Ger­mans in the UAE re­mem­ber con­voys of Tra­bis, blank maps of the West and how quickly the bor­der cross­ing dis­ap­peared

The National - News - - NEWS | WORLD - JOHN DENNEHY

It cut a city in two, trapped a mil­lion peo­ple and stood as a bru­tal re­minder of the Cold War – and then, in a few hours, ev­ery­thing changed.

The Ber­lin Wall fell on Novem­ber 9, 1989, amid a wave of rev­o­lu­tions across Eastern Europe that left the So­viet sys­tem on the brink.

Vladimir Lenin, icon of the So­viet regime, said there were decades when noth­ing hap­pens and weeks when decades hap­pen. But the speed of the wall’s col­lapse sur­prised every­one.

“My wife and I looked at each other and said: ‘Is the wall open?’ We knew great changes were in the air but the wall com­ing down?” he said. “That was be­yond our imag­i­na­tion.”

That was the snap re­ac­tion of young Ger­man diplo­mat Peter Fis­cher. Mr Fis­cher is now Ger­man am­bas­sador to the UAE but in 1989 he was on hol­i­day in Ber­lin from a post­ing in Sin­ga­pore. An emer­gency news bul­letin about peo­ple cross­ing the bor­der in­ter­rupted his drive. “I said I have to get down there right now,” he said.

Mr Fis­cher can still re­call the en­ergy puls­ing through the city.

His first stop at about 10pm was Check­point Char­lie – the fa­mous cross­ing be­tween East and West. The surly guards had sim­ply waved crowds through, while peo­ple were chip­ping at the wall with ham­mers.

The brute cer­tain­ties of al­most three decades had given way to an im­pos­si­ble dream.

“TV crews in­ter­viewed the peo­ple com­ing through and asked them what their plan was. They said ‘we just want to have a look’. I re­ally liked that.”

At an­other cross­ing, waves of So­viet-era Tra­bant cars were stream­ing through with peo­ple ask­ing how to find Kur­furs­ten­damm – Ber­lin’s main street – be­cause their maps were use­less.

“The East Ger­man maps of West Ber­lin were sim­ply blank – it was the other side where you did not go,” said Mr Fis­cher, who was then 29. “One Trabi came with a girl sit­ting on the roof with a bot­tle of cham­pagne. Peo­ple were cheer­ing. One af­ter an­other they came – like a big con­voy. Then a boat sailed un­der a nearby bridge and blew its horn. It was sur­real. It was a cel­e­bra­tion. Wow.”

Mr Fis­cher is one of many Ger­man res­i­dents of the UAE who re­mem­ber those tu­mul­tuous days.

Across the bor­der in the East Ger­man town of Eisleben, Frank Michaelis was in the gar­den. “At 5pm my wife told me to come in­side and have a look at the TV. At mid­night, we were still sit­ting there with dirt on our hands from the gar­den plan­ning a trip to the West,” he said.

Mr Michaelis is a teacher at the Ger­man In­ter­na­tional School in Abu Dhabi. Along with his wife and daugh­ter, he trav­elled in a Tra­bant across the bor­der on the Sun­day.

“When I stud­ied in Ber­lin and ev­ery day saw the wall – I thought I would never be able to cross,” said Mr Michaelis, then 32. He was struck by the vast amount of fresh pro­duce in the shops, the clean­li­ness and the friendly West Ger­mans.

“My daugh­ter wanted one thing – to try her first Coca-Cola,” he said with a chuckle. On the day the wall fell, West Ger­man chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Kohl, ar­rived in Poland on a state visit.

Volker Bashe worked at the Ger­man em­bassy in War­saw and had to look af­ter the large del­e­ga­tion. Now as­signed to the Ger­man em­bassy in Abu Dhabi, he re­mem­bers a fraught and chaotic time.

“There were no smart­phones and even the com­mu­nist land­lines did not work prop­erly,” said Mr Bashe, who was then 35.

“A kind of chaos broke out [in War­saw]. Kohl re­turned briefly to Ber­lin, un­der­lin­ing the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion be­fore re­sum­ing the visit on Novem­ber 11.”

No­body ex­pected the wall to come down and it hap­pened partly by ac­ci­dent.

East Ger­man au­thor­i­ties ear­lier an­nounced pri­vate travel out­side the coun­try was al­lowed. When crowds turned up at bor­der cross­ings, guards let them through in the ab­sence of clear instructio­ns. But things could have turned bloody.

“I was with my baby and wife,” Mr Fis­cher said. “She said let’s go over. I said let’s not. Worse things could have hap­pened and we know now that [they] dis­cussed us­ing vi­o­lence.”

By 1991, the So­viet Union ceased to ex­ist. Thirty years on, the op­ti­mism and hope that ac­com­pa­nied its col­lapse has sub­sided.

Now, a new set of chal­lenges from Brexit to pop­ulism con­fronts Europe. And in­cred­i­bly, some even mourn for the old East Ger­many, or Ost, in a trend known as Ostal­gie. But Mr Michaelis re­jects this.

“I didn’t hate East Ger­many. We went to dis­cos and clubs,” he said.

“But I would have tried to es­cape if I could. Not at all do I miss it.”

Mr Fis­cher also cau­tions against a rose-tinted view but said both sides have a shared his­tory.

“Some­times peo­ple from the East have the feel­ing that peo­ple in the West think their lives didn’t count. But there was hap­pi­ness there. We need to ap­pre­ci­ate that.

“But a naive Ostal­gie is also not good be­cause a lot of peo­ple suf­fered, were thrown into jail, tor­tured and killed. To­day, there are chal­lenges but Europe is much bet­ter off.”

Top, Frank Michaelis, whose daugh­ter wanted to try her first Coca-Cola. Above, Peter Fis­cher was in Ber­lin when the wall fell

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