Interrogating the Past: 30 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Interrogating the Past: 30 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Thirty years ago, all the world watched as the Berlin Wall came down in a peaceful revolution. On Nov. 9, 1989, East and West Berliners took shovels, hammers and fists to the 26-mile, concrete wall, while others climbed over the side and leapt to the ground. It was a powerful reckoning with history that continues to resonate today.

College of Charleston student Denicee Becker, a senior majoring in German foreign language education, was a German linguist in the Army in 1989 and remembers working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week in the days that led up to the fall of the wall.

“As a German linguist, I was responsible for transcribing, translating and evaluating foreign language military radio communications,” says Becker. “Everything I did was given to analysts who then, if warranted, forwarded the transcript to the NSA. They (the Soviets and East Germans) knew we were listening.”

When the news broke of the first person crossing the border safely, Becker hopped onto a bus to experience the historic moment. She says the 30th anniversary is an important time to remember “that the will of a suppressed society can enact changes if the people are willing to take the risk.”

The destruction of the wall was a triumph, but after more than 40 years of oppression, it was also a complex and difficult moment to witness.

Stephen Della Lana, a senior instructor of German at CofC, was at a midyear seminar with the Congress-Bundestag Exchange Program for Young Professionals in West Berlin in 1989. He remembers a particular demonstration soon after the fall of the wall that quickly escalated into the storming of the headquarters of the East German secret police, known as the Stasi.

It was a day Della Lana says he will never forget.

“As the evening wore on, people threw surveillance files out of windows, smashed surveillance equipment and raided their supplies of food, meat and liquor,” he says. “I remember hearing a woman crying, saying she hadn’t seen a strawberry in over forty years, yet at the Stasi headquarters, there were entire jars piled on shelves.”

Berlin Wall under construction

The Berlin Wall under construction in 1961.

Much has changed since that cold day in 1989 and on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, the School of Languages, Cultures, and World Affairs Colloquium hosted “Berlin 1989: What Does it Mean to Us Today?”  The event featured John Kornblum, U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1997-2001, who discussed the ripple effect the fall of the Berlin Wall has had on the region – and indeed, the world. During his 35-year career in the foreign service, Kornblum played a defining role in many of the events leading up to the end of the cold war, including inspiring Ronald Reagan’s famous “Tear down this wall!” speech at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987. Kornblum also had a front-row seat as the long process of German reunification began.

“This moment in history emphatically marked the end of the Cold War,” says James D. Melville, Jr., associate dean for international and community outreach in the School of Languages, Cultures, and World Affairs, who stood just feet away from Reagan during that seminal speech.

Melville served 33 years as a foreign service officer, many of which were spent in Eastern Europe during the fall of the Soviet Union.

He says, that “the changes that were happening gave us an amazing opportunity to spread freedom, democracy and human rights. Germany set an example of how to grapple with history.”

Morgan Koerner, associate professor of German and chair of the Department of German and Russian Studies agrees, saying, “As an American, I greatly admire and envy the way post-war Germany has interrogated its past. Germany’s culture of remembrance or “Erinnerungskultur” is an inspiring model for what could be done more rigorously here.”

Educating students about the Holocaust or the crimes of the Nazi era has been a central part of the German education curriculum since the 1970s, and public commemoration of the Holocaust and school visits to concentration camps are common. In Berlin, a block away from the German parliament building and right next to the Brandenburg Gate, lies the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The idea for the memorial began in the late 1980s, and after years of debate and planning, it was dedicated on May 10, 2005, 60 years after the end of World War II.

Whether an event took place 30 or 250 years ago, we all look to the past to inform the future. We try to learn from those who have come before us. The Germans call this “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” which roughly translates to “[the process of] coming to terms with the past.” It is an acknowledgement that history is about broadening, not narrowing the narrative.