In the summer of 1989 , during the Reagan era, an astounding shift in the Eastern Bloc hold on parts of Europe began to unfold as we watched their people reject decades of communist regimes. Under pressure from world leaders and US President Reagan, the USSR and fellow supporters of the communist stronghold loosened their grip and began to lift ‘The Iron Curtain’ that had separated their people from western societies. East Berlin, the former capital of Germany, had been split into four after WWII with the Soviets acquiring the larger section and the US, France and Britain occupying West Berlin. While maintaining harsh restrictions and laws in East Berlin, the USSR began to lose the battle to imprison the German people within their territory and they built The Berlin Wall, seemingly overnight in 1961. While many were trapped behind the Berlin Wall their neighbors on the west side still worked in the high rise buildings next to guarded concrete walls, armed soldiers, barbed wire fencing lined with sensor-activated machine guns called the “Death Strip” to stop escape attempts. Meanwhile, workers in East Berlin could watch the US and British-owned West Berlin from their windows and dream of a day when they would enjoy the same freedoms as their countrymen beyond The Wall.
East Berlin, also known as GDR (German Democratic Republic) was void of colors in the depressing city, revealing only concrete grey clothing and uniform colored vehicles. It was rumored that parents immediately reserved and paid for a new Yugo, the smallest economy vehicle at the time, when a child was born because the list for government provided vehicles had a 20 year wait. The store shelves barely carried food or sanitation supplies, cosmetics or other luxuries simply were not available. It was during the occupation after 1961 that the Strelzyk and Wetzel families had enough of the communist dictatorship and decided to collude with a plan to escape. In a terrifying and daring attempt they designed, and launched a large hot air balloon able to reach high altitudes to avoid the guns from the GDR watch towers. To their terror, they failed and found themselves in grave danger as the GDR police investigated searching for them throughout the small country. To truly understand and appreciate the value of freedom, the movie Night Crossing (1982) details the amazing strength and resolve of these two families to take their children to freedom and away from communism rule, no matter the cost.
On my office wall I focus on a framed Pink Floyd concert poster from July 21, 1990 and a plaque with a raw chunk of the Berlin Wall still attached. Two days before Christmas of 1989 my family gathered around the live German news on television with broadcasters yelling in shock and excitement, “They are literally pouring over the Wall! The East German people have breached the security, the guards have fled and the people are pouring out of Brandenburg gate and climbing over the Wall!”
Watching thousands of citizens who had marched to Berlin from their homes and sudden liberation from so much oppression still gives me chills. Every television in the world switched to the live scene as once imprisoned people reunited with their mother country. The stores on the West side emptied of champagne and thousands on both sides sprayed the bubbly in the air and bathed in their liberty. Things you see in life can not be unseen. The pure joy on the faces of a lost society in their tattered clothing without a penny and the look in their eyes as they stepped onto West German soil will never leave my memory. One does not know the value of freedom until it is taken away.
Pink Floyd, a controversial band whose infamous album ‘The Wall’ and movie video had promised in earlier years to play in Berlin if the Wall ever came down. True to his word, Roger Waters, lead singer of the band began to plan a reunion tour in the heart of East Berlin. In just seven months he and a co-op of singers and bands put together the Woodstock of Germany in record time. It was so sudden and there was not a definitive answer on whether the GDR would retake East Germany. We didn’t care, so on July 20, 1990 we loaded in my brother’s wrecked BMW with a hanging duct taped headlight and headed to Berlin from Frankfurt where we were living.
It was nightfall when we reached the East German border patrol station and our hearts began to race a little. Did we really want to cross over? What if the GDR traps us in their country like they had done before to their people? We parked in front of the lit station along with many other tourists and walked up to the building. It was eerily quiet with groups of people appearing confused and looking around. When we approached we were told no one was in the building despite it appearing occupied. Trying the unlocked door we entered the building to check into customs only to find everything had been left where it was including food as guards had made an unexpected exodus. After standing alongside other puzzled tourists we decided to join the brave and followed a small string of cars driving through the open gates into unknown territory known as East Germany to reach Berlin. The night hours had droned to midnight and exhausted from the drive and tension we found a small village with a trail leading into the woods at the edge of town to camp. Laying in the dark tent we spent the hours until dawn awakened by sudden flashes of lights from the village and sirens at random intervals. Frightened, I waited for reassurance from my older brother only to find him lying on his back, clutching the keys to the car, eyes and ears wide open listening for footsteps.
In the morning light we pulled out of the village expecting to see troops and guns but found a quaint village appearing very normal. Weary and relieved I searched for radio stations to learn anything about our surroundings without finding a sign of communication besides snow or dead air. Nearing Berlin our moods lightened as we saw the thousands of fans from every part of the world walking towards the concert beyond The Wall. Parking was pleasant enough in a very close spot to the area of the Wall where we watched the East Germans pour over the concrete on television that Christmas. Vendors lined the wall with pieces and large chunks of the Berlin Wall and eastern bloc soldier uniforms. We each purchased a hat, one GDR and one from the USSR. East German citizens were surrounded with willing customers that gave them a grin. Capitalism was now an option in their new life.
The enormous flat and rocky sand of the outdoor concert area made the July sun unbearable and the snaking line at the three women’s portable bathrooms gave me some concern when we faced another six hours before Roger Waters played. Pink Floyd did not uphold their promise to appear for the East Germans when the Wall came down. Roger Waters, the lead singer, was the only member to appear. Without a band he improvised and invited all the popular bands at the time to play Pink Floyd music and even to sing a few of the songs off the album. It was a reunion of talented bands under one cause, celebrating the lifting of the Iron Curtain and the newfound freedom of the East Germans.
Within hours we watched the gradual filling of the entire 10-15 acre area lot where we had found a good resting place in the crowd that was center stage. The stage was massive and impressive in sheer size and equipment surrounding it for the show. We anticipated, in Pink Floyd fashion, the entertainment would include smoke, laser lights, and a sound that rumbled the ground under our feet. Roger Waters and others did not disappoint with an amazing performance as they played through some of the album songs until “Another Brick in the Wall Part I” that engaged the crowd now standing on their feet with fists in the air singing along when we were treated with a giant blow-up prop of the professor in the song rising up and over the entire top of the stage in a stunning display. The lights went down and the energized crowd went silent as the interlude of “Is Anybody Out There?” began with a distant siren and one large searchlight scanning the crowd. Following the second light flooding the crowd I noticed many felt like I did, it was a sobering moment of realization that those of us who took our freedom for granted have never known the trauma they will carry from the experiences they suffered. In a solemn moment we felt a mutual love and compassion for those who were left behind.
Finally there was a break and many scattered to find a drink or bathroom before the band returned. Others like ourselves stayed with our good spots to ensure we could enjoy the last of the show and watched in fascination as the stage hands stacked huge Styrofoam bricks at the sides of the stage and eventually filled the front of the stage hiding the band. The song they sang was unremarkable but created anticipation with the crowd from curiosity about the faux Wall that we faced. Into the next song they begin to play another version of “Another Brick in the Wall”, with a small part that repeats, ‘Tear Down the Wall!’. The band and Roger Waters paused at that point and the crowd chanted louder until they were shaking their fists and screaming, “Tear down the Wall! Tear down the Wall!”. The power behind their voices was overwhelming as their emotions began to seep through the angry exterior. We chanted again and suddenly a movement happened on the stage, the top middle brick fell down and the crowd began cheering on the band, “Tear down the Wall!”. Another brick toppled, then three at a time and the stage lit up in bright colors behind the Wall revealing light behind each brick that came down until the Wall lay in ruins on the front of the stage. While the band played my vision settled on the crowd around me in the intensity of the moment. One young man hugged himself and bent over in anguish crying, some wiped tears from their eyes and others smiled so brightly at what they had experienced.
The image of the thin young man who doubled over in his pain haunted me for decades to come and I preached to others that freedom is not guaranteed in this world. The East Germans endured a nightmare that lasted generations as their relatives a short drive away were free to live as western cultures. As Americans we were automatically celebrities to the East Germans who always waved at us on the highway when they would see our USA plates on the car. They thought we freed them but it wasn’t the Americans. It was their fight to preserve a world they had, even if it was in secret by telling their children of the great steal of East Berlin and the revolution they dreamed would happen. Living in constant fear and knowing they were being watched, those who could not accept the regime often simply ran through the front gates knowing it was suicide. The East Germans understood the value of freedom and their vision of Americans were those of the most free people on earth.
Today in the wake of 30 years later and a new danger to our country I am reminded of the young man who had been born into imprisonment, who doubled over in pain and cried for his people and their freedom. What did he endure at such a young age to feel such anguish? Decades later generations who are the age he had been at the concert are rioting in the streets and campaigning for the very government he experienced. There is a new resolve among millions of Americans to fight back against a style of government they feel will take the Land of the Free to communism. It was a threat that was unthinkable in the Reagan era and something that only happened to other countries. There are far more generations of American patriots who served in wars and lost loved ones for the fight against communism than supporters of repressive governments in our great land.
The Berlin Wall was built while the East Germans were sleeping much like Americans have been sleeping comfortably in a world that was changing around them. Freedom has a price. America still has a voice and the freedom to exercise that right. It is time to raise our fist and demand our representatives tear down this wall before it is built. Supporters of these governments want you to hide and have many means of propaganda ready to deploy against hope or opposition. Now is not the time to stop speaking, we will not be silenced and we will not succumb to old ideals. Speak for the young man who experienced the terror of such a regime and ensure your grandchildren will not relive his nightmare.
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Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Freedom. – Iceland; US Military Hangar 1989
Edited by Star