′I was waking up to a different world′ | Fall of the Berlin Wall | DW | 06.10.2019
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Berlin Wall

'I was waking up to a different world'

DW reporter Uwe Hessler slept through the opening of the border between East and West Germany and woke up on November 10, 1989, to a Germany full of new opportunities and unknown consequences.

Communism in East Germany collapsed, they say, because its rulers didn't wake up to the growing mood for change within the population at large. I must admit, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down the night of November 9, 1989, I myself was sleeping through that moment of world history.

Bear with me; it was a cold and rainy November evening so I went to bed early. After all, having just married about a year earlier, I still had better things to do than watch the boring East German television news where announcer Günter Schabowski made his world-famous blooper that night. The next morning though, I quickly realized that I was waking up to a different world.

Read more: The GDR — A failed experiment in dictatorship

Exploring new ways

That morning, a somewhat prosaic harbinger of the great changes to come was the fact that the tram I used to take to work was almost completely empty. Happy to be saved the usual elbowing in the aisles and the smell of yesterday's booze, the ride gave me ample opportunity to muse upon the situation. What also remained empty that morning were the desks of two of my colleagues who had apparently chosen to stay away from work to go on outings into West Berlin. One of them was never to be seen at work again.

DW's Uwe Hessler

DW's Uwe Hessler

I also ventured out into the great unknown western part of the city shortly thereafter. But it wasn't the big-city reunification splash that piqued my interest. Having grown up in the shadows of the "Green Border" that had separated East and West Germany, I decided to go on an exciting trip into both the past and the present.

I went back to the bumpy meadow we used to play football on in my very early childhood. The last time I had seen it was in the mid-1960s when we were driven away because the infamous death strip was due to be extended. I was exploring the old ore mine, the alleged secrets of which had been legendary in my home village, but couldn't be revealed because the mine happened to be located in the border's no-man's-land, barred from public scrutiny.

Numerous families along the Green Border, including mine, celebrated reunion parties, giving Easterners the chance to catch a first glimpse of western lifestyle. I had never been able to visit the homes of my grandmother and my uncle in the West even though they were living only about 30 miles away. My uncle's well-kept Bavarian village house and the spic-and-span town in which my grandmother lived truly impressed me. But I knew that this wasn't the full truth behind a life in the West.

Freedom versus security

In the time right after the fall of the Wall, East Germany appeared to me like a rudderless ship, beaten by heavy seas and drifting slowly towards deadly rocks looming on the horizon. The old captains were gradually losing authority as the crew revolted, demanding a greater say in deciding the course, and notably better provisions. At Radio Berlin International, the East German foreign broadcaster where I had been working for two years at the time, the tight ideological leash reporters had been kept on before was substantially loosened. What an experience to report about anything, with people feeling free to say everything!

Yet mounting popular demands for a reunification of the two Germanies gave rise to that creeping feeling that my job might soon be at stake. Business ideas I briefly fantasized about, such as producing an audio language course for East Germans willing to learn English, quickly evaporated upon the realization that western companies would soon be waltzing into the country with their own products. I still remember fiery debates with people who wouldn't believe that West German companies wouldn't need a single job in the East to keep shops full here. Alas, in the end I was right, at least partly.

Luckily, I was able to avoid the post-unification hangover that beset many Easterners. Deutsche Welle offered me a job and I could continue reporting about the world that was collapsing around me. Now 30 years on, I wouldn't have missed those heady days — but that's probably a statement only someone who's largely escaped their ravages can make.

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