German department recognizes 30 years since fall of the Berlin Wall


Carol Guzy, The Washington Post via Getty Images

A crowd gathered around part of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The German department hosted an event to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in Main on Nov. 8. Professor of German Sören Steding and Professor of Religion Gereon Kopf spoke about the history and significance of the Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989 and was considered a symbol of the “Iron Curtain” between Eastern and Western Europe during the Cold War. It was constructed by the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, as a means to prevent free movement between the East and West. A series of revolutions in other Eastern bloc countries in 1989 led to a people’s movement in Germany in protest of the separation. The fall of the Berlin wall allowed for the formal reunification of Germany in 1990.

Steding said it was important for the German Department to recognize the fall of the Berlin Wall because it was one of the most significant events in European history in the 20th century and has effects in present day politics.

“Looking back 30 years, with a lot of people who were in power at that time no longer in power, we can talk about that a little more removed,” Steding said. “We now see it’s relevance more clearly because of the 30 years and because of the significance it had as a peaceful revolution that brought two quite different countries together and created Europe as we know it today.”

In 1992, Steding was a part of a group of West German officers that trained East German conscripts. This had been his first time meeting young East Germans.

“We had conversations with these young men, who found themselves suddenly in a democratic state, about what it means to be in a democracy,” Steding said. “I would say that half of them were very skeptical and were still invested in the ideology of the East, and that caused some issues.”

The wall was made of concrete slabs with rounded tops to discourage climbing. There was also a “death strip,” which was a large, open, sanded area to increase visibility of escapees by soldiers in one of the over 300 watchtowers and guard vehicles. Watch dogs and spikes in the ground were also used to discourage crossing the border between East and West Berlin.

Steding said that the Berlin Wall was a symbol of separation between not only two halves of a city, but also two ideologies.

“The wall was a symbol of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War – the struggle of the two opposing systems – so the fall of the wall was basically a symbol for the end of the Cold War,” Steding said. “The wall was erected to keep a certain system alive, and when the wall came down, it was clear the system was no longer viable and no longer fixable.”

Jane Bremer (‘22) said that her German class had discussed the Berlin Wall, but that she learned more about it from the event.

“I guess I knew it was a decision by East Germany, but I didn’t realize that West Germany had so little impact on the decision,” Bremer said. “Of course there was some influence by West Germany, but it was East Geman politicians and people who put it into action.”

An entire generation has come of age since the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany. Kopf began his talk with examples of some German students’ misconceptions about the history of the Berlin Wall. Kopf grew up in West Germany during the Cold War.

“We grew up with the wall as a fact, so for us in our consciousness, the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic were two different countries,” Kopf said. “The first time I was confronted with that was 1974 in the soccer World Cup when the Democratic Republic of Germany beat us. So, again, we were two countries. We had different soccer teams, different cultures, and growing up next to the wall was strong in our consciousness.”

When the wall fell, Kopf was in graduate school in Philadelphia. He said it did not affect his life very much since he was out of the country, but that it affected the way of life in the East more than the West. He ended his talk by saying that, to this day, people have different perspectives on the meaning of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“I have two friends from the former East Germany, one who is extremely critical because he says, ‘We lost all our social welfare, and the real estate companies came in and took our stuff,’” Kopf said. “The other answer is from a colleague who is in the same field as I am. She says that it’s the best thing that ever happened, and now we are free.”

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