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Around the Halls: 20 Years After the Berlin Wall Fell

November 9 marks the twenty-year anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, leading to its ultimate fall. With protests in East Germany in the weeks prior building to over one million people, Egon Krenz, leader of the East German politburo, in an effort to ease tensions, decided to allow some refugees to exit directly through crossing points between East Berlin and West Berlin all along the border. In the days and weeks that followed, ecstatic citizens crossed between East and West and also hammered away at the Wall, leading the way for Germany’s reunification. Four experts from around the halls of Brookings share their personal recollections of the Berlin Wall and its demise.

   Personal Vignettes of the Wall
Johannes Linn was born in Germany and studied in West Berlin from 1964-1965. Linn is the director of the Wolfensohn Center for Development at Brookings and a senior fellow.


Question: What fortification is designed to keep people in, not an enemy out?
Answer: A Prison. That was the Berlin Wall.

October 1945: born in Bavaria, I grow up far from what will become the Iron Curtain, and from the Wall that will divide Berlin. But the “East” is a threatening red blob on my school atlas.

May 1959: my first visit to Berlin. I go to East Berlin simply by crossing an invisible border. I witness a May Day Parade of scary Soviet tanks, pointed missiles and goose-stepping soldiers.

September 1964 – July 1965: I study at the Free University in West Berlin. The Wall has gone up and divides the city. West Berlin is an island of freedom, well-being and isolation, in equal measure exhilarating and depressing.

For example, a midnight excursion to the Wall to end a party – no quicker way to sober up; a visit to East Berlin to meet a pen-pal, who insists on going to the noisiest café so he can safely unburden himself of his pent-up frustrations; saying good-bye to the friend from the East, thinking that he will never be able to follow me to the West, without risking his life in the Death Strip.

November 9, 1989: from a distant perch in Washington, DC, I marvel at incomprehensible, joyous pictures of the Wall breached.

March 1990: I visit Berlin, I visit the Wall. As I approach, a persistent sound of “ping-ping-ping” grows more intense with every step. As I get close, I see people – lots of people – each on his or her own, silently hammering away at The Wall. This is their way to make sure it’s not a dream. When I return to Washington, a friend asks: “So Germany will now be unified?” I bet it won’t happen in the 1990s. By October 1990 I have lost the bet.

October 1999: As vice president for the World Bank I meet Prime Minister Putin in Moscow. He welcomes me in German. We talk about the Russian economy and Chechnya. The Wall and his service for the KGB in East Germany are a matter of the past, but not forgotten.

August 2002: I live with a family in St. Petersburg to learn Russian. We look at the family photo album with pictures of my host as a five-year old, saluting proudly with his father, a Soviet Army officer stationed in East Berlin in the 1960s. Then the enemy, now my friend.

July 2009: Three musicians from the Berlin Opera Orchestra stay with us in Arlington, VA, and play together in our house. Two grew up in East Berlin, one in West Berlin. They leave pieces of the Wall as gifts.

November 9, 2009: My wife, born and raised in the United States, inaugurates an electronic exhibit on the fall of the Wall on the State Department web site. She now knows a lot more than I do about the Wall and how it fell. But somehow, the Wall is still in my bones.

“Never again,” should be the refrain, “never again, anywhere, the Wall!”

   Change can Happen Suddenly
Steven Pifer is a former Foreign Service officer, with postings in London, Moscow, Geneva and Warsaw. Pifer is a senior fellow and focuses on amrs control, Ukraine and Russia.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union just two years later dramatically redrew the map of Europe. While one can look back now and see the fragility of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union, few understood what was coming in the 1980s. The Wall's end caught most everyone -- Germans, Americans, Russians (then the Soviets) and other Europeans -- by surprise. The lesson to take for the future is that sweeping geopolitical changes can happen suddenly and with no warning. You won't always be able to predict them, but you need to be agile in responding.

Memories of a Student
Federiga Bindi, was studying in Paris whe the Berlin Wall fell. She is a visiting fellow in the Center for the United States on Europe focusing on European political integration.

I was a student in Sciences Po in Paris when the Berlin Wall came down. It was 6:50 p.m.; students were packed to listen to Alfred Grosser’s weekly comments on the ongoing events in Eastern Europe. As he was wrapping up, people came in to announce the news. It felt like the roof was coming down: people were screaming, crying, clapping, hugging, kissing, and jumping. Twenty years have passed and I’m still touched.

Younger generations and non-Europeans can hardly feel the emotional impact of November 9. It felt as though Paris and Berlin were as near as DC and Philly, but we could not talk, visit or know each other. Going from West to East Germany was difficult and dangerous, the other way was impossible unless one was willing to risk one’s life. After November 9, we started to travel. For New Year’s it was Berlin and – as I was in youth politics – we started to organize seminars in central and eastern Europe. We began to learn about each other. We learned how the same words did not have the same meanings. “Democracy” was “a nice way to live,” while “social state” (for us, synonymous with the blessed welfare state) was “wrong.” Some of the young people we met only spoke Russian as a foreign language, but refused to use it and communication was hard. Others spoke English fluently, leaving us in doubt whether they had learned it in the Young Communist League of Germany or, as they claimed, with the first satellite dishes.

A lot has happened since then. The Wall is no more; the Cold War is over. Central and eastern European countries are now part of the European Union, something unthinkable only 24 years ago, when the USSR finally recognized the European Economic Community.

I often feel the world is divided among us “Cold War relics,” who cannot avoid using that paradigm despite how hard we try, and the younger crowd—who, having never experienced the old world, think in dramatically different, global terms. President Obama stands out as the only leader of the Cold War generation who can truly think like the next generation does. He is at times seen as a visionary. My feeling is that no, it is the rest of us who are outdated.

Our World of Work
Captain Anthony Popiel is a Coast Guard Officer and a federal executive fellow with the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was an exciting and memorable time to say the least. I was a young O-2 (Lieutenant junior grade) in May 1989 when the Coast Guard transferred me from a polar icebreaking ship to the Readiness Branch in the Coast Guard’s 9th District Office in Cleveland, Ohio.

In that office, we prepared contingency plans for the employment of active and reserve Coast Guard resources for military operations expected to occur either in the U.S. or overseas. In the Readiness Branch, we trained and planned for specific contingencies at various “hot spots” around the world that might require the support of Coast Guard Port Security Units that we managed out of the Cleveland office, but our primary focus was clearly on the USSR. We maintained response plans related to a Soviet attack in the U.S. and conducted regular exercises to maximize readiness in our coastal Maritime Defense Zone (MDZ).

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the change in the perceived threat of Communism, the focus of our planning efforts really shifted over the next few years. Combined with the incidents that prompted Operation Desert Storm the following year, our emphasis evolved from countering Soviet aggression to supporting a variety of smaller contingency scenarios both at home and abroad. Our world of work literally changed over night, and I was able to observe firsthand as the Coast Guard worked to meet its role in this new era.