have anything now, except reverence for this example of a teacher.

* Flavio Aguiar is a writer, journalist, and professor of Brazilian literature at USP.

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