Hardy Graupner was working as a journalist in East Germany the night the Wall fell. Now a reporter for Deutsche Welle, he remembers the mixture of optimism and trepidation he felt as the world opened up to him.
November 9, 1989, was a normal working day for me. I was on a newsreader shift for the English program of Radio Berlin International, East Germany's foreign broadcasting service. It was a time of many hectic developments in the East that were extremely hard to put into perspective from within the country. As an ordinary journalist, I had limited access to foreign news agencies, which would have helped me give a better analysis of the era's political events.
When the news broke about Easterners being able to travel to the West, I didn't really believe it at first. As far as I remember, our radio station chose to ignore the news for quite a while, with the editor-in-chief double-checking whether we were supposed to talk about it at all in our news bulletins.
East Germans flooded west when the Wall fell in November 1989
Later in the day, I saw on West German television how hundreds of Easterners had wasted no time and gone to the Wall and crossing points to engage in lively debates with the border guards. What followed is well known - the events of that night spelled the beginning of the end of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). And on that Thursday, I wasn't quite sure whether I was heading towards a brighter future or a disaster.
Venturing out into the great unknown
I only made it into West Berlin the weekend after the Wall burst open. I crossed the Spree River into the western district of Kreuzberg with a mixture of curiosity and unease. I probably shouldn't have picked that district for my first visit ever to the West. I spotted streets littered with waste and dilapidated houses with ugly facades full of graffiti.
"This cannot be the golden West that I've heard so much about," I thought to myself and so I decided to hop on an inner-city train and move on to the center. And yes, things did improve a lot after a while with the glitter and shine of a metropolis coming into focus near the Ku'damm shopping boulevard.
With no hard currency in my pockets, I just strolled down some streets, did some window shopping and held a few shy conversations with West Berliners who concluded right away that I must be an "Ossi" (Easterner). How did they know, I asked them, were my clothes so terrible? "No," they replied, "your clothes are alright, but it's this look of uncertainty in your eyes and the way you make way for other pedestrians - we prefer to bump into each other deliberately."
Once an "Ossi," always an "Ossi"
More than 20 years later I still don't bump into people, and I still preserve my eastern mentality. Which among other things means that I'm wary of people who condemn the GDR lock, stock and barrel. It had a senile leadership most of the time that approved of such horrible things as the Wall and the Stasi secret police.
On the other hand, I did have a carefree childhood in East Germany and enjoyed free school and a free university education that later enabled me to secure an interesting job. And all of that without ever having to become a member of the Communist party or an informer for the Stasi!
Living in a reunited Germany has had an enormous impact on me, although the time hasn't turned everything upside down. I was extremely lucky to get a job with Deutsche Welle in the early 1990s. Journalism became a totally new ballgame for me and the Western or democratic standards of balanced reporting and free access to information have been a real blessing.
Lots of things changed in my daily life, too. No more queuing in lines in front of stores. No more waiting for a car for over 10 years - I swapped my Trabant runabout for something better. And yes - traveling abroad has become a breeze. If you've got the dough, the whole world is within your reach.
It's been nice to see eastern German towns given a complete facelift. They all look much more colorful and modern now while preserving former tourist attractions. And eastern Germany now has one of the most modern road and telecommunications infrastructure in the world!
It's a shame, though, that unemployment is still such a huge problem in the East. Many of my friends and relatives have become jobless since the Wall fell and have started wondering whether the free market economy of the West is really so desirable. But at the same time, it's clear no one wants the GDR back!