Happy 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall! Here’s a report in German about the celebrations, including gigantic decorated dominoes lined up in Berlin to commemorate the fall of the wall.
Video of Berlin Wall celebrations
You can read an article in English about the domino wall.
I was in eighth grade at the time the wall fell, and remember watching Tom Brokaw with the news on TV. My mother was astounded at the news and couldn’t believe it. Even though I didn’t quite understand the ramifications then, I knew it was an historical event of huge import. Once I was in high school, and learned more about the Cold War, Communism and the Eastern Bloc, only then did I start to understand the significance.
Here are some stories related to the fall of the wall that I like to share with my students.
In 1993, my dear friend Janet was in Germany as an exchange student for a few weeks. During her visit, she traveled to Berlin and was able to hack off a piece of the wall. She gave it to me, and I’ve treasured this unassuming bit of grey concrete ever since. Not only do I value my bit of the wall for its historical significance, but it’s also made for a great classroom aid. The piece I have is about the size of an apple. Doing a quick search online, I could probably sell it for about $200 if I really wanted. (Not for sale!)
In June 1995, just a few years after the wall fell, I traveled to Berlin with some of my host siblings. One of my host sisters was studying medicine in Berlin. To save money, my host sister rented an apartment in East Berlin.
The apartment had originally been owned by an elderly couple. They had lived at least since the war, and possibly earlier than that. The wife had passed on in the early nineties, after her husband had died. Essentially the apartment was in its original state. It was on a Soviet-style, drab-looking street, with very little greenery. The buildings were built of red brick, and the streets and sidewalks were paved with greystone.
The apartment only had a Kachelofen or masonry heater for heat. It’s a cost effective way to provide heat, especially in a smaller space like that. My host sister didn’t have to pay rent for the first few months she lived in the apartment, provided she did renovations. She removed a chandelier from the 1950’s. Only later did she discover the exact same chandelier in one of the museums in Berlin, realizing it was a fine piece of artwork from the time period. While we were visiting, we helped my host sister pull up the front hall vinyl flooring. Underneath the flooring, we found several aluminum coins from the DDR period, and also two 20 Mark notes.
I only have some of the above coins, not a full set. Perhaps I should look into getting a full set of coins, for my own personal interest, historical interest, and for my future German classes.
I have two of the 20 Mark notes.
Here’s a picture of all the DDR Bank notes, excluding the 500 Mark note:
DDR, by the way, is the German term for East Germany. It stands for: Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or the GDR – German Democratic Republic. I am so used to referring to East Germany as the “ehmalige DDR”, I sometimes forget that a non-German speaker wouldn’t know what I mean by DDR. Ehmalig means former.
Anyway, when we discovered this old DDR money underneath the vinyl flooring, I was bewitched by it. My imagination invented wild stories as to why this couple had stashed about 45 Marks under their hallway flooring. Perhaps it was just an extra stash of money, or maybe, just maybe, they were saving up to flee the DDR! You can imagine the stories that swirled in my mind. My host sister was totally uninterested in the money, as were my other host siblings. They gladly gave it to me, partially amused by my interest in something they saw as worthless. I still have the bank notes and coins, and loved showing them off to my students. The reverse side of the 20-Mark note has a picture of school children gleefully heading to school, in order to learn about being a good citizen of the DDR.
On the same trip to Berlin, we spent a day in Potsdam. I would like to go back and see how it has changed since the reunification of Germany. At the time, a lot of construction and renovation was happening in Potsdam, to help it regain its former status as an important historical city. I was struck by the stark difference between the beautiful historic homes and the castle Schloß Sanssouci, and the Soviet-era buildings that often incorporated propagandist artwork, elevating the status of the humble worker.
When I started teaching German, most of my students were born after the fall of the wall. It’s always interesting to see their reactions. Some of the them are true history nuts and know a lot already about the Berlin wall. But most of my students never gave much thought to what life would have been like living in a divided city, or in a communist country during the Cold War. In my classroom, we could see a major road from the windows. I had my students imagine that the local government decided to erect a huge wall in the middle of that road. This worked pretty well as a tool to help students start thinking about what a divided city would be like. I then told my students that if they had friends or family on the opposite side of the wall, they would never be allowed to visit them, unless they got special permission. And, of course, they had to imagine that there was a no-man’s land, heavily guarded by the military. Once my students started thinking more and more about the difficulties such a wall posed, they began to understand what faced the citizens in Berlin and in the DDR.
There have been some excellent movies in recent years highlighting this time period. The movie Good Bye, Lenin! (or click here for the IMDB synopsis) is about a woman who is in a coma during the fall of the wall. When she reawakens, eight months later, her son attempts to hide the fact that her beloved-DDR is no more.
Another movie I’ve shown to my students is called Sonnenallee, which I don’t believe is available in English, unfortunately. It’s based on a book about Sonnenallee street, which was divided in two because of the wall. This movie takes place during the seventies, when Rock ‘N Roll was more or less forbidden in the DDR. It’s a humorous view of a teenager, his friends and his family and how they live behind the wall.
And finally, the fabulous movie The Lives of Others details what happens to a DDR Stasi officer when he becomes more and more interested in the lives of two stars he is spying on.
I am sure there are other films about this time period I am not thinking of; feel free to add your suggestions in the comments. Even though films are fiction, ultimately, I think the stories and situations helped my students understand the serious nature of the Cold War time period, and the role the DDR played in the politics of the time.