Breaking Through to freedom

26 years ago the GDR yielded to the will of the people and opened its borders. A makeshift crossing opened on Potsdamer Platz – and marked the beginning of the end of the Wall.

On the evening of 9 November 1989 the borders of the Berlin Wall opened unexpectedly and dramatically: thousands of East German citizens poured into West Berlin and the border crossings were overwhelmed. From the West Berlin side, people climbed onto the wall and occupied it. The hated bulwark had divided the city for almost three decades. In order to alleviate the strained situation, the GDR authorities decided to create new border crossings, including one at Potsdamer Platz.

And so it came to pass that in early hours of the morning of 12 November, GDR soldiers started tearing down sections of the wall with cranes and bulldozers – the same wall that just a few hours earlier their comrades had been defending. Onlookers had gathered on the West Berlin side, and began battering the wall with whatever they could get their hands on: a hammer, chisel or base of a street sign. As a RIAS television reporter put it, it was “as if the people couldn’t wait to create an opening”. At eight in the morning the first Trabis trundled from Leipziger Straße across the no man’s land of Potsdamer Platz. A year later the wall was history.

Just a stone’s throw from Potsdamer Platz you can see one of the last remaining watchtowers of the Berlin Wall. It’s a unique experience, but one to be avoided by the faint-hearted: to reach the top of the tower you have to climb up a narrow concrete funnel with a diameter of just 1.5 metres. We talked to the historian Jörg Moser-Metius, who has made the monument accessible to the public:

Mr Moser-Metius, it feels claustrophobic inside the watchtower. What was an average day like for a border guard?
There were always two border guards at the top of the tower, each armed with a Kalashnikov and a flare gun in case of an alarm. One of the guards looked towards home, i.e. eastwards, the other towards the enemy, i.e. westwards. A shift lasted eight hours. There was neither heating nor a toilet. Private conversations were frowned upon.

Why?
Because friendships between the guards were to be avoided at all costs. The men never knew in advance with whom they would be sharing a shift and whether the comrade might be a Stasi informer.

Who was assigned to this post? Were they officers of the National People’s Army who were particularly loyal to the regime?
To an extent, yes. But normal conscripts and young recruits were posted here, too – but only those who did not have relatives in West Germany. For many, being a border guard at the Berlin Wall was the worst thing imaginable.

What were the border guards supposed to do if they saw somebody approaching the wall?
In all circumstances, the soldiers were under strict orders to apprehend, arrest or kill these “border violators”.

You took over the watchtower from the City of Berlin and restored it. Why?
I wanted to retain the tower as a memorial. You can no longer see the course of the wall in Berlin, but many people want to know where it stood and what it looked liked. I have also created an exhibition, which I hope to display directly next door. But at the moment I’m still looking for sponsors.
Wachturm Potsdamer Platz
Watchtower: Erna-Berger-Straße 7

Guided tours daily 2-6 p.m., admission 3.50 euros
berlinwallexpo.de
Parts of the Wall can be found in an exhibition at the entrance to Bahnhof Potsdamer Platz and at Ristorante Essenza (Potsdamer Platz 1).
More info and eyewitness accounts of the fall of the Wall can be found at chronik-der-mauer.de

 

Text and Interview: Ulrike Schattenmann

Photos: Frits Wiarda; Department of Defense. Department of the Army. U.S. Army Europe. U.S. Army Berlin. Berlin Brigade.; Edward Valachovic, www.flickr.com/people/fauxaddress/; Nancy Wong/Edmunddantes; Hendrik Gerrit Pastor; Jörg Moser-Metius