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.

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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.