Personal Recollections: The Fall of the Wall

By Marlena Voigts, Andreas Hübner, Michaela Keck, Christoph Strobel, Roger L. Nichols

Photo credit: Doris Antony
Marlena Voigts, Hamburg

Nov. 9, 1989: I was lying in bed when I thought I heard the phone ring. The next morning, there was in fact a message on my answering machine from about 3 a.m. “Hi Marlena! You won’t believe where I am. (Pause) I’m in the West, at my Aunt’s house in West Berlin! It’s just unbelievable!”

I almost dropped the receiver. West Berlin? Uwe, an aspiring journalist at the East German Berliner Zeitung, whom I’d met in June 1988 at the main department store at Alexanderplatz in East Berlin? Uwe, my ‘forbidden contact’ in WEST Berlin? Impossible! I listened to his message again – and again – and again. It just couldn’t be true. What an incredible night. And a friendship that exists up to this very day.

Photo credit: Marlena Voigts

I baked this cake for my students at Syracuse University, N.Y., on the first official German Reunification Day, just one year after the wall which separated East and West Germany fell.

 

Photo credit: Doris Antony
Andreas Hübner, Hamburg

I still have vivid memories of the fall of the wall. At the time, we were living in newly developed Neu-Hohenschönhausen, a communist-style district of prefabricated buildings in East Berlin. My birthday had just passed, and I was looking forward to celebrating a perfectly fine November birthday party on the weekend. However, I had made my plans without Mr. Schabowski and his well-remembered press conference on Thursday, November 9, where he announced that the border crossings would be open immediately. The day after, four out of five kids I had invited to my party on Saturday cancelled out on me. Supposedly, some aunts and uncles had also invited them over. O well. But since the party was definitely going to take place, my parents and I did not give way to despair and, on Saturday, found ourselves on the streets of West Berlin celebrating with what seemed a million other people. Now wasn’t that a birthday party to remember.

 

Photo credit: Doris Antony
Michaela Keck, Oldenburg 

I was an au pair in England and still settling in. In fact, it was not until the morning of November 10, 1989, that I learned about it. I attempted – unsuccessfully – to get some breakfast into the little girl I was looking after. The parents thought it would be easier to get some food into her with the television on, and when I saw the news footage of people climbing the wall and celebrating all around it, it took me some time to comprehend what was going on. In the middle of an English breakfast room, the scenes on TV looked positively surreal.

That same evening, our teachers at school asked us Germans about the future of a unified Germany. We all answered the question with cautious optimism. However, watching the fall of the Berlin Wall from abroad made its symbolical and historical significance very powerful.

 

Photo credit: Doris Antony
Christoph Strobel, Lowell, MA

I often think of the turbulence of 1989 and the early 1990s. In my final years at a Gymnasium in southwestern Germany, I traveled to Poland and what was then East Germany. There I talked to people who had participated in the resistance. These encounters brought home that individuals, when they work together, can bring about change. In addition, during a visit to Auschwitz, a guide pointed to an assortment of spoons on the ground in Lager 2, explaining that each one symbolized a person whose life had been destroyed in the death camp. It struck me at that time that when we deal with phenomena, such as genocide, mass violence, or repression, we often tend to focus on the anonymity of numbers or the abstractness of large destructive processes. In my teaching, I often draw from these realizations by attempting to humanize and individualize suffering, by underscoring regular people’s ability to commit heinous acts, but also by reminding my students that they can actively work for a better world, just as people have done in the past.

 

Photo credit: Doris Antony
Roger L. Nichols, Tucson, AZ

Even though it happened thirty years ago, I still vividly remember seeing parts of the wall come down. Our son and I were sitting in front of the TV, watching the early evening news when the screen showed people climbing over the wall and later driving their Trabbies through the open gate. He asked if the event was a surprise, and I told him that I had never expected it to happen in my lifetime. Our family benefitted directly because in 1997, I received a Fulbright appointment to the Universität Halle-Wittenberg, and we got to see the massive rebuilding of eastern cities once the old regime had collapsed.

Marlena (Dunlap) Voigts grew up in Ogdensburg, N.J., received her Bachelor’s Degree from Gettysburg College in German, completed her Master’s Degree in German Language & Literature at Syracuse University, and has been living in Hamburg since 1991. Since 2015, she has been working onbehalf of the German Federal Office of Migration & Refugees as an instructor for German as a Second Language, specializing in illiteracy.

Andreas Hübner is currently a Lecturer at Leuphana University Lüneburg. His research focuses on Cultural and Global History as well as History Didactics. In 2015, he received his Ph.D. from Justus Liebig University Giessen. He served as Dianne Woest Fellow at the Historic New Orleans Collection in August/September 2016 and as Horner Library Fellow at the German Society of Philadelphia in July 2018. Hübner’s monograph on German American filiopietist J. Hanno Deiler was published in 2009, his monograph on the German Coast of colonial Louisiana in 2017.

Michaela Keck teaches American Studies at the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Oldenburg. Among her major research interests are ecocriticism and nature writing, women’s literature, and visual culture. For further information, see http://www.staff.uni-oldenburg.de/michaela.keck/.

Christoph Strobel is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is the author of books, such as The Global Atlantic: 1400–1900 and The Testing Grounds of Modern Empire. With Alice Nash he co-authored Daily Life of Native Americans from Post-Columbian through Nineteenth-Century America. Strobel’s essays appear, among others, in World History ConnectedSafundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies and The North Carolina Historical Reviews. In his free time, Christoph loves to spend time outdoors, exploring the many beautiful sites of New England with his family.

Roger L. Nichols, Emeritus Professor of History and Affiliate Faculty in Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, has published eleven books on American frontier and Indian topics. His strange new hobby is giving papers at European American Studies conferences.