My November 1989 in Berlin

Written by: Hope M. Harrison


Hope M. Harrison at the Berlin Wall, November 11, 1989.


On November 9, 1989, I boarded a plane in New York City at Kennedy airport for a long-planned trip to West Berlin, having no idea (as no one did at the time) that the Berlin Wall would fall while I was on the plane.

I was a graduate student at Columbia University writing my dissertation on the Berlin Wall, and in 1989, I was also a pre-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Each year the city of West Berlin paid for a group of American “young leaders,” drawn from Harvard and Stanford, to spend ten days in the city. The goal of the program was to have us get to know West Berlin and presumably to convince us of the importance of protecting democratic West Berlin from any pressure the communist regimes in East Berlin or Moscow might exert in the future.

In the previous few months, thousands of East Germans had escaped to West Germany via the newly opened border between Hungary and Austria or via East-West German negotiated agreements for the release to West Germany of refugees camped out at their embassies in Warsaw and Prague and their Permanent Mission in East Berlin. Given that the West German government provided each East German citizen with 100DM of “welcome money” and help finding housing and a job as well as granting them citizenship, the West German system was overwhelmed. The questions I had prepared for the West Berlin officials we would meet all revolved around this situation and how long the city could handle the mass influx of refugees.

Since no direct flights were allowed to West Berlin from outside of West Germany during the Cold War, I had to go through Frankfurt. After landing there in the early morning hours of November 10 and boarding the flight for the short trip to West Berlin, I looked around and saw everyone reading newspapers with banner headlines that said, “Die Mauer ist offen!” “The Wall is open!” I wondered, “Is my German not as good as I think it is? What is going on? Or is November 10 the equivalent of April Fool’s Day in Germany?” I didn’t have to wonder for long.

The pilot got on the intercom and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen. In case you haven’t heard, the Berlin Wall fell last night, and we are flying into history!” Everyone burst into applause as I sat there stunned and then very excited about this incredible turn of events and my lucky timing.

Over the next ten days, I visited the Berlin Wall several times around the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, picking up some of my own small pieces. I watched one evening as a bulldozer removed a section of the Wall at Potsdamer Platz to allow East Germans to come through driving their pollution-emitting Trabants or walking. I watched as West Germans showered East Germans with hugs, flowers, money, or Sekt (sparkling wine). Everyone was cheering and/or crying tears of joy. People were selling Sekt on what felt like every street corner. And huge A&P trucks were camped out at some of the crossing points in the Wall giving the East Germans free bananas (not generally available in East Germany) and good coffee (also not easy to come by in the East).

The first night our group was in West Berlin, we all went to the big rally at John F. Kennedy Platz outside West Berlin’s city hall, Rathaus Schöneberg, where West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and former West German Chancellor and West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt all addressed the crowds. I was stunned when people booed Kohl. I was later told that he was not popular in West Berlin, since he was much more conservative than most West Berliners. It was at this rally that Brandt made his now-famous statement, “Es wächst zusammen, was zusammen gehört.” (“What belongs together is now growing together.”)

Back at dinner afterwards at the Hotel Alpenland (which, alas, doesn’t exist anymore) near Savigny Platz, our hosts had invited some guests to join us. One of them, Claudia Wilhelm, was a high school English teacher and had lived in Berlin her whole life, first in the East, then in the West. Her family had moved from East to West Berlin in the late 1950s before the Wall was built in 1961. We got to talking and she asked whether I would like to join her the following day for a drive around the city to see places where the Wall was opening. Again, I could not believe my good fortune! Being shown around the city by a Berliner at this extraordinary moment in time? Yes, I wanted to join her!

One of the places we visited was the Glienicke Brücke, the famous bridge where the US and Soviet Union swapped spies at the border in the middle of the bridge which connected the southwest corner of West Berlin with the neighboring East German city of Potsdam. (The bridge was brought to life again in 2015 with the film Bridge of Spies, filmed on location.) Claudia and I stood on the West Berlin side of the bridge soaking up the jubilant atmosphere and watching streams of East Germans coming across, while the water of the Havel River sparkled below and the early 19th-century Schloss Glienicke overlooking the bridge experienced another profound moment in German history.

One evening I tried take the S-bahn from West Berlin to East Berlin. Not a chance! There were thousands and thousands of East Germans streaming out of every station into West Berlin. So instead I did what they did—headed to the KuDamm, the 5th Avenue of West Berlin. With so few interesting or good quality consumer goods in the East, East Germans wanted to see the stores on the KuDamm. In fact, so many of them headed there that weekend of November 11-12 when more than 2 million East Germans flooded into West Berlin that they had to close the street to cars. East Germans walked up and down the gorgeous wide, tree-lined street and also headed to the most famous department store nearby, KaDeWe, and especially to its 6th floor, packed with restaurants and food stalls selling food and drink from all over the world (champagne and fresh French pastries flown in daily from Paris, etc.) and including more than 200 types of German sausage (or Wurst).

Another evening I did get to East Berlin along with one of the Harvard students on the trip with me. He had contacts in East Berlin and we joined them at one of the large demonstrations that had been taking place for more than two months against the East German regime. I was a little nervous, since I had never been to a demonstration in the US, to saying nothing of one against a communist regime. But my new friend assured me we would be fine and that the East German authorities had given up using force against demonstrators, particularly since the mood had changed so dramatically with the fall of the Wall. So we went.

The demonstration was held in Bebel Platz, along the main street of East Berlin, the Unter den Linden, with Humboldt University and the Staatsoper (State Opera House) surrounding it. Bebel Platz was where the Nazis had burned 20,000 books they disapproved of in 1933. And now East Germans were demonstrating their own disapproval with the state of affairs and calling for free elections, freedom of assembly, and the end of the dreaded Stasi, the secret police. We were packed in with thousands of people in the square, but it was peaceful and there was a feeling of excitement among the demonstrators.

Over the ten days I spent in Berlin, I kept wondering (as did everyone): what will happen next? It wasn’t at all clear in those early days that unification would automatically follow the fall of the Wall. That path developed in the months ahead. I also kept thinking how glad I was that a few months earlier when I was studying German in Boppard-am-Rhein, I decided to rent a car and drive up to Berlin for my first-ever visit to the divided city and the Wall. I spent three fascinating days there in July, even driving through Checkpoint Charlie and going up in the Fernsehturm (the TV tower) where the lunch consisted of some sort of mystery meat (best not to know!) but the view of the city was amazing. I was glad that I had had one experience with Berlin while the Wall stood, because now it was coming down!

As I shared in the jubilation of the Berliners about the fall of the Wall, I also kept wondering: will anyone care now about the dissertation I am writing about the erection of the Wall?! I didn’t imagine then that Germany would unite less than a year later, the Soviet Union would collapse two years later, and the archives in Moscow, Berlin and other soon-to-be former communist countries would open for historians like myself. But that’s what happened! And thanks to a pre-doctoral fellowship I had in 1991-92 from the Social Science Research Council to be based at the Free University’s Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies, I ended up being one of the first historians to use the archives in Berlin and Moscow to tell the story of the decision to build the Berlin Wall–first in my dissertation at Columbia and then in my book, Driving the Soviets up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961 (Princeton University Press, 2003 and published in German as Ulbrichts Mauer: Wie die SED Moskaus Widerstand gegen den Mauerbau brachte with Propyläen, 2011).

My experience in Berlin in November 1989 also laid the seeds for the book I have just published about how the Germans have grappled with the history and legacy of the Berlin Wall over the past thirty years since its fall: After the Berlin Wall: Memory and the Making of the New Germany, 1989 to the Present (Cambridge University Press, October 2019). And Claudia, the English teacher I met the first night in West Berlin who showed me around? We have stayed friends ever since, and I will be staying with her as usual when I return to Berlin to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.

After the Berlin Wall by Hope M. Harrison

After the Berlin Wall by Hope M. Harrison

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About the Author: Hope M. Harrison

Hope M. Harrison is Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, Washington DC. The recipient of fellowships from Fulbright, the Wilson Center, and the American Academy in Berlin, she is the author of Driving the Soviet up the Wall (2003), which was awarded the 2004 Marshall Shulman Book Prize by the Ame...

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