by Stephen Parrish
At midnight on October 2nd, 1990 East and West Germany reunited. Stephen Parrish was present in Berlin for the event. Here he shares his observations from notes made twenty-five years ago.
By late afternoon on October’s second night burgeoning crowds had already gathered in downtown Berlin, many of the revelers lugging bottles of champagne they had bought at makeshift open-air markets. Some cradled their bottles like infants. Others shoved them into backpacks and camera bags. The bottles shook with the gentle motion of a milling throng, building pressure for a brief gush of glory at midnight, when East and West Germany, severed for four and a half decades, would reunite.
The Berliners didn’t wait until midnight to begin celebrating. They splintered the early evening calm with strings of firecrackers and swallowed pump-priming doses of beer and wine. Those who braved the streets converged on two of Berlin’s most important landmarks: the Reichstag, Hitler’s old seat of government, and the Brandenburg Gate, a mammoth stone arch supported by six Doric columns that had come to symbolize the divided city and the entire Cold War itself. The gate stood in the center of the city, on the border between east and west, just one hundred meters or so from the rubble that a few months earlier had been the Berlin Wall.
I followed Ebertstrasse north along the rubble, past vendors hawking champagne, Russian military insignia, and graffiti-covered chunks of wall, to join the swell of people rolling and breaking around the foot of the Brandenburg Gate. The material sold as “Berlin Wall” would eventually exceed the material used to build it; spray-painted chunks of common sidewalk are indistinguishable.
I had visited Berlin before, when the wall was still intact, and had used the landmark for reference to get around the city. Today I was disoriented. Only patches remained, their iron reinforcements jutting out like rusted skeletons. Streets between east and west that had been blocked for decades were suddenly open to traffic, with no crosswalks or traffic lights yet installed. Pedestrians darted between cars.
Berlin is an ogre of a city. The impression begins when you fly in for the first time and look down from your airplane window. Passengers new to Berlin crane their necks and hope for a glimpse of an Eiffel Tower or an Empire State Building—anything they can identify with. You sense their disappointment. Nobody points out the window and says, “Look, there’s…!” They simply sit and stare.
When you see the Chicago skyline from the waterfront for the first time, you recognize it. It’s as it should be. You see what you expect to see.
Not so, Berlin. The city was leveled during the war, then replanted with low buildings, buildings that poke up meekly from the earth as if afraid of being knocked down again. It was scarred by the wall in a zigzag, meandering path. During the Cold War, the east side wasn’t so dilapidated as you might have thought, nor the west side so prosperous. To residents of each, the other was just drüben—over there.
Fewer businesses prospered on the east side: a Russian language bookstore, a Czechoslovakian cultural center, an airline to Bulgaria. The newer apartment buildings resembled Lego toys. The older buildings, the ones that survived the bombs, stood tired and ashamed, like old men in the back of a grade school classroom.
The newer apartment buildings resembled Lego toys. The older buildings, the ones that survived the bombs, stood tired and ashamed, like old men in the back of a grade school classroom.
Still, the city is probably Europe’s richest in twentieth century history. A quarter of a century ago, on October’s second night, you could stand atop World War II rubble, carry some home if you liked. Gestapo headquarters had been dug up to reveal the original detention cells (if only walls could talk). And Olympic Stadium, gray, hollow, wind-swept, spoke softly of another time. If you listened carefully and used your imagination you could hear faint echoes of the crowd cheering the 1936 games, echoes not quite stilled by the din of war so much louder since.
The subway has its own breed of people. In New York nobody looks at you; if they do, you get nervous. In Berlin everybody stares. The hair is long, the skirts are short. Lennon-style eyeglasses are popular. The passengers are brisk boarding the trains. Their faces are grim and droopy. They descended from war survivors: a race that emerged from the rubble and got busy making babies to rebuild the population.
The papers reported that some one million tourists were in town. If anyone wanted to know where they were, I had found them. They packed tightly as far as the eye could see, and their heads bobbed and rippled like the surface of open water. The best you could hope for, if you wanted to go somewhere in particular, was to swirl with the eddies and trust that one of them carried you there. I found an undertow moving sluggishly eastward, down Unter den Linden to the central business district of East Berlin, and with a little squirming got into it and was jostled downtown with the current.
Unter den Linden was the showcase promenade in East Berlin. Lined with expensive western-style shops and restaurants, it terminated in Marx-Engels-Platz, an urban core of eighteenth century neoclassical architecture mixed with proud, modern buildings. But it was just a showcase. A short walk in any direction off the street, especially out to the residential districts, exposed the real East Berlin: exhausted, hopeless dwellings, condemned but still inhabited; acres of brick-and-mortar beggars huddled around coal-burning ovens and furnaces.
When I reached Friedrichstrasse I claimed the leeward side of a lamppost and watched as riot police encircled a gang of skinheads chanting, “Nie wieder, Deutschland! Nie wieder, Deutschland!” Germany never again! Obviously not everyone was happy with the decision to reunite.
If you followed Friedrichstrasse south you crossed over to the west after passing through Checkpoint Charlie. The original checkpoint is gone now, as are the faceless men toting guns and mirrors who formerly manned it. Nor is there so much as a crumb of wall within sight; it’s all been chipped or hauled away. But oddly enough the famous sign remains: “You are leaving the American sector” plainly offers a subtle warning to anyone who can read English, Russian, German, or French. The structures of the checkpoint—the guard shacks and visa control points—have been removed to a local museum. If not for the sign you wouldn’t know anything extraordinary ever happened there; any daring escape attempts, any loss of life.
At eleven p.m. on October’s second night I left Friedrichstrasse and headed back to the Brandenburg Gate in a west-bound current. I wanted to be standing under the gate at midnight, and I knew that if I didn’t start the journey now I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near it.
I had thought, a couple of hours earlier, that I’d seen all the people in the world. But they were only the early birds. The rest had since left their television sets and were now converging on the Reichstag and the gate. They streamed in like refugees, knowing there wasn’t enough room for everybody, but also that they had little choice but to continue toward their destination. One fact was certain: there was no going against the current; there was no going home until all the people wanted to go home.
In the last fifteen minutes before midnight the remainder of the firecracker stockpile met its purpose. Rockets were aimed at the mammoth gate itself. It was a feeble gesture; like trying to bring Jericho down with kazoos. Some people carried torches, holding them high above their heads, and as the torches burned they dropped flaming embers which the breeze carried to nest in human hair. The smoke from the firecrackers and torches smothered the neighborhood of the gate in a blue fog. From a distance it must have looked like a battle scene.
And as the hour drew near I looked into the faces of the people and tried to identify the emotion. Was it joy? Sentiment? Excitement about the future? I couldn’t decide. Their smiles seemed to hesitate. Perhaps they thought they should be overcome with emotion—Germany was once again Germany—but they were unsure of what the future had in store for them. The last time Germany had been Germany the experiment had been controversial, to say the least.
And this time?
At midnight a cork shot into the air, followed by a spray of champagne. Thousands of corks launched like popcorn out of an open popper, and fountains of champagne mist rose above the sea of heads. Germany was once again Germany. And in this one moment, if not in the next or last, the emotion was joy.
A song from the 1960s had become an icon: “Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin” —I still have a suitcase in Berlin. President Reagan quoted it during his visit, although it hadn’t quite the impact of Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner.” For the many people who had left the city, tired of living on a political island, the song represented a part of them they had left behind.
A song from the 1960s had become an icon: “Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin” —I still have a suitcase in Berlin. President Reagan quoted it during his visit, although it hadn’t quite the impact of Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
I would leave Berlin with the memory of a middle-aged man standing in front of a remnant of the wall. There was still a large panel a few minutes’ walk west of Checkpoint Charlie. Most of the graffiti was gone, removed by the Mauerspechte, or wall woodpeckers. You could only get some of the original graffiti if you could reach high enough, and foot stools had been brought for that purpose. For the undiscriminating, spray paint was applied to the freshly chiseled surface. This graffiti was not nearly the quality of the original, which some called art, but it would do for tourists.
A young vendor had laid out his pieces on a board and was carefully painting each one with a spray can. Another vendor, older and wiser, offered me a hammer and chisel. Squinting to guess my nationality, and guessing right, he said, “Five dollars. One hour?”
But the man I watched was having none of this. He stood with his hands in his pockets and stared at the wall.
Maybe he had once lived on the other side. Maybe he had escaped over the wall a long time ago, and had come back during reunification to bid it farewell.
The wall might not have been as high as he remembered it, but maybe that was because the barbed wire was gone. Maybe too because he was older now, and the world shrinks when you grow up too fast in it.
Maybe he would leave Berlin with his suitcase in his hand.