These days, Nov. 9 often passes with little notice, but in 1989 it was a pretty big deal, especially for those of us stationed in Germany.
For me, the fall of the Berlin Wall was particularly powerful. Like many kids born in the mid-1950s, I’d spent time hiding underneath my school desk during nuclear air-raid drills. We feared the distant and foreign specters of the Cold War and learned to take the great dividers of our societies, like the Berlin Wall, for granted. They seemed to be permanent fixtures on the political landscape.
In 1977, as part of Valparaiso [Ind.] University’s exchange program with Reutlingen, Germany, I visited the East. We hit all of the Martin Luther spots: Erfurt, Wittenberg, the Wartburg Castle, Leipzig, Dresden and finally Berlin. At the wall, the gates, guards and barbed wire were stark reminders of realities that shaped my growing up and informed my college learning.
Growing up in the German-American part of the Lutheran church, I’d heard the stories of families separated by the wall and of the Christmas tradition of putting a candle in an upstairs east-facing window to remember those who lived behind the wall. So Nov. 9, 1989, brought with it a whole new way of seeing history, acknowledging the present and anticipating the future.
Nov, 9, 1989, was a Thursday that caught the world totally by surprise. In conversations over the past 21 years with Germans, Americans and others, I’ve yet to find one person who will state that anyone saw the complete collapse of the Berlin Wall coming.
I remember, quite vividly, leaning out the window of our military quarters in Aschaffenburg, Germany, to watch with amazement as East German’s and other Warsaw Pact countries’ plated vehicles rolled through the McDonald’s drive-thru across the street. On the Autobahn, East German vehicles were unmistakable, putt-putting along, some broken down by the side of the road, but determined nonetheless to be in the West.
In 2003, I spoke with the commandant of the Hammelburg Infantry School, not too far from the old East German border. I asked him what it was like in the immediate days leading up to the “fall.” Tense, he said, but he added that as soon as the wall fell and the border opened there was an immediate exchange between the two former, opposing forces.
The Berlin Wall “moment” on Nov. 9 always reminds me that miracles can occur here on earth. It also reminds me that many, many people in East Germany and throughout the world gave their lives from 1961 to 1989 to work for the fall of the wall. Miracles often need sweat and tears and blood.
Yet, as with all moments in history, time marches on, and this tremendous victory led to other realities, other moments in history. The very next year, on Nov. 9, 1990, the Army unit I was in, 4th of the 7th Infantry (Mech), of the Third Infantry Division, 7th U.S. Corps, was alerted for service in Desert Shield. For me, it’s ironic that I will spend today—the 21st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—in Iraq, serving with the III Armored Corps, U.S. Forces-Iraq, in Operation New Dawn.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers