A New Era

Today marks the beginning of a new era of sorts — as of today, the Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was up. This is truly astounding for me as a GenXer.

Brandenburg Gate taken from the top of the Reichstag, 1961, source: http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2014/11/the-berlin-wall-25-years-after-the-fall/100845/

I first learned of the Berlin Wall as a child in the early 1980s when my friend’s older brother told me about a country where an evil dictatorship had built a wall to keep people from leaving. He told me soldiers would shoot anyone trying to get out, or would capture them and torture them and their family members. Even though I was very young, this really troubled me. It disturbed me enough to give me bad dreams for years after.

* * *

On a nondescript day in junior high, my German teacher trembled as she told us the Berlin Wall had “fallen.” This surged like electricity through me, even though I absolutely was not tied in to current events as a raucous, uncouth early teen. I wondered what had happened, and what was going on, and what would happen next. The next year, she had our class watch as Germany was reunified. Everyone was elated but also stunned — German Reunification was not a foregone conclusion, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

* * *

As a senior in high school in the early 1990s, we housed a foreign-exchange student from The Netherlands, also a senior at my high school. He told me seemingly fantastic stories about the goings-on in the Wild Wild East of the “unified” Berlin. About how “you haven’t lived until you’ve slept in Kreuzberg.” About the relic of the Berlin Wall and its eerie former no-mans land between East and West Berlin. About Potsdamer Platz. Later that year, my cousin went on his mission to Berlin.

* * *

I first visited Berlin the summer after my senior year. As a child of the Cold War, seeing the Berlin Wall, walking next to it, crossing over it, passing through the Brandenburg Gate, were the most surreal experiences of my life up until then. I felt drunk on history as I stood on the steps of the blackened, pockmarked Reichstag building and posed for a picture taken from the green far below. I’m only a tiny speck of red (my t-shirt) against one of the most massive and impressive buildings I’d been to in my life up until that point. Months later, my older brother was called on a mission to East Germany.

* * *

The next summer, after a freshman year at college studying German in classes with returned missionaries, my skateboarding revelries were interrupted by a phone call from my mom several states away — did I want her to open my mission call over the phone? Sure — but I already knew: Berlin.

* * *

Shortly before he returned home, my brother and I took advantage of a day doing splits and visited the famed East Side Gallery of the surviving portion of the Berlin Wall on Mühlenstraße. A memorable experience, even after I’d already been in Berlin almost a year immersed in the history all its inhabitants had been swimming in for decades and seeing the Berlin Wall and other historical sites hundreds of times.

Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery, Mühlenstraße — I’m the tall one.

* * *

Waiting to address the plenary session — Berlin Senate Building

Post-mission, and after further German studies, German internships, and German degrees, I found myself participating in one of those student mock international organization events — in this case Council of Europe rather than model UN — held in the Berlin Senate building with breakout sessions in the Willy Brandt House. With the above history of Berlin-awareness and having already served a Mormon mission in Berlin a decade before, this model Council of Europe exercise in the Berlin Senate building was, again, surreal. I couldn’t shake this sense of history as I participated in multiple floor debates and delivered a speech in German to the plenary session on my committee’s topic: the separation of Church and State in a proposed EU Constitution. Being in the unified Berlin, spending time on the now completely developed and glitzy Potsdamer Platz, as a returned missionary, knowing Berlin far more intimately than most of the other event participants from abroad as a result, taking time while others were partying after days of work to go deep into East Berlin to visit friends and places from seemingly another life, produced a profound feeling of gratitude for the unique story of this place.

Flying the Berlin Flag to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Another decade later and Berlin was again in the news. It might be odd to see a Berlin flag flying deep in American flyover country but it reminds me of the special place Berlin has in twentieth-century history. This picture shows it flying on the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s historic fall. In 2008, I had written a personal tribute to Germany on its 18th year of Reunification. I echoed that post on the 25th Anniversary of the Wall’s fall. I now echo it again and borrow from the closing line to close this meander: Though my endorsement means nothing, I salute you, Germany, on this important milestone and for the beginning of a new German era.


  1. Beautiful tribute and reminder of this significant milestone that otherwise would have passed me by. What a lovely personal connection you have with Germany.

  2. I grew up in the ’60s, with stories of people escaping — or dying trying — over the Berlin Wall and through no-man’s-land. Your first sentence gave me a disorienting jolt. How fortunate you are to have this series of connections to a city you care so much about. And how fortunate the world is that the city’s history has, for now, resolved this way.

  3. Thank you Fashion!

    And thanks Ardis — it’s really amazing, isn’t it?

  4. Great post, John. We have lived through some interesting times.

  5. My husband brought me a piece of the Berlin wall to keep in my office. It’s just a tiny chunk. I grew up in a time when that part of the world, truly was a black hole. The world beyond it, totally incomprehensible. My oldest daughter was born just few days before the wall came down. I am always amazed at the two totally different worlds my kids and I know. All because of a wall.

  6. I remember being taken to see the Berlin wall in 1966 – it was scary then. I also drove to Poland in 1989 just after the wall came down and over the ensuing years it made a huge difference to peoples freedom and lives, Lets hope that Mexican wall never gets built. BTW I live in the UK

  7. I served in the Hamburg Mission (before it became the Berlin Mission) while the wall was still up. Countless stories from amazing members who had relatives on the other side. I cried when the wall came down. Thank you for your post.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Extraordinary. Thanks John.

  9. Great post. Let’s hope that something more like Merkel’s vision for the future rather than the AfD’s carries the day in this new era.

  10. John Mansfield says:

    A little sign of the new era: A couple months ago, I took in a show at a small bar near Howard University. It was Alice Merton, and there is a song in her set where the band takes a break, and she sits alone at the keyboard and sings “Back to Berlin.” She introduced it by saying that’s where she lives now. The song is just a nice quiet broken-hearted lament of a love that didn’t work out, nothing hinting of international trouble and division, present or past. Miss Merton is 24 years old, a child of the new era.

  11. Nice!

  12. Great read John. Thanks for this.

  13. Thanks for this great and evocative post. In 1986 I was able to spend some time in what was then West Berlin. One day I took my camera to the Brandenburg Gate, which was close to where I was staying, and followed a weedy and often overgrown path along the wall, taking pictures of the mural and polyglot graffiti that covered it. (“In this day we stand divided/Till by its fall we are united.” “Mauer, mur, or the wall/Who’s the greatest of them all?/Only you know the secret/All we ask is that you keep it.”) I remember at one point it was possible to climb a flight of bleacher-like steps and look over the wall, onto a view of a sort of no-man’s land, marked on the far side by another wall. I got as far as Checkpoint Charlie, where an East German border guard, his German shepherd, and I all startled one another, and I fled into the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. There was a spot in there where you could look through a peephole not visible from the outside, and watch the border guards at the checkpoint with their mirrors examining the vehicles coming through. The following day I took a tour bus into East Berlin, through that same checkpoint. As we were pulling out on the east side, someone on the bus whipped out a camera and snapped a picture of a truck being searched. A car immediately pulled out after us and followed us until the bus driver pulled over. Two men got out of the car, boarded the bus, walked straight to the seat where the photographer was sitting, took away his camera, opened the back, and pull the entire roll of film out of the canister, exposing it all, before dumping the mess back into his lap, and letting us go on our way. The notebook I was keeping at the time grew thick with similar experiences.

    By1988 I was back on this side of the Atlantic and living in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and I could not tear myself away from the TV coverage of the wall coming down. It was, and is, amazing to me that all of that was part of my lifetime. It really doesn’t seem so long ago.

  14. wow, cool experience, Cate!

  15. My LDS mother was born and raised in Berlin. In the 1970s as a child with my parents we visited my aunt in West Berlin who showed us home movies of the day that the wall first went up. It was just a chain link fence then with a lot of bewildered people on either side just milling about.

    By the time I was there the guard towers and the death strip were in full force. The house that my mother grew up in ended up in no man’s land. How weird would that be? We crossed over to East Berlin to visit my uncle. While we were on the S Bahn my father pulled out his Super 8 camera and started shooting home movies of the wall. I’ll never forget how terrified this woman on the train was as she told us in German, “We don’t do this here.”

    I was in a dress rehearsal back home in Canada when the stage manager ran into the dressing room to tell us that the wall had come down. We stopped the rehearsal. My cousin who was raised in Berlin but had since moved to the States was driving when she heard the news. She had to pull over because she was sobbing and thought she might crash the car.

  16. Seriously! It’s hard to describe how immense that news was. Honecker had said in January 1989 the wall would stand another 100 years. By November, the game was up.

  17. Indeed, there was an expression in Berlin at the time “when the wall comes down” which locals used to mean basically “when hell freezes over”.

  18. Interesting perspective John. I was around 30 when the wall fell and it was an amazing time. Here in the UK it was a huge topic of conversation as it was such a surprise as most of us felt the communist regimes were going to be around for much longer. I still remember vividly the news showing East Germans visiting the west and lots of related news articles.

  19. Thanks for this remembrance, John. I’m still honored to have celebrated the 25th anniversry with you. How I’d love to spend some time in Berlin with you!

  20. Claire, very cool memories!

    Jason, the honor was ours — a memorable evening, wasn’t it? And the Berlin flag was how you found our house, no?

  21. I knew your house by then, but a flag did help us the first time! A most memorable evening: good German food and “Goodbye, Lenin!”

  22. Thank you for these lovely thoughts.

    My father was a missionary in Berlin before the Wall went up. He used to tell me stories about proselyting in the divided city. They didn’t teach investigators in East Berlin, but they were free to cross into the eastern side for various reasons. When he had a companion who shared his love for opera, they went to the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, one of the world’s great opera houses, less than a mile east of the Brandenburg Gate. As far as I can tell, they weren’t breaking the mission rules of that time! (Actually, maybe that’s not right. He said that occasionally they were in a hurry, so they might neglect to leave their religious tracts behind, and carrying such material could have been a problem if they had been stopped by police.)

    Hearing those stories kindled my interest in politics and German things. From a very far distance, I came to care a lot about what the Berlin Wall represented. I remember so well the night we saw live images of people dancing in celebration around and on top of the Wall. That was an emotional night for me. When I got to visit Berlin in the mid-90’s, it was a sweet experience to walk through the Brandenburg Gate and along Unter den Linden.

    We Americans have grown complacent thinking that we set the Germans straight after the war and put them on the path to liberal democracy. It’s true that we deserve some credit for that, but what is ugly in Germany’s past is really not so different from our own history. Neither country has fully overcome our legacies of hatred and violence. We have so much to learn from each other. It feels good to be grateful for the example of hope that the Germans have given the world.

  23. I visited east Germany in 1965, going thru Check point Charlie. The people in the east were very supressed and food was rationed and I had to report to the police station every day. I also had to get a ration book to allow the family I was staying with to get extra food. There were Russian soldiers everywhere and they would stop you and ask for your papers. As a young teenager it was very scary, but the people were lovely. Went back in 2006 what a transformation. So happy when I heard the wall was coming down, shed tears for the people in the east sector,m
    freedom at last.

  24. It is history we should never forget. I enjoyed the documentary. Thanks for posting.

  25. I find it mind-boggling that so much time has passed. In 1977, I was a missionary in the Germany Hamburg Mission and was sent to Kreuzberg for my last assignment. Although we lived in Kreuzberg, our work area was actually Rudow and Gropiusstadt. Rudow was hemmed in on three sides by the Wall, so I became intimately acquainted with it, often eating lunch on the banks of the Teltow Canal and watching the East German guards in the watchtower across the canal and the Wall, who watched us in return through binoculars. I have a small piece of the wall, a souvenir. On the West side, you could walk right up to it and climb over if you had the inclination (of course no one did). When the Wall of Shame came down in November 1989, I simply couldn’t believe it. In 1984, my wife and I went through Checkpoint Charlie and spent a half day in East Berlin, a depressing experience. It’s really hard to believe that it has now been down longer than it was up. Time flies.

  26. Amazing experiences, Roger!

  27. Wow Margaret — that definitely would have been memorable. Thanks for sharing!

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