Cracks in the Wall

Photo Brandenburg Gate

With North and South Korea in the news currently, I have been thinking about my own experiences of living in a divided country – Germany. Below is an article I wrote for the Big Issue Australia in 2014.

On 9 November 1989, 25 years ago this month, the Berlin Wall fell. Michel Streich remembers

I was eating a bowl of muesli in the dimly lit kitchen of my parents’ house in Steinhagen, our West German village. The radio news came on – five a.m., 10th of November. Since the previous night, East Germans had been streaming into West Berlin. There was a party atmosphere at the border checkpoints. A communist government spokesman had made a confused – and most likely incorrect – statement that travel restrictions had been lifted, and thousands were on the move. I was baffled, and a little scared. I went upstairs, brushed my teeth, then put on my combat boots and olive green uniform jacket. I left the house quietly, careful not to wake my parents, and made the hour-long drive to my army barracks.

I was doing fifteen months of compulsory military service, straight after high school. I was a Panzergrenadier, a foot soldier in an infantry battalion supported by tanks, and we had been trained to fight an enemy coming from East Germany.

While I drove over empty country roads, I thought about our scenarios for military exercises. They were always the same. “There is civil unrest in East Germany,” the captain would brief us as we were lined up, helmets on our heads and rifles shouldered. “Soviet troops are being mobilised. Our orders are to deploy to the border, dig in and hold it in the event of an invasion, until NATO reinforcements arrive.” Our officers would warn us during our war games, “Be careful, the enemy speaks German! They might even wear our uniforms!” Communist Bloc strategy was explained. We had the better equipment, but they had the numbers. They would attack in waves, to grind us down. There was a rumour that our average survival time would be around seven minutes.

When I arrived for the roll call that morning, our officers did not mention the news. They were unsure – it had all had happened so quickly in the end. Was this going to escalate into the scenario we had been training for?

Just a few months earlier, in June 1989, Chinese democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square had been violently squashed. The East German government had praised the Chinese for dealing firmly with the protesters. Now there were demonstrations all over East Germany, the crowds getting larger every week. The government contemplated a ‘Chinese solution’ to the protests, and East German elite troops around Berlin had been made combat-ready in case of unrest.

But no shots were fired. The people at the checkpoints faced down the hardline East German state. The Berlin Wall lost its fearsomeness. Jubilant protesters started hacking bits out of the wall, then souvenir hunters tried to score wall fragments with graffiti on it. Mauerspechte we called them, Wall woodpeckers. At first, border troops repaired some of the damage, then they gave up.

For the next few months after the wall opened, our grenadier battalion continued with training exercises and daily tasks – urban warfare training, anti-aircraft training, guard duties to protect our depots full of tanks and ammunition – but the urgency had gone out of it. Our captain asked me to paint murals on the corridor walls of our company building, about the history of soldiering. I painted Greek hoplites, knights, soldiers from the Napoleonic wars, from the First World War. Then we were assigned to fight a new enemy, a bark beetle plague that attacked our forests. My unit now spent the days hacking bark off felled pine trees.

The two German states existed side by side for another year before reunification. The border was still there, but travel was easier now. I decided to visit Berlin, driving there through East Germany. Before my trip, I had to see a military counterintelligence officer. He instructed me to travel in civilian clothes and told me which documents to leave at home, and what to say if I got interrogated.

In Berlin, people had settled back into their daily lives. I went sightseeing, to flea markets, saw a few bands. I visited East Berlin for a day – no visa required any more. The exchange rate made everyone arriving with Western currency flush with cash. There were West German teenagers driving around in taxis all day, drinking Crimean champagne.

The centre of East Berlin was scrubbed up for visitors, but in the side streets, the buildings looked unchanged since World War II, with crumbling balconies and bullet holes in the façades. I had lunch in a pricey restaurant. Later, I bought some books by Marx and Lenin and went back through the checkpoint, past the uniformed men and women guarding the border.  •