On Aug. 13, 1961, Germans awoke to see their capital city had been physically split into two by a fence — on one side the east, controlled by the Soviets, and on the other, the west, strongly influenced by the Allied powers.
That dawn, leaders of East Germany had built the barrier. Walter Ulbricht, a German communist politician, had militarized the Eastern border, laying more than a million mines and deploying police dogs to patrol it.
Berlin residents were forbidden from crossing the Wall, but that didn’t stop them from trying. About 3,000 of them were arrested and another 150 died in their attempts.
The division stayed in place for the next 28 years. It came to be known as the Berlin Wall, a prominent symbol in the Cold War.
After a wave of changes across Europe, including perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union and democratic movements in Hungary and Poland, the Wall finally fell on Nov. 9, 1989. It was an emotional historic event that brought tears to people’s eyes around the world and bred hope.
The beginning of the end in Germany started with the March 1989 fraudulent elections, which sparked outrage. So much so that in September of that year, the Germans began gathering every Monday in front of St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig to pressure the government for democratic measures.
On the night of Nov. 9, West German television broke the news that the German Democratic Republic Political Bureau had lifted the ban on leaving the country. Immediately, thousands of people flocked to the access points of the Wall and, left with no other choice, the guards allowed them through.
“Many just wanted to go to the West, have a beer and return,” said Andreas Siegel, the German Consul General in Miami during a recent interview with el Nuevo Herald to discuss the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, which will be celebrated Saturday in South Florida.
“The walls end up falling”
Siegel, a German who grew up in the West, about half a mile from the Wall, said democracy always prevails because civil societies don’t tolerate the inherent lack of credibility that autocratic governments present.
He said the fall of the Wall was inevitable, considering that the official communist propaganda ignored the reality, one where most people were suffering economically, the corruption was increasing and class differences between the elite and the working class were more and more palpable every day.
“The walls end up falling,” he said.
Siegel was 6 years old when the Wall went up. At the time, his father told him he could no longer visit East Berlin with his grandfather “because they had closed the streets.”
He clearly remembers the impact that John F. Kennedy’s speech had on him in June 1963 in West Berlin, in which the U.S. president coined the famous phrase: “Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner).“
“He was very emotional and very supportive,” recalled Siegel, who says today he can still hear the words of encouragement in his mind if he focuses.
As part of a policy of relaxation, both sides signed an agreement in the 1970s that allowed West Germans to visit relatives in the East.
Family and tourist trips began in 1971, and West Germany residents were required to obtain a 24-hour visa and exchange a certain amount of money for East Germany currency, even if they didn’t plan on spending it, Siegel said.
West Berliners could move around East Berlin using public transport, “but you had to be aware that the secret police [Stasi] followed you,” Siegel said.
At restaurants, West German residents could not sit at the table of their choice. Instead, they had to pick designated ones.
“This situation was nice because you could establish a conversation with those people. However, you never knew if these people were paid to collect information or if they were ordinary citizens,” said Siegel, who believes he encountered “both types.”
Nevertheless, he said he thinks of these interactions as beneficial overall because it eroded the isolation of East Berliners, who started to watch Western television and radio shows.
The diplomat noted that there were differences between East and West Germans, which allowed them to recognize each other. These were based primarily on clothing, food and even behavior, which was much freer by Westerners.
“The person-to-person contact had a definite impact that eroded the system. The government had difficulty explaining its propaganda point of view,” he said.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Germans faced vast challenges as they reunified their country.
The reconstruction process was hindered by financial hardship. The East German economy was almost bankrupt, and more than 1.5 million Germans who used to work for the communist government were suddenly unemployed.
Germans dealt with the price difference between the two currencies, which they decided to solve by establishing a more advantageous exchange rate for East German currency.
“Politicians recognized that we had to act quickly because if they didn’t, they would witness an exodus,” Siegel said. He added that leaders at the time injected billions into the Eastern economy, which today has prosperous cities like Leipzig and Dresden, both popular tourist destinations.
After the fall, the East was affiliated with the Warsaw Pact, and the German Federal Republic with NATO. Germans decided that the new Germany would remain in NATO, and the East would be a neutral zone where nuclear weapons were prohibited.
Permanent borders were also set, taking into account the limits that already existed in 1989.
Perhaps the most complex issue was trying to convince the population that the Stasi, which had operated with an extensive network of informants, was really gone.
An official entity was created for the administration and investigation of the Stasi archives and documents, which undoubtedly contributed to the transparency of the project.
For Siegel, one of the fundamental factors for the reconstruction of divided countries is the creation of independent commissions that can investigate who carried out repressive crimes.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary, the Miami Institute of Photography, located at 119 NE 54th St., opened an exhibition of photographs called “Latent Fissures,” or invisible cracks, by the Venezuelan photographer Jorge Andrés Castillo.
It includes 27 black-and-white images taken in 1989, which document the life of Germans with the Wall in the background.
Castillo was studying photography at the University of Essen, in West Germany, and took photographs of the wall on both sides.
“I was lucky enough to cross into the eastern part for a day and register it months before the fall of the Wall. I was able to photograph the socialist aesthetic when nobody saw the cracks in the system behind the Iron Curtain,” Castillo said.