Veterans’ Day Reflections of The Wall


Berlin WallThis pic was a few weeks after the actual breach of the wall and the unbridled sense of euphoria subsided while East Germany restored a sense of order. Like attending a great concert with 20,000 people singing the same song in unison, there was an atmosphere of joy and optimism. All too often, it seems only disasters unify humanity; 911, space shuttle accidents, natural disasters, mass shootings bring millions (billions) of people together to focus on one terrible event. The Wall coming down was the only time in my life were the world was focused on something joyous and to be immersed in the epicenter was overwhelming.


All the exuberance was tempered with a feeling of “what’s next”. The barricades were temporary, the soldiers remained uneasy and great uncertainty permeated. I saw dozens of men selling East German currency on a street corner in exchange for American dollars. Times of upheaval are always followed by times of strife and the magic of the event was balanced by reality.


As an American military member, travel to East Berlin must be in uniform. If I went in civilian clothes, I would have been considered a spy. Both sides forbade any “unnecessary communication” and I’m sure there are photos of me in some Stasi file walking around the East. Nobody was unfriendly, just very businesslike and cautious. Even eye contact was avoided. There was too much uncertainty for people to be over-optimistic. Russia was still a strong country and could yet oppose reunification.


People who didn’t live during that era may not realize the Soviets were perceived much like we see the North Koreans today but where as Pyongyang is considered kookie, unstable and a minor threat, Warsaw Pact countries were treated with much more fear and respect. Both were regimented and closed societies, which is why I treasure the top pic of the guard and me. I’m only 5’11” so he is a little guy and far from being one the murderous guards I heard about growing up.


There was a break in the wall in which I could easily climb onto it. I saw the guard approaching and his job for the day was shooing people off the Wall. A month earlier he may have been manning a machine gun with orders to shoot anyone atop the Wall. All the guards were apprehensive and awkward but friendly. They had become crowd control specialists and it wasn’t just a contradiction to a job description; their world had fallen apart.


The drive through East Germany to West Berlin was MUCH different. The Russian soldiers were very stern, professional and observant.


Frank Johnson •
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