Sunday, November 09, 2014

My Memories of The Berlin Wall Coming Down

I was stationed in Augsburg, Germany in the late 1980s. The Cold War was winding down - in hindsight. It didn't seem like it at the time, but the world was getting ready to change in a big way.

From the time I stepped off the bus on my first day of Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, it was ingrained in us that the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies were the "Opposing Forces." They didn't use the word "enemy" very often, but there was no doubt that our entire training was set up for the next potential conflict: war in Europe between the countries of NATO and those of the Warsaw Pact.

The events of November 9, 1989 didn't happen all at once, though.

For several weekends before that fateful day, Germans from the east started crossing over the border for day trips into the west. The BBC, German newspapers, the "Stars and Stripes" and Armed Forces Radio (AFN) had reports of West German officials handing out West German Marks to each person coming over to help them with their shopping experiences; the East German Mark being pretty much worthless in the West. Families who hadn't seen each other in years, who were previously only allowed to get together after jumping through many hoops, were reunited. There were tears of joy and wonderment as those from the East came over to find out that those stores full of good were real and not just set up for propaganda by those in the "decadent" West.

Some enterprising East Germans brought over their Trabant cars. Those "Trabis" were terrible cars having a 2-cycle engine that ran on an gasoline and oil mix, wood floorboards that tended to rot and they were ugly. But, they were rare in the West in those days, so they were collectable. Because they were collectable, they commanded a pretty high price. $500-$1000 worth of West German currency was a princely sum in the East. At least, that was the case for the first few weeks. After a time, everyone who wanted one had one.

Then came, Thursday, November 9, 1989. My colleagues and I were working a rotating shift schedule in those days so that Thursday was one of our days off. We spent the day doing whatever 20-something men would do in a beautiful Bavarian city. That night found us at my friend John's apartment to hang out for the evening. I think we were going to stay up late and watch a hockey game on AFN Television.

There we were, sitting around watching TV when the regularly scheduled programming was interrupted for a special news announcement. The news staff from AFN started showing the scene in Berlin: Thousands of people crowding around the wall that divided Berlin for decades. In the span of a few short hours, the world changed in a big way as large chunks of the wall were taken down and removed. The words of Ronald Reagan from a few years before, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" came true. Only, it wasn't the head of the Soviet Union who tore it down; it was the divided people of Germany who decided they'd had enough and felt it was time for a change.

As we watched, AFN switched their feed to one of the German networks. My limited understanding of German was good enough to get the gist of what the announcer was saying. He didn't really say much, though, because he was choked up about what he was watching. At one point, he started sobbing and turned off the sound for a few minutes while he composed himself.

I don't remember who said it - may have been me - one of us commented, "Well, there go our jobs." The events of the day signaled the end of the Cold War, which was the end of our "Cold War" way of life and our "Cold War" jobs. In the long run, though, it was a good thing. I can't think of too many people I worked with in those days who aren't doing pretty well 25 years later.

Over the next several months, one Warsaw Pact country after another threw out the communist governments that had ruled over them since the end of WWII. There was a lot of turmoil in some of those countries, such as in the Balkan states. In others, things transitioned much more smoothly, such as with the "Velvet Divorce" of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Many of those countries now belong to NATO. Three years later, I was very privileged to have been among the first members of the U.S. Army who went to the Czech Republic to help them in their transition into NATO membership.

One of the people I worked with in those days in Augsburg shared his memories of his experience traveling to East Berlin: "You Are Now Leaving the American Sector" by Martin Kufus.

Another perspective of the fall of the Berlin Wall from a civilian point of view was shared by Danny Sullivan on his Daggle blog: My Fall Of The Berlin Wall Story.