BERLIN — Saturday will mark 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Wall went up virtually overnight in August of 1961. From the end of World War II and up until then, Communist East Germany lost 3.5 million people. If people continued leaving the East for the West, East Germany would collapse. The Wall was the government’s solution.
West Berlin was unique in that it was an island of freedom in a sea of East Germany Communism.
The four allies in World War II divided Germany with the former Soviet Union controlling the East and the three other allies, including the U.S., overseeing the West. All had flags planted in one of the four sectors of Berlin. It was a mission of Western Europe and every U.S. president from Kennedy to HW Bush to keep West Berlin free. With that mission came the real possibility that a simple misunderstanding could turn into World War III.
Kennedy famously said he was “a Berliner,” but he also said a wall was better than a war. That didn’t mean peace for Berlin.
On November 9, 1989 an East German government official announced it would be lifting restrictions on travel. When a reporter asked when this new policy would take effect the leader mistakenly, or not depending on who tells the story, said, “Immediately.”
Soon after, thousands showed up at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. Overwhelmed and confused East German Guards opened the boarder and the wall started to come down.
Leo Klein grew up in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood and had moved to West Berlin six years before the wall came down. He was on what he called his “grand tour of Europe.” He spent two years in Rome and two more in Paris before deciding to move to West Berlin. He lived just blocks from the wall and had been asleep when the wall started coming down.
“One of my common neighbors said, ‘Oh, the wall came down,’” he said. “I was like, ‘Wait. I just took a nap for a half-hour and the wall came down?’”
Soon he joined the thousands at the wall to celebrate the physical symbol of the Cold War.
Big celebrations are planned in Germany this Saturday and in Chicago.
Isabelle Flegel will be celebrating at the Dank Haus on Chicago’s North Side. She was born in West Berlin and was 16 the day the wall was brought down. She said that night was “euphoric.”
“There was no other word for it,” she said.
Klein said seeing the stark differences between the two systems in the East and the West proved democracy has a huge impact on people and the U.S. needs to stay involved in world events.
For Flegel, she said living through the historic moment has made her see and question all governmental system and try and see the angles of who benefits from decisions made.