The Berlin Wall immediately became a symbolic divider between East and West when it rose in 1961. Its presence would cause animosity and curiosity, as well as numerous deaths through the years. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of its fall—on November 9, 1989—NYU Berlin assistant director for academics and historian Roland Pietsch (pictured above, in circle, and at left) remembers the role it played for all Germans.
What was the mood in Berlin as the wall fell 25 years ago?
“Incredible! Just incredible!” was the common exclamation of Berliners East and West when the wall fell over night in November 1989. They used the German word “Wahnsinn”, literally translated as “madness” or “crazy”, but meaning something like incredibly amazing. Yet what was “incredible” and “crazy” back then has now become everyday life. In some parts of Berlin it has become difficult to identify where the wall once stood. It is perhaps no coincidence that as part of the official celebrations marking the 25th anniversary the authorities opted for a light installation that recreates the wall and then lifts it into the sky, to remind Berliners of what a harsh division through their city this was.
What memories are strongest for you on such an anniversary?
Walking along the former border where I live, in the West Berlin districts of Neukölln and Kreuzberg, means walking along the water: first the canal and then the river Spree (the wall stood on the opposite shore). Nowadays it is part of my running routine to jog along the Western side of the canal, and then switch over at the bridge near the river and run back home on the former East’s side. I do this without thinking how easily I change sides where not too long ago an impenetrable border stood, or that I actually run along a cleared path that used to be called the “death strip”. Actually, today it already appears unimaginable that this wall once stood here, not only to our NYU students but to any Berliner born after 1989—and if I’m honest, even to myself. It's a wall that provides such sad tales.
In May 1975, the boy Cetin Mert, on the day of his fifth birthday, was playing here with a ball, on the West Berlin side. Cetin’s parents had emigrated from Turkey and settled like so many Turkish families in the West Berlin borough of Kreuzberg, a district that due to its many borders with the East had been considered undesirable in West Berlin. At one point, Cetin’s ball rolled down the steep river bank into the water. When he tried to fish it out of the water with a stick, Cetin fell into the river himself. The river Spree at this point was East German territory. West Berlin emergency services arrived within minutes, but with the water being watched by armed border guards likely to shoot, neither they nor any onlookers dared to dive into the river to search for the boy. Frantic negotiations at the border crossing at the nearby Oberbaum Bridge lead to nothing, and so it took forty minutes until an East German border patrol boat finally arrived, only for its divers to recover Cetin’s dead body. The five-year old had drowned only a few meters from the shoreline.
Cetin was not the only boy: four other West Berlin children drowned at the same spot under similar circumstances, each tragedy being followed by a debate in how far the political situation had prevented a timely rescue. While the West branded the cases as evidence of the barbarity of the East, the East insisted that they had been mere accidents and that the West was blocking any agreement on how to deal with such emergencies.
Cetin’s death finally forced both parties to sign such an agreement for emergencies in border waters, allowing rescue from the West. The West also put up a fence at the river, so that no more children could fall in.
Did you ever come to embrace the wall?
I was born in West Berlin. I lived my entire youth surrounded by the wall. My generation did not know anything else. Yet we hardly ever noticed the wall in our everyday lives. West Berlin was our world. Though Westerners were allowed to enter the East by paying for a visa, few of us were interested in what went on behind the wall, in supposedly dull grey Socialism.
To most young West Berliners born during the time of the wall, the East was primarily something they had to get through on their way to their holiday destinations (to do that, they had to stick to certain motorways and trains, or airplanes, to avoid having to pay for a visa). Maybe we were sometimes even a bit proud of the wall—it made us feel special; the world’s attention was on us, fueling the illusion that we were living in an international metropolis when in reality West Berlin felt in many ways more like an over-sized village.