The Berlin Wall 1961 – 1989: Personal Reflections


By myself I was able to discover parts of East Berlin that my official tour had omitted. I was able to walk up comparatively close to the E Berlin side of the Brandenburg Gate – why had it been such an act of priority to turn the Quadriga on the top of it round through 180 degrees? I was struck by the emptiness – so few people, virtually no cars or vans, Those I did see varied – from the new, official Soviet style limousines to the very old, probably pre-war in many cases and barely roadworthy commercial vehicles. I met very few passers by as I wondered along Unter den Linden. Even the goose stepping ceremony of the changing of the guard at the “Mahnmal”  (war memorial) attracted few onlookers. Official banners proclaiming the 10th anniversary of the Wall from official buildings such as the E Berlin town hall and the SED Central Committee Offices formed another stark contrast with the weed covered Marx-Engels-Platz and the cathedral in ruins.

Along to the Alexanderplatz where at last there were signs of people: on the paving slabs was an exhibition of drawings in coloured chalks, ostensibly done by children but in reality extremely mature, celebrating the anniversary of the Wall and the fact that “peace must be armed”. The political content of the drawings was extremely heavy and as I arrived they were being were being admired by the greatest number of largest number of people I had come across so far. Defiance against the West was something that was instilled at an early age! Above all of this towered the Fernsehturm (TV tower), ostensibly a symbol of East German technological advance, but with the reflection on the central bowl shape of a cross, the symbol of Christianity which some in West Berlin took to be a sign of divine disapproval of the lack of freedom to worship. The fact that there were armed guards on duty outside the one Christian Church which had been allowed to remain open in the centre of East Berlin conveyed its own, very confusing message.

As a visitor it was far from easy to meet any one other than representatives of officialdom. The “Haus der Lehrer” (the teachers’ house) on the corner of the Alexanderplatz was an obvious port of call. It turned out to be a combination of a resource and advice centre for the centrally prescribed curriculum and a suite of offices for those responsible for education at both national and local government level. Conversations with those whom I met were always courteous and fascinating, but not for the first time I was confronted by the argument that education had to be utilitarian as the authorities planned for educating a workforce deprived over previous years of so many young men in the 18 – 48 age group, those on whom the economy so much depended. On occasions I felt that I was being patronised – how on earth could someone from a country such as England, despite a fluency in the language, ever expect to understand their situation, their aspirations, their systems?

Nearly forty years later I still have abiding images of what life must have been like for those living behind the Iron Curtain. Clothing and food seemed to be of poor quality, entertainment restricted to what the state thought appropriate, living conditions often cramped, lacking in privacy or even reliable sources of heating. People were rarely seen in large numbers, with the exception of the queue at the security gates of the Friedrichstraße on my return to the West. The vast majority were women past the age of retirement – they were the ones who were considered to be a burden on the state and therefore more likely to gain approval to leave. Once again, the system of three guards at a time was in operation. It was illegal for anyone to take out any East German currency (Ostmark). On arrival it had been compulsory to exchange West German marks for East German marks on a one for one basis (“Wucher” – “usury” to quote a good friend of mine in the West). By the time I reached the third guard my nerve failed me. I had wished to bring some back to show my students but I finally admitted that I had not spent everything. I was encouraged by the guard to go back and treat myself to “Beer and sausage” at a “Wurstbude” (sausage booth). Quite where he thought this might be, I do not know. The only one near the station had a queue of some forty plus people waiting. I found a bookshop nearby and bought a book on Soviet space exploration, which I have to this day.

On my return to Hannover I found myself sharing a compartment with a student who was on his way to The Hague to represent the DDR at a youth conference. We discussed my visits to E Berlin and other places in Germany I knew well. This was his first visit beyond the DDR. I have often wondered what a conversation with him on the return might have been like. On his outward journey at least his tutors had clearly succeeded in their aim – he was worryingly blinkered in his view and extremely hostile towards the West and all he believed it stood for. I have also often wondered how he and his generation have coped with all of the changes since 1989.

Thursday 9th November 1989

The build up to the breaching of the Berlin Wall has been headline news for a while. The morning of the 9th November is a red letter day: the end of what the Berlin Wall has stood for since 1961. My first lesson of the day is with a group of 6th formers, studying  “German for Business Studies”. They are 17, very similar in age and educational background to myself when the Wall was first erected. I can hardly restrain my excitement in conveying exactly what this means to me, my generation and also to their generation, how it had been a symbol for the divisions in Europe and had had its origins in the political settlements reached as my generation was born and what it might mean for the future. They listened politely, somewhat bemused……….


About The Author

Bob Mardling is a Fellow of the Institute of Linguists and a self confessed Germanophile. A retired headmaster and former Senior Quality Assurance Officer for ISCTIP, he now lives in West Yorkshire with his wife Liz. Read more about Bob »