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John Simkin

Berlin Wall

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John Simkin, aged 16, apprentice bookbinder in a printing company in Barking, Essex.

Erich Honecker ordered the blocking off East Berlin from West Berlin by means of barbed wire and antitank obstacles. Streets were torn up, and barricades of paving stones were erected. People living in East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic were no longer allowed to enter West Berlin. This included 60,000 people who had been working in the city.

The wall was 166 km long cut through 192 streets, 97 of them leading to East Berlin and 95 into East Germany. Over the next few months construction workers began replacing the provisional barriers by a solid wall. A new wall was built four years later. This consisted of concrete slabs between steel girder and concrete posts with a concrete sewage pipe on top of the Wall.

I was not very interested in politics in 1961 but I saw the coverage on the news. This included scenes of people being killed trying to cross the wall. The message I got from these pictures was that life must be pretty bad in East Berlin if people were willing to risk getting killed in order to get to West Berlin.

As far as images go, the building of the Berlin Wall was a terrible propaganda blow against communism. I suppose it had a similar impact on people who witnessed Soviet tanks going into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

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I am proud to say that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, "Ich war dabei!" ("I was there!")

I was on university business at the time, visiting my students in West Berlin and on the way to a conference on Computer Assisted Language Learning in Rostock, East Germany. When I returned to England I began to write my conference report, but the amazing events that I had witnessed got the upper hand and the conference report turned into an eye-witness account of the fall of the Wall. Read all about it at:

http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/berlin.htm

I had been to East Germany twice before, once on a study visit to Berlin in 1963, which was not long after the Wall had been constructed. I recall seeing wreaths and flowers hanging on the Wall, commemorating people who had been killed while trying to escape. My second visit was in 1976, when I attended a 4-week refresher course for teachers of German at Karl Marx University, Leipzig. I stayed with a family in Leipzig – interesting experience. Life in East Germany was dire. There were always shortages, and queues could be seen outside butchers and grocers every day. A highlight of the period I spent in Leipzig was a trip to Colditz Castle, a former prison for allied officers in WWII – but, interestingly, this was not mentioned in any East German guidebook.

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Andy Walker, teacher 25 years old

I was in my in my second year of teaching the year the wall came down, and I remember a distinctly excited young german teacher called Klaus taking an entirely incoherent and emotional assembly the following day.

My first trip to Berlin was in 1990 when I took a group of History and Politics A level students on a study tour. So soon after the wall had come down there was much to see and one could get a real sense of what it must have been like a year earlier.

What struck me was the utter stupidity and unsustainablity of dividing a city in this way. I found it utterly incredible that it had been there since 1961. I remember also tearing my students off a strip for buying big chunks of "wall" to take home for their mantlepieces. Why anyone could want a reminder of such a monstrous and divisive memorial to murder was, and still is beyond me.

We went on a visit to an East German state school during the visit and had the chance to talk to teachers and sample some wholly unreformed approaches to the curriculum in the teaching of a lesson on Hitler's rise to power. The teachers themselves were largely unhappy about the coming down of the Wall - I imagine they stood to lose relative good salaries and pensions and that some may well have been former party members - they talked a lot about not everything being bad about the East and the sense of confusion and cynicism brought on by the utter turn around in what was officially regarded as praiseworthy and meritorious.

We also visted Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg on the northern edge of Berlin. The camp which had been a camp for political prisoners and the central training base for the SS was still very much laid out to fit the propaganga needs of the GDR. The displays and memorials were highly selective and no mention at all was made of the camps post war history as a detention centre and place of execution for former Nazis and then in the 50's and beyond for political opponents of the GDR. History is truely written by the winning side.

A few days prior to our visit the Jewish barracks of the museum had been firebombed by some young eastern neo Nazis who had been chillingly quoted in the local press as saying something along the lines of "the communists always lied so why should we believe them about this".

A sense of some hopelessness overcame me on the final day of the visit as we were taken around "the Topography of Terrors", former Gestapo HQs where interestingly a young Eric Honecker (amongst many thousands of others) had been tortured, interrogated and send off to the camps. Within a few short steps of this memorial was a big chunk of Berlin Wall still remaining - what a blighted piece of land! Hard to be optimistic about human potential in such surroundings.

I have returned several times on similar school trips and have witnessed Berlin transformed into the exciting vibrant place it is today. However I wonder how easy this transformation has been and continues to be for the majority of Easterners.

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I have "bookend" experiences of the Berlin Wall. The first, when I was 11 or 12, was when the Wall went up. I remember relatively little of this, but I do remember the fear that was a part of those times. I grew thinking that we would all be killed in a nuclear war, and the erection of the Berlin Wall just seemed one more step towards that inevitable end. Living in Albuquerque, site of a major weapons lab and a major storage facility for nuclear weapons, I knew we were very high on the target list for the Soviets. If a war started, we were done for.

The other bookend occurred when I began teaching at Eureka College. President Reagan was a graduate of the College, and was due to speak in 1982 at Commencement. This was his famous START speech, which many regard as the beginning of the end of the Cold War. I have to admit that I was not then, and am not now, a sympathizer with the conservative world view - I never voted for Pres. Reagan and in fact led a protest against his policies on his visit to the College in 1984. However, the START speech really did strike me as ground-breaking. At last a president was proposing that we REDUCE our stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

We now have the "Ronald Reagan Peace Garden" on campus - visit the College website for a look:

Eureka College Peace Garden It contains excerpts of his START speech, and one of the largest pieces of the Berlin Wall in North America. When the Garden was dedicated, Maureen Reagan and the German Counsel from Chicago came to speak. The German Counsel's speech was really moving and remarkable.

Edited by miketol

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I first visited Berlin at the age of 14 years in the 1960’s. My family had just purchased their first ever car, an 850cc Mini. This was used to travel across Northern Germany (West) to the then DDR boarder. An epic trip for the time. Travelling by land across the DDR to West Berlin I remember seemed to be made as difficult as possible. Lots of forms, long queues to collect and then return the forms. My father being questioned as to why he had stayed in England after the Second World War and not returned home to Berlin. What was England like?

Stopping in lay-bys to picnic and being watched by black leather clad East German motorcyclists. People working the land by hand gesturing for cigarettes. Being stopped for speeding – West Berliners thought we were luck not to have been arrested for this. We had actually been asked to catch up some US citizens who had left their passports behind.

Finally arriving in West Berlin and spending much of the time visiting the Wall and being surprised by the amount of bombing damage that was still visible in the streets. Being viewed by East German guards with binoculars. Seeing my Grandmothers larder stocked with food preparing for the next Berlin blockade.

Edited by Nick Falk

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