“It’s August 13, 1961 – the day East Berlin starts building the wall,” my grandma remembers.
“On Sunday night, August 13, Walter Ulbricht, East German head of state, issues an order to close the Berlin border. Police forces put up barbed wire fences. Within one day, West Berlin became an island in the sea of communism. Trains do not run anymore, and West and East Berliners stand shocked on opposite sides of the border.
I hear about it at Moabit hospital, where I just gave birth to my first child on August 9. I remember being afraid of a new war and feeling helpless in the hospital, alone with my child, barely 20 years old. Also, we’re separated from our family. My grandparents lived in the Russian sector after the war, just ten minutes from where we lived in the American sector. My husband had fled to West Berlin from Rostock in the East to marry me. His parents, grandparents, sister, and other relatives still live there. I feel so helpless and yearn for my family. The future seems so unsure.”
“Today we are laying the cornerstone of the American Memorial Library. It is to be open to all who desire to enter and learn what men of all nations and all beliefs have thought and written. It is the freedom to learn, to study, to seek the truth. This is the essence of a free society. This is the source of our greatest strength.”
It’s the year 1952 – a hot June day in West Berlin. The city’s mayor, Ernst Reuter; U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John McCloy; and American Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, are laying the cornerstone for the first American public library in Germany, the Amerika Gedenkbibliothek (American Memorial Library). In his speech, Acheson not only gives hope to the people of Berlin – who live in a divided city after a horrendous war – he also delivers a message that is perhaps more topical than ever.
“[This] again proves my theory that Germans love David Hasselhoff,” concludes Norm Macdonald on his Saturday Night Live segment “Weekend Update” in the early 90s. The crowd roars with laughter, the punchline has become a favorite among them for quite a while. “Those silly Germans,” Macdonald’s eyes seems to say.
Over twenty years later, the joke might not be remembered but the sentiment certainly persists. Many Germans complain on their travel blogs about getting asked about “The Hoff” while traveling around the USA. Some of them barely know who he is. Indeed, today’s young adults might only faintly remember Hasselhoff for running around in red shorts, talking to cars, and having his drunken misdemeanors captured on camera. This has not always been the case.
During the 1980s, both of Hasselhoff’s shows, Knight Rider and Baywatch, were largely celebrated in Germany. That is to say, not only in Germany. Baywatch was exported into 144 countries with over a billion people worldwide sitting in front of their TVs every week. His shows featured elements that were exciting for German viewers: futuristic technology and attractive young actors in very little clothing on sunny beaches. “The Hoff” consequently made his way into German magazines for teens – like Bravo and Mädchen – but so did John Travolta and Patrick Swayze. What made Hasselhoff so different?
This week’s installment concludes our series on the fall of the Berlin Wall. Enjoy!
Bobbie Kirkhart, Los Angeles
When I was very young, I imagined there was a wall just beyond my view, making sure I could not venture into the forbidden world. It made a strange shape, surrounding all the territory I could explore and blocking everywhere I could not. Perhaps it was that I was by far the youngest in my family, so that everyone else was an adult in my eyes and therefore free. Whatever the reason, I accepted as simple truth that I was banned from a world where everyone else was free to go. As I grew older, I realized that the wall was a metaphor, but I saw it as no less a reality in my life.
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!”
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.
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.