Believe it or not, but it’s 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down – or rather was brought down by the people of East Germany. No-one thought it would ever go. Set in stone, or more accurately in huge slabs of concrete, the Berlin Wall seemed to be there for all time, the bleak physical emblem of a brutal and hypocritical regime, dividing the lives of so many people. An insurmountable and ever-present barrier. Yet the spirit and courage of ordinary people were to prove that to be untrue.
From the late 1970s I had been in touch with young East Germans, friends made during an unforgettable visit behind the Iron Curtain in 1978. I was one of a group of young Scots on a church exchange that was in fact no exchange. We could enter the GDR, but they were not able to visit us in return. On our departure at the end of that first remarkable trip we bought our S-Bahn tickets – one way – back to the West. “Tickets to freedom…” as one of our new friends commented wryly, “…for only a few pfennigs“. It was a tearful farewell – it didn’t seem likely that we would ever see each other again.
It had been hard enough for us to get there in the first place. The visit had been discouraged by the GDR, an avowedly atheistic state that regarded both us and our hosts as holding undesirable beliefs, incompatible with the state ideology. But it was also seen as undesirable in the eyes of the British authorities, who paid me a visit before our departure to encourage us to think twice about going. However, go we did, facing a long and arduous journey from West to East, past heavily armed guards and grim border crossing points to get there.
Despite all obstacles though, we were determined that from that initial visit onwards this contact should be maintained and we visited whenever we could – later even taking our young daughter Alison with us. These visits were of immense importance to us all. We grew to understand the full extent of lives lived under a totalitarian regime, while for our East German friends we were the lifeline to a world outside, proof that other ways were possible. They asked us not to forget them. Through all those years we were deeply impressed by their dignity and courage and determination not to give up hope.
And it was this courage and determination that eventually proved too much for the regime – in November 1989 the Wall came down. During those exciting – and dangerous – days, our friends would phone us, uncertain as to how much we were able to see in the West. “Do you know what’s happening?”, “Can you see what’s going on?” Then a momentous call when Dietmar and Martina rang from Berlin – “The Wall is breached! We are in West Berlin! We can hardly believe it’s true!”
But true it was. I remember so vividly those heady days as the unimaginable happened and the whole edifice of Soviet control began to crumble, finally swept away for good. As soon as possible we travelled to Berlin and, along with our friends, took up hammer and chisel and helped to bring down that hated edifice that had separated families and countries for so long.
It’s not been an easy transition – no system of government is perfect, but some are definitely better than others. My friends faced a huge change from one of life to another – new and often daunting challenges – but now they were free from the mental and physical tortures used by the regime to keep the people down. The Berlin Wall, monstrous in itself, had hidden from the West many of the horrific things done to people who dared to question the state in any way.
The piece of the Berlin Wall that I brought home from that visit is a treasured possession. The symbol of the courage of my friends, who without weapons, took on a hated regime and brought it down. My piece of the Wall is a constant reminder to me of their determination in the face of what seemed an indestructible and permanent evil. My piece of the Wall is a tangible witness to enduring friendships that continue to this day. Something I will treasure forever.
The story of these remarkable events is told in full in Border Crossings
Reviews of Border Crossings from Martin Dey and David Pattie