Twenty years ago
On Tuesday, Germany will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. There has been a nearly nonstop succession of television documentaries, events, interviews, and speeches to mark this event, and as one would expect one hears mostly that it was a joyous occasion beyond anyone’s dreams, but there is often a note of bitterness mixed in about the ways that unification, twenty years on, has left behind a lot of carnage and wounds, but psychic and financial, that have yet to heal.
Tonight I was sitting in front of the television watching one of those documentaries. 20 years ago on November 9, I sat, utterly speechless and weeping uncontrollably as I recall, before my television in Dillon, Colorado watching news that I thought would never come in my lifetime. Just two years earlier a West Berlin bureaucrat had told us, a visiting group of college students, that things had normalized and that the Wall was simply a reality one must accept. As he put it, the goal of his government was to find ways to make it more permeable–travel permits, exchanges, etc.–but that its existence was no longer really in question. He said this was no perceptible emotion and, in general, in those days there was certainly little or no unification urge or spirit in the Federal Republic.
While I sat there speechless that day in 1989, I also thought about two other more personal aspects of this stunning turn of events. First, I longed to be in Leipzig on that day. I had applied for but not received one of the rare Fulbright grants for East Germany, and had it been successful, I would have been a student at the then Karl Marx University in Leipzig and likely, due to my burning Americanness, taken part in the marches. The other thought was that my recently submitted application for a Fulbright to West Germany based on a topic concerning authors who had either left or been expelled from East Germany, was pretty much now bound for the circular file. As it turned out, it was successful, but that’s another story.
While watching tonight, perhaps as a result of having been bombarded with reminisces for the last two months, it finally dawned on me that one of the main forces behind 1989 in East Germany was the wish for Reisefreiheit, the freedom to travel, to determine one’s locale. Tonight, however, for the first time, it became clear to me that there was an aspect of the events of 1989 that I had never really considered, that being that the brave people who brought down the East German regime also gained me my Reisefreiheit.
In 1982, as a fairly naive 15 year-old high school student, I spent the better part of a summer living with a family in Berlin within a stone’s throw of the border to East Germany in far southwestern West Berlin. Transiting East Germany by rail and living within an island city made an indelible impression on me, and I sought every opportunity I could to spend time in East Berlin and Potsdam. Those trips are burned into my memory like little else from that age, and the impressions remain fresh and palpable and likely always will. It was a mix of fear, hatred (for smug border types and oppressive regimes), curiosity, and adventure that quickened the pulse and sharpened the senses.
Ironically, that was all I ever saw of the DDR. Although I read much about cities such as Dresden and Leipzig, it was impossible to visit them as an American without being on an organized group visa. I tried in 1987 while living in West Germany and was rejected, and ended up transiting East Germany to visit Poland. In 1990, after the Wall was opened, I even tried to bribe, outright, an agent for the East German state travel agency’s office in Bratislava so that I could visit what was left of the DDR before reunification.
I had spent considerable time in Eastern Europe at that point, and longed to visit the “other” Germany. My passport was littered with stamps that said DDR in that peculiar blue and orange ink, but all I knew of it were the signs I could say as the train rolled toward Berlin: Wittenberge, Staaken, etc. In college I had developed an interest in East German literature and read everything I could. While others read Mann’s Buddenbrooks or Frisch, Dürrenmatt, et al., I devoured Wolf, de Bruyn, Braun, and Becher. I wrote my senior thesis on Jurij Brezan, and had hoped to visit the grand old man of Sorb literature if I had gotten the grant for Leipzig. In fact, visiting the Sorb homeland in the Lausitz was one of my main motivations for seeking a visa to East Germany.
And so, in 1989, I now realize, I, too, was granted my freedom to travel to East Germany, and am now fortunate enough to live in a grand city such as Leipzig. I cannot express how much I admire and appreciate those people, some of whom are my neighbors now, who took to the streets in 1989 to topple a decrepit but still dangerous regime. It is a mistaken assumption on the part of many Americans and Europeans that we are “free” while others live under the yoke of dictatorships. As an American, my government prohibits me from travelling to any number of lands with whom we have chosen to pick quixotic fights that have nothing whatsoever to do with citizens of either nation as individual human beings. Our foreign policy and incessant use of military force makes other regions simply too dangerous to visit, merely by dint of having an American passport and regardless of my personal views on the matters. I have no general Reisefreiheit.
Freedom, so oft on the tongues of American presidents, German chancellors, and others of their ilk, has many aspects and meanings, and while certainly much was gained in 1989, it is equally clear that some things were also lost. Nevertheless, on Tuesday, I hope to take a moment to reflect quietly on the events of 20 years ago, and silently weep in gratitude for those who stood up for my freedom, too. May I be so bold someday.