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Villanova History Professor Shares Memories of Living with the Berlin Wall on 25th Anniversary of Its Fall

Paul Steege, Associate Professor of History in Villanova University's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, shares his memories and thoughts on this historic occasion.

When I was 12 years old, I took my first trip into Communist East Berlin. Without thinking, I left my passport at home.

The year was 1982. My family had just moved to West Berlin for a three-year stay while my father taught at a German-American school in the city. That day, along with my father and younger brother, I rode the West Berlin subway, crossed underneath the Berlin Wall, and continued on into East Berlin. When we reached the Friedrichstrasse Station, we got off the train and made our way upstairs, where we transferred to the commuter rail or S-Bahn, to travel back to the West.

Although we never passed through the border checkpoint to head out onto the streets, we were, in fact, wandering around behind the Iron Curtain.

The trip passed without incident, but it certainly left a lasting impression on me. I still recall the eerie feeling as we slowly passed through the “ghost stations” where the subway no longer stopped and rifle-toting East German border guards manned the platforms.

Over the next few years, I took many more “conventional” trips into East Berlin to explore the sights of the East German capital.

When you walked through the iconic Checkpoint Charlie, you passed by the looming concrete Wall before wending your way through the maze of dingy passageways, barricaded by the occasional electro-magnetic door, only to stand anxiously before the East German border guard who stamped your passport and collected the requisite exchange fees. Recalling the guard towers, reinforced crossing gates, and the ominous threat that seemed to loom behind the officials who scrutinized the documents of everyone passing in and out of East Berlin, it is not hard to believe that between 1961 and 1989, at least 138 people died as a result of the East German border installations that comprised the Wall.

But now, looking back at my Berlin experiences, I suspect that my first excursion into East Berlin offers a better understanding of the Wall, and how it worked. Ultimately, the Wall depended not just on the violent mechanisms of a technological border but on the ability of people—East and West Berliners, certainly, but even American visitors—to integrate the Wall into their everyday lives.

We all sought to avoid any incidents.

Dramatic incidents are, however, precisely what has defined the history of the Berlin Wall. That history began with the installation of the first rolls of barbed wire along the border in the middle of the night on August 13, 1961 as the East German regime sought to stem the tide of its citizens fleeing to the West. Before the month was out, border guards had for the first time shot and killed a would-be escapee and helped establish the rituals of international outrage and East German protestations of their “normal” border procedures.

A year later 18-year-old Peter Fechter slowly bled to death at the base of the Wall after he was shot during an escape attempt. Photographs of the “boy who died on the Wall” (as Life magazine put it) summed up for the world the brutality of this structure and the regime that built it.

When U.S. President John F. Kennedy visited West Berlin in June 1963, he called on the world to come to Berlin to see what the Cold War was really about. But in his declaration that “free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin,” he reduced a city and its inhabitants to an icon of a global struggle.

In that grand vision that served to justify Cold War politics, there was little room for actual Berliners. The fact that the dead at the Wall included children who drowned in the fortified river section of the border, East German guards shot by “escape helpers,” and at least one West Berliner who crossed to the East, underscore the messy nature of this border violence.

On November 9, 1989 the gates in the Berlin Wall opened, and jubilant East Germans streamed into the West to celebrate. Their ability to stroll about the western half of the city seemed to mark a return to normalcy, the end of an extraordinary period of artificial division.

But on the level of everyday life, even the most concrete barriers of the Cold War were never as total as they may have seemed. What should in retrospect prove most unsettling is how “normal” the Wall came to seem over the 28 years it divided Berlin.

In a period of renewed calls to strengthen U.S. border security, whether to defend against international terrorists or the threat of Ebola, Americans would do well to consider how easy it is to become comfortable with militarized borders. It would be a shame if our border walls ever became “normal.”

Paul Steege is associate professor of history at Villanova University.  He is an expert in 20th century Germany, Berlin, and the Berlin Blockade and Airlift. Steege is currently writing a history of everyday violence in twentieth century Berlin.