From the S&S archives:The Wall: A three-decade monument to political absurdity and human perseverance
January 3, 1990
THE two middle-aged women had walked less than a mile from home, but a trip to Mars couldn't have amazed them more.
On that magic Nov. 11 they sank onto a bench in a tiny park in West Berlin's nondescript Wedding district. The two East Berliners had just used the Berlin Wall's new Bernau Street crossing to go West for the first time in decades.
They talked quietly, marveling at their good fortune. One struck up a conversation with the man next to her, concentrating hard on each word so she would not forget The First Person I Ever Talked To In The West.
The two women were among the hundreds of thousands of laughing, weeping East Germans flooding into West Berlin that day, many dumbfounded by the bitter irony of suddenly being permitted to freely stroll streets that they had long been allowed to view, but not touch.
But that is Berlin, a city where irony and absurdity are a backdrop of everyday life. That was never more true than in 1989, the year the Communists opened their borders.
Take The Wall, for example. It supplies ample irony even in its gradual destruction by the chisel-wielding souvenir hunters the Germans call "Mauerspechte" (wall woodpeckers). Long a monument to failed communism, it quickly became a coveted symbol of capitalist consumerism.
One German paper reported that two airlines have shipped 50 tons of wall fragments to a Chicago entrepreneur. Even the East Germans have decided to cash in, announcing they will sell chunks of wall for Western currency.
The Brandenburg Gate also reflects the city's strange character. It became a symbol for the death of The Wall even though the real demise had occurred long before.
The really significant Berlin Wall openings had occurred in November in densely populated residential districts like Wedding, where people living a stone's throw apart could visit each other freely for the first time since 1961.
Nobody lives near the Brandenburg Gate. There are no subway or train stations near the famous landmark. Yet thousands of impatient Berliners and expectant news media types kept an irregular vigil for more than six weeks, anticipating its opening.
When the gate finally opened Dec. 22 and the crowds surged forward to celebrate the new step toward peace, several people were injured in the crush.
Further, the opportunity to enjoy the gate at close range won't last long. The East Germans intend to remove the famed Quadriga figure (Victory riding a horse-drawn chariot) atop the gate in January to refurbish it.
The Quadriga once faced west, but the East Germans turned the horses and chariot around when the Cold War was in full frost. Many West Berliners were outraged, though some considered it fitting to see horses' backsides when looking toward the Communist-ruled East.
Regardless of the attention focused recently on the famous portal, it is The Wall that truly defines Berlin.
After giddy revelers started knocking holes in the wall, a long series of Western politicians, diplomats, rock stars, news anchorpeople, religious cult leaders and other celebrities arrived to peer eastward through the apertures, and a gaggle of photographers dutifully recorded their curiosity.
All these visitors could have seen East Berlin better simply by going there, of course, even before Nov. 9. But the celebrities who gathered to watch the totalitarian painting fade from the Prussian canvas also wanted to comment on its frame.
In that sense, the Berlin Wall of late 1989 resembles the Great Wall of China. It is an instantly recognizable symbol of obsolete animosities. People prod it, poke it and sit on it now, like children playing with a Doberman suddenly blind, toothless and sedate.
It is also like the wall of biblical Jericho, sundered amid the shouts of the masses.
The Wall is really two walls in some places, with a strip of no-man's land in between. In others it is an underwater fence in a river. It would stretch 103 miles if straight, about as long as Connecticut is wide.
The unbroken chain of irony that marks its 28-year history is even longer.
Example: East German officials tore the wall open Nov. 9 for the same reason they built it — to stop their people from leaving en masse.
East Germans used Berlin as an escape route at the rate of nearly 2,000 people a day just before the Communists divided the city on Aug. 13, 1961. The exodus through other East bloc countries this year reached similar proportions.
Example: East German leader Walter Ulbricht said at a press conference in June 1961 that "no one intends to build a wall" to solve the refugee problem. Two months later the wall went up under the supervision of Ulbricht's protege, Erich Honecker. Honecker, who succeeded Ulbricht in 1971, predicted last January that the wall would remain intact for 50, maybe 100 years. Now the wall is oozing people, and Honecker is disgraced and under house arrest.
Example: The Communists caught U.S. officials off guard when they built the wall and again when they opened it.
The allies had suspected in 1961 that the Soviets might close access routes across East Germany. Their attention was diverted when workers started stringing barbed wire across the city in the middle of the night
"For all its contingency plans, the West had not been braced for what was happening," wrote former Berlin radio correspondent Norman Gelb in his 1986 book about the wall.
The news infuriated President Kennedy, who learned of it while sailing off Cape Cod. "What angered him," Gelb wrote, "was the realization that all the effort that had gone into forecasting what the Communists would do, and into preparing an appropriate response, had been in vain."
In 1989 President Bush was criticized for failing to quickly respond to the opening of The Wall. What next, Berlin?