Remembering the Fall of the Wall

By Martina Kohl

In hon­or of the 30thanniver­sary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Blog will remem­ber this spec­tac­u­lar event in his­to­ry through the eyes of peo­ple from around the world dur­ing the next few weeks.

Bran­den­burg Gate Today. Pho­to cred­it: U.S. Embassy


When Every­thing Changed

“Your friend Jörg called. There’s some­thing going on at the bor­der.” “What bor­der, the Hun­gar­i­an?” I was tak­ing off my coat think­ing of the pic­tures I’d seen of Hun­gar­i­an bor­der patrols cut­ting the wire fence and let­ting East Ger­mans through only a few months before. “He said you should turn on the TV.” And so I did, and there they were, the cel­e­brat­ing Berlin­ers climb­ing on top of the wall, wel­com­ing stunned East Berlin­ers, joined in deliri­ous joy for the first time in four decades. And here I was, almost 7,000 kilo­me­ters away in Ann Arbor, Michi­gan, where I’d been teach­ing for the last four years.

Only the sum­mer before, my Amer­i­can friend and I had vis­it­ed Berlin, the divid­ed city, a first for both of us. It had been an emo­tion­al vis­it for me. When pass­ing Weimar, think­ing of the rich his­to­ry of the town and shud­der­ing upon see­ing the tow­er of the KZ Buchen­wald in the dis­tance, I had been ask­ing myself how it was pos­si­ble to divide a coun­try and a cul­ture. I regret­ted that we couldn’t sim­ply take a lit­tle detour, leave the tran­sit route, and explore the part of Ger­many that had been closed off to casu­al vis­i­tors. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we only had per­mis­sion to tran­sit to West Berlin, and so we drove on. We explored the east­ern part of town, crossed via Friedrich­straße under the intim­i­dat­ing stares of the young bor­der police offi­cers, walked through what’s today the fash­ion­able “Mitte” dis­trict, looked in amaze­ment at the ruins of the burnt-out syn­a­gogue on Oranien­burg­er­straße, and had Rotkäp­pchensekt at a local pub. Speak­ing Eng­lish, we stuck out and were clear­ly iden­ti­fied as west­ern­ers. Stand­ing in front of the impres­sive main build­ing of Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty on Unter den Lin­den, I asked myself: “Wouldn’t it be nice to teach here one day?” We hiked along the wall, on the west­ern side, of course, which cut off neigh­bor­hoods, divid­ing friends and fam­i­lies. For me, the wall was a for­eign, fright­en­ing object that meant to be there for at least the next hun­dred years, as Erich Honeck­er, Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary of the Social­ist Uni­ty Par­ty of Ger­many (SED), had declared only in Jan­u­ary 1989.

Sit­ting on my bed and star­ing at the lit­tle TV, I longed to be where total strangers embraced in dis­be­lief, leav­ing behind all that had been divid­ing them for one long, unfore­seen, incred­i­bly excit­ing night. Cry­ing, silent­ly, I chas­tised myself for being emo­tion­al about what I was wit­ness­ing: a nation com­ing togeth­er, flags being waved, his­to­ry in the mak­ing. For my gen­er­a­tion, patri­o­tism was a dan­ger­ous thing, some­thing that could be exploit­ed, manip­u­lat­ed, and twist­ed. I had always iden­ti­fied as Euro­pean first, then as German.

Eager to dis­cuss what had just hap­pened, I took the bus for the short ride to cam­pus the next morn­ing. But nobody was talk­ing. Busi­ness as usu­al, peo­ple read­ing the paper or star­ing out the win­dow, avoid­ing eye con­tact. My col­leagues in the office didn’t say any­thing either. They met with stu­dents, pre­pared for class­es. How could they not react to the his­tor­i­cal earth­quake that had just hap­pened? 30 years lat­er, I learned from a friend that he expe­ri­enced ‘the day after’ in exact­ly the same way – but in Mainz, not in Ann Arbor. Here and there, it took peo­ple a while to adjust to the new real­i­ties and sort out how they felt about it all and what it would mean. But for me, every­thing had changed.

A year lat­er, I went back to Ger­many. In 1998, I moved to Berlin as part of the Haupt­stad­tumzug, the move of gov­ern­ment offices and affil­i­at­ed orga­ni­za­tions to the new cap­i­tal. I set­tled for a short time in the Mitte dis­trict. And short­ly after, I start­ed teach­ing a reg­u­lar class at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty on U.S. pub­lic diplo­ma­cy dur­ing the Cold War. Who would have thought?

I’m still amazed at what hap­pened to this city and this coun­try. I always know what part of town I’m in, east or west, when mov­ing through the city unhin­dered by a wall and a death strip. I love Paris­er Platz, the old and new loca­tion of the Amer­i­can Embassy, ear­ly in the morn­ing before the dai­ly cir­cus starts when the bike rid­ers cycle through Bran­den­burg Gate on their way to work as if it were the most nor­mal thing to do. It’s peace­ful then, some­times a bit unre­al, dream­like. I watch the square from a small con­fer­ence room, the Bush Room, where pho­tos of that his­toric night on Novem­ber 9, 1989, the nego­ti­a­tions regard­ing uni­fi­ca­tion, and the polit­i­cal play­ers dec­o­rate the wall. And I remind my Hum­boldt stu­dents that we wouldn’t be in this par­tic­u­lar build­ing, this sem­i­nar room with win­dows fac­ing the S‑Bahn tracks, and the famous east Berlin TV tow­er thir­ty-some years ago. “You wouldn’t be tak­ing class­es with Eras­mus stu­dents from Spain, France, or Poland,” I tell them. And they ask: “What was it like when the wall fell?”

“Well, I was almost 7,000 kilo­me­ters away, but then every­thing changed.”

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Dr. Mar­ti­na Kohl is a Cul­tur­al Affairs Spe­cial­ist at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Ger­many, where she coor­di­nates a Ger­many-wide speak­er and cur­ricu­lum devel­op­ment pro­gram in Amer­i­can Stud­ies. She holds an M.A. and a doc­tor­ate in Amer­i­can Stud­ies, Eng­lish Stud­ies and His­to­ry from Johannes-Guten­berg Uni­ver­si­ty Mainz. Dr. Kohl stud­ied at Flori­da South­ern Col­lege and taught as well as con­duct­ed research at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan in Ann Arbor. In 2013, she received the Hans Eber­hard Piepho Prize for the U.S. Embassy School Elec­tion Project and the “Aus­geze­ich­nete Orte – Land der Ideen” Award for the Going Green – Edu­ca­tion for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty Project in 2015. Dr. Kohl fre­quent­ly teach­es in the Amer­i­can Stud­ies pro­gram at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty Berlin and at the Oba­ma Insti­tute at Mainz University.