Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 13, 2009

The fall of The Wall

Most of us went about business as usual on Monday. But in Germany, it was more than a routine day. Citizens took to the streets near Berlin's Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in a joyous Festival of Freedom.

During its existence from 1961 to 1989, the Wall separated East Germany from West Germany. In a speech at the Brandenburg Gate commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin on June 12, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."

Marlin Fitzwater, presidential press secretary for both Reagan and George H. W. Bush and Kansas State University journalism alumnus, was with Reagan at that 1987 speech and, in November 1989, informed Bush when the wall started coming down. According to Fitzwater, Bush said, "We will not dance on the wall," and he began making plans to work with Gorbachev on German reunification and stability in the Soviet Union. Fitzwater said when Bush had his first summit meeting with Gorbachev in December 1989, Gorbachev told him the Soviet people appreciated his restraint.

In November 1989, daughter Mariya was only 3 and youngest daughter Katie wasn't even in the picture. Nadja - our family's German exchange student in 2005-2006 - was just a baby. To them, the Fall of the Wall is almost ancient history.

But if the Wall hadn't come down, we wouldn't know Nadja and her boyfriend Tim, Matthias and his family, Bärbel and our other German friends who lived behind what had been the Iron Curtain.

Husband Art, his mother Donna and I first traveled to the old "East Germany" in 1991. We stood in places where, just two years before, we might have been shot. Soviet soldiers were still on the streets, although they weren't vigilant. They seemed more interested in eating pizza and buying jeans at a local market than watching what foreign tourists were doing. Ordinary people were taking advantage of free enterprise where the Wall once stood, selling matryoshka dolls (Russian nested dolls), pieces of the Wall, and East German and Soviet military hats out of their car trunks. Even names of towns had been changed back to their originals. Karl Marx Stadt once again became Chemnitz.

Still, we could see in the rundown Reichstag - the seat of the German parliament - and other buildings how the infrastructure of the old East had been neglected under Soviet rule. Everything - houses, buildings, roads - were gray and colorless. People in rural areas watched us with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.

Art visited in 1993 with his aunt and reported there were massive reconstruction and construction projects everywhere. In 2001, when Art and I visited again - this time with Mariya and Katie - we could see huge changes. Roads were in better shape, old buildings were being repaired and new high-tech businesses were sprouting up. The Reichstag had been restored - complete with new glass dome on top - and was again the seat of the German Bundestag.

On our last visit to Germany just a few months ago, we saw even more progress. In the small villages east of Berlin and into Poland, houses and walls had been painted lime green, sunshine yellow, fuchsia and red pepper. Even the old industrial-looking concrete apartment buildings of East German times had been trimmed in bright colors. It seemed that each little town had its own cultural museum touting local history and traditions.

In Berlin itself, I waited in line with Mariya, Katie, Nadja and Tim to go inside the Reichstag's glass dome. I was impressed when I saw the mirrored "cone" inside and walked on the roof to see the 360-degree view of Berlin's landmarks from the same height as the top of the Brandenburg Gate.

In Alexanderplatz, we checked out the exhibition marking the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall. The "Wir sind das Volk" - "We are the people" - exhibit included photos of a divided Berlin, people reaching across barbed wire and jubilant students dancing on top of the Wall when it started coming down. There were maps showing which areas were once behind the Iron Curtain, along with explanations documenting the history of the Wall and its eventual demise.

But to me the most striking symbol of the anniversary of the Fall of the Wall was a photo I took of Tim, whom Art and I refer to as our "German son."

In the photo, Tim is straddling the line where the Wall used to be. To the left is West Berlin and to the right is East Berlin, now united into a single city. He is grinning from ear to ear and he has both fists raised in a champion's stance. What a difference 20 years can make!

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