On November 9, 1989, the government of East Germany told its citizens they could once again cross over the Berlin Wall freely and visit friends and relatives in West Germany and West Berlin.
They pried away chunks of the Wall as part of the celebration and the government removed the rest of the Wall in 1990.
It had been in place since August 13, 1961.
In the summer of 1967, I traveled for three weeks in Europe on a Eurail pass that let me go anywhere, on as many legs as I wanted, for a fixed price of $99.
I traveled with an American from Muncie, Indiana, who had been my roommate in Lausanne, Switzerland, where we had studied French for seven weeks.
Her family had hosted a German exchange student when she was in high school who lived in West Berlin and offered to host us for the five days we were to be in Berlin.
It was like living in the middle of a spy movie. We assumed East German spies everywhere, adding to the energy of a city the West had made into a showcase to show the East Germans what they were missing.
We hung out at the discos at night, where one young American, there to study German, told us she had quit her daytime classes, finding it far more effective to learn German by going to the discos every night and talking with German students.
We took a day trip by bus into East Berlin. Our West Berlin guide got off before we crossed over and we picked up an East German guide for the day.
All newspapers and magazines that might have shown life in the West were removed from the bus.
One of the American tourists on the bus, bold and, I thought rude, asked a question I thought put the tour guide in danger.
“So, why did you build the Wall?”
“You can’t have a country without people,” she replied, nonplussed.
They ran a mirror under the bus before we returned through Checkpoint Charlie to make sure no one was hanging onto the struts underneath to escape into West Berlin.
Although the border between East and West Germany had been restricted since 1952, crossing between East and West Berlin had remained largely open until the Wall was erected.
Between 1952 and 1961, before the Wall was erected, 3.5 million East Germans, 20% of the country’s entire population, largely professionals, doctors, engineers and managers, had left for the West through Berlin.
From June 24, 1948 to May 12, 1949, the Soviet Union had blockaded West Berlin, stopping the delivery of all supplies, in an effort called the Berlin Blockade, hoping to convince the Western Allies, the U.S., Great Britain, and France, who controlled three sections of the city, as agreed to in the settlement at the end of World War II, to abandon the city to the Soviets, who controlled the fourth section.
Since Berlin is 100 miles inside the heart of East Germany, the blockade was an easy thing to do, cutting off rail and road routes from the West through East Germany.
The Western Allies, with planes from the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa responded by airlifting supplies and dropping them over the city in more than 200,000 flights.
By April, airplanes were delivering more goods than had been delivered by rail before the blockade.
Pilots, initiated by Air Force pilot Gail Halvorsen, dropped handmade handkerchief parachutes with candy for the children of Berlin, in an effort called “Operation Little Vittles.”
American children sent in their own candy to help the effort and candy manufacturers pitched in. Eventually, three tons of candy were dropped over Berlin.
On the train coming back from East Berlin that summer of 1967, to our next stop in Belgium, a couple of musicians asked if they could join us in our small sleeper car and we welcomed them in.
“There are some Americans in the car next to us who keep asking us what we think about Communism,” said the musicians, who, it turned out, were East Germans.
“We don’t want to talk about that.”
What they did not say, but what we knew from watching spy movies, was that Communist party members were probably always watching them and they were likely in danger if they spoke ill of their government.
We said, “You’re welcome to join us. We don’t have to talk about politics.”
With that, they sat down. Within ten minutes their story came out.
“We are only allowed to travel in the West if our families stay back in East Germany, hostage in case we should think about defecting.”
It was like their families were the ankle bracelets keeping them under house arrest.
Just as the East Berliners, so bold as to want to escape to a better life, had finally had their entire city turned into a prison.
East and West Germany were reunified on October 3, 1990.
Carol Covin, Granny-Guru