Priestman: Reflecting on me, my Wall and I

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

On Aug. 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected, thereby dividing overnight a city, families and dueling ideologies for the next 28 years. On Nov. 9, 1989, the world watched as jubilant crowds gathered on both sides of that Wall to celebrate the opening of its crossings. Germany’s postwar division was over.

Next month, we mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To commemorate that event, Western News asked five scholars to reflect on its meaning a quarter century out.

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When I teach my students about the fall of the Berlin Wall, I start with David Hasselhoff.

Never short on confidence, ‘The Hoff’ has intimated, more than once, he helped bring down The Wall. Maybe he did. His song, Looking for Freedom, did top the West German charts for eight weeks in the summer of 1989, conceivably adding momentum to the calls for increased freedoms in those heady summer days.

Mostly, I tell Hasselhoff’s story because it gives me an excuse to show the YouTube clip of him singing his signature song suspended over the remains of The Wall on New Year’s Eve 1989, resplendent in his piano-key tie and twinkle-light leather jacket. (I kid you not – look it up.)

Hasselhoff, thankfully, played no part in my experience of the fall of The Wall.

Growing up in the 1980s, I registered Germany’s division only in terms of an unbeatable East German Olympic team. I lumped Russians and Romanians together with East Germans in a group I thought of as ‘The Bad Guys.’ I had very little sense of what communism really was. Mostly, I just thought being a communist meant you couldn’t buy Levi’s jeans.

I also never really thought about the fact East Germany and West Germany had once been one country, not two. I didn’t consider how erecting a wall overnight in the middle of a major city might affect people’s jobs, homes, families or safety.

The questions that so intrigue me now, as an historian of Germany, were far from my pre-teen mind.

That all changed when The Wall fell 25 years ago. I vividly remember watching news coverage and realizing I was witnessing something profoundly important. Whatever my misconceptions about communism or East Germany, I understood the significance of this moment precisely. I remember thinking this would change the world, and as the fall of The Wall fueled a chain of reactions that led to the collapse of communism, in general, I remember being afraid war would engulf us all. I was afraid and fascinated and awed by what I was witnessing.

And I wanted to know more about why the wall was there in the first place.

That night ignited my historical curiosity.

When I was an undergraduate student, the first extra-curricular academic event I attended was a panel discussion marking the 10-year anniversary of the fall of The Wall. I had only begun to toy with the idea of graduate school, but the conversations that night intrigued and excited me.

I realized how my personal experience of that event – if only as a far-away Canadian watching on television – influenced the way I interpreted it. As I walked home on that uncharacteristically warm November night, I remember thinking two things: that a cold front was coming in and that I would definitely go to graduate school.

The very first tutorial I led as a graduate student teaching assistant was on the topic of generations. One of our readings pointed out different generations are not defined by the passage of time alone, but by shared experience. To illustrate this point, I asked my students what their most formative experience was growing up. I was sure I knew what the answer would be: the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I was stunned when they answered instead: 9/11.

As it turned out, we were not of the same generation; we were a handful of years apart, but a generation of experiences. This realization brought home the fact I was indeed their teacher and not a fellow student.

When I finally visited Berlin in graduate school, I couldn’t wait to find the Berlin Wall. I took all the obligatory pictures – of the graffiti on the western side, of the profile view, of my feet straddling the two sides of where the wall once sat, now marked only by a brick line in the asphalt. It was an intense and overwhelming experience to finally face this structure that was so far away in 1989; I had a sense that my life had come full circle.

In 1989, I never dreamed I would ever see Berlin – or its Wall – for myself. I never dreamed I would grow up to study Germany’s history. I certainly never dreamed I would teach about both the creation and destruction of that Wall to generations of students born after the fall.

I take very seriously this role entrusted to me.

In various ways, the Berlin Wall has been a catalyst for significant change in my life, especially my life as an historian. I suppose that, by keeping my focus so narrowly personal, I am not being a very good historian.

I should point out that 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall Germany has developed into a strong democracy at the centre of Europe. I should point out that while certain vestiges of divided Germany remain – uneven economic development, for instance – Germany stands out as the most influential country in Europe. I should point out countries across Europe and North America look to Germany for leadership in politics, economics and security.

The most compelling footage from that extraordinary night is of teary-eyed friends and family reuniting after years of forcible separation. I suspect these Berliners, like most who witnessed this event, weren’t thinking about the long-term political, economic or strategic effects of the fall of The Wall.

For the Berliners in that footage, it was intensely personal.

Kind of like the decision to wear a piano-key tie.

Karen Priestman is an assistant professor in History, whose research focuses on Nazism, postwar Germany and issues of remembering and forgetting in German history.