The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to prevent East Germans from fleeing to West Germany. A barrier of steel fence, barbed wire, and concrete was also built along the entire 188-mile border between East Germany and West Germany. In 1989, when a democratic uprising spread through eastern Europe, the communist leadership of East Germany was swept aside and the walls came tumbling down. On November 9, thousands joined in a wild celebration as holes were made in the Berlin Wall, an event that was televised around the world. In the following account, Arthur T. Hadley describes the quieter, less dramatic celebrations that occurred along the 188-mile border.
T H I N K T H R O U G H H I S T O RY: Drawing Conclusions
What did the destruction of the Berlin Wall mean to German citizens? The destruction of the Berlin Wall, seen on television around the globe, resembled a riotous, dancing, Broadway spectacular full of fun and joy. The piercing in many places of the double lines of steel fencing, barbed wire, and concrete wall along the 188 miles of the border between East and West Germany patrolled by the U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment produced for me totally different emotions. This stretch of the inner-German border reaches from the edge of Bavaria in the south to the British zone in the north. It is a section relatively untouched by
development, dotted with small farming villages connected by narrow roads that twist through the densely wooded hills.
In this rural world the openings were made largely out of sight of news organizations and without world leaders present. At most of these new crossing points one saw not the young dancing and partying but older people who came with tears. Many were parts of families separated for years, who either had not seen each other or had caught only an occasional glimpse through field glasses, and who now strolled quietly back and forth across the border. As they did so they passed crosses, freshly wreathed for Christmas, which commemorated those killed trying to escape across the Wall before East Germany opened its borders, on November 9. (Treason is once more a question of dates.) These people came to shop, certainly; they bought a lot of fruit and Christmas cards. But they also brought with them pictures of grandchildren never seen, or groups of relatives. At these openings what came to me was not joy, but Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”:
But hearing often times The still, said music of
humanity, Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample
power To chasten and subdue.
On November 8 along this 188 miles of border there were only two openings. These had been there since the fences and walls went up more than 40 years ago. Both were heavily guarded by East German troops and border police. There were runs for patrol dogs; crossings could take hours. Then on the 9th parts of this world changed. Two months later, when I surveyed this portion of the frontier—which includes the famed invasion route, the Fulda Gap—there were 32 border crossings with checks, if they existed at all, taking minutes. Yet such was the unplanned and topsy-turvy nature of this “revolution” that even as East and West German border police were helping each other to open up some sections of the Wall, in other areas the East German border guards were still building watchtowers and taking pictures of West German watchers. To someone peering from the West or talking to the green-uniformed East German border police in the friendly sections, it appeared that the government of Communist Germany had truly broken down, leaving each tiny section of the Wall to do as it pleased.
In some sections of the frontier the openings had been made by East Germans alone. Some of these are bicycle paths, some mere footpaths through the pines and birches, others are motor roads. At other border points the steel fences had been taken down by West Germans while those in the East merely watched. In the town of Rasdorf the West German townspeople, annoyed that they had to travel a good half-hour to cross the border, held an all-night candlelight vigil at their portion of the ten-foot-high steel fence right after Christmas. The East German border guards stared right back. Finally at about dawn the guards began to take down the line of fencing that was closer to the East. The candle-holders surged forward and dismantled the fence closer to their side of the border. A few days later outside of Rasdorf a new route sign appeared. It was painted yellow and bore the county marketings like many other road signs in West Germany. But this one bore a heretofore impossible name, Bad Salzungen, the nearest large town on the other side of the old Wall.
For centuries the twin towns of Philippstal and Vacha had been one town lying on each side of the tiny Werra River, connected by an ancient red stone bridge. There was one high school for both towns; children played together; families farmed the hillside fields together and intermarried. Then the Wall went up, high concrete here, not a mere iron fence. The vagaries of the border were such that the Wall ran right down the center of the bridge and right through the house at the bridge’s western end. One half of the house, now painted white, ended up in the East, its gutter discharging into the East. The other half of the house, now painted brown, empties into the West.
On November 11 the faces of some East German guards peered over the stone and concrete from the Vacha side. Could the people of Philippstal lend them some heavy equipment to help tear down the Wall? The bridge is now unwalled; the house is no longer divided.
After the first of January the great ugly green fence with probes and spikes that hung from the bridge to prevent people from escaping from East Germany by swimming down the Werra River was raised. It hung cold and dry above the water, its hidden teeth that had scraped the bottom, on which several would-be escapees had died, gaped open, the upper jaw of some recently dangerous dragon. Although it is still impossible for Americans to enter East Germany (as distinct from East Berlin) without an elaborate visa application that can take months, the
Communist border guards were friendly. A uniformed American paratroop colonel and I strolled over to talk to them. What was the purpose, we wanted to know, of what appeared to be a telephone cable being strung from East to West across the recently opened bridge? The East German border police explained that it was a telephone cable being laid so they could talk directly to their colleagues in the West to speed the flow of traffic and help with mutual problems.
Some 20 miles further north at the town of Herleshausen the West Germans have moved heavy road-building equipment into East Germany to help repair the road in the East so more people can cross. At one point shortly before Christmas the little cars of East Germany, the two-cylinder Trabis and slightly larger Wartbergs, had backed up on stretches of East Germany’s inadequate road system for 25 miles. (The Trabis, which burn a mixture of oil and gasoline, break down so often that a West German joke has it that their engine hood is connected to the ignition switch. Every time the car is stopped the hood pops open to facilitate repairs.)
There is a point to describing all this activity away from the TV cameras and the stories of children baffled by their first sights of bananas and oranges. And it relates directly to the lines of Wordsworth. At these out-of-the-way crossing points one feels the cumulative power of the human drive toward German unification. The Germans never say reunification, believing they have never truly been divided. “Humanity,” “the little people,” “der kleine Mann” have decided this issue. Mitterrand, Kohl, Thatcher, Gorbachev, Bush, East Germany’s Communist leaders, journalists, the Great Ones of the World can all have their say. They can influence, somewhat, the
shape of the result. Perhaps one or two of them can even delay the process—but at tremendous cost, and it will start up again. At these crossing points there is no extravaganza, no wild cries of joy, no simple thirst for material goods, but a deep need to be one country that transcends fears on both sides over the final outcome. A few hours’ drive north of here during World War II, I helped liberate a major concentration camp, Magedburg; another half-hour’s drive further is the place I was wounded. I have been covering maneuvers around this area since the start of NATO.
Today is a typical German winter day. The weather has not changed from 1944 to 1990: some snow on the ground, ice coating the tree limbs, misty, unpleasantly cold and damp. I find it hard, even after hours of looking at people peacefully crossing the border, to believe what I am seeing. As I start away from Philippstal/Vacha, a young couple, hand in hand in the gathering dark, walk toward the bridge. They have stepped right out of Hardy’s “In Time of a Breaking of Nations”:
Yonder a maid and her wight Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night Ere their story die.
Source: “Crossings” by Arthur T. Hadley, The New Republic, February 12, 1990