by Brooks Riley

UnnamedThe first time I passed through the Berlin Wall into the German Democratic Republic, it was two days after Hitler’s master builder Albert Speer was released from Spandau prison.

The Cold War was in full swing in the fall of 1966. I was travelling with a friend whose father was US ambassador to West Germany. An embassy driver took us two naïve young things on a tour of various landmarks in West Berlin, including the Wall and Spandau, where only a few hours earlier, Rudolf Hess had become the one remaining prisoner incarcerated there. Guarding Spandau, which now amounted to guarding Hess, was a joint venture of the Allies on a monthly rotational basis. Speer’s release had occurred in the dark of the previous night and U.S. embassy staff had been forbidden to attend the event. By the time our driver parked in front of the fearsome edifice, the French were in charge and no visitors were allowed–not that we were avid to peer inside those walls. Meeting the mentally unstable Hess might have been a kick, but only my friend’s father was given that dubious privilege.

Because of the GDR’s fluctuating policy toward diplomatic passports, my friend had to be issued a temporary non-diplomatic passport in order for us to visit East Berlin on a tourist bus. It was cold and rainy that day, gloomy on both sides of the wall. The bus would be taking a special route to the Pergamon Museum, one that insured that the shabbier vistas of East Berlin would be shielded from prying eyes–or so we were told. I remember glancing down side streets, looking for signs of decay or worse. What I saw were the ordinary streets of any big city in bad weather. So much for propaganda.

At the end of the day, we were taken to a café near the wall and told to be back at the bus by 6 p.m. for our return to West Berlin. At 6:15, the bus was nearly full, but one passenger was missing. As the minutes ticked by, the East German tour guide became increasingly nervous. A hint of ‘international incident’ hung in the air. The idea that someone would defect to East Germany was preposterous, but where was the guy? Was he a spy from the West infiltrating as a tourist? And if he didn’t show up, what would happen when the East Germans found out the American ambassador’s daughter was in their midst? ‘Terribly exciting,‘ we would later agree. At 6:20, the missing passenger boarded the bus with a lame excuse. So much for our le Carré moment out in the cold.


Unnamed (1)The autumn of 1989 was a time of change in my life. Quite as if a huge mirror had dropped down exposing a broader field of vision, a momentous change in history was simultaneously taking place—the sudden, inexplicably peaceful end of the GDR. The events danced around my peripheral awareness all fall until I found myself in Berlin in December. The wall had been torn down in places. Having officially entered the GDR through Checkpoint Charlie, I was loitering by a gap in the wall near the Brandenburg Gate through which hundreds of East Germans were freely flowing to the West under the watchful eye of an East German guard, their faces a radiant mixture of joy, relief and curiosity. Most of them would return home at the end of the day, assured that what had been done could no longer be undone.

When I tried to go through the gap, the guard asked to see my passport, and then informed me that I could only exit East Germany through Checkpoint Charlie because I was an American. It was one of those absurd bureaucracy-meets-anarchy moments. While East Germans were free to come and go through the jagged gap, I was not so privileged, a role-reversal not without irony: Those who had been imprisoned in a regime for over 40 years were now free. I, from the land of the free, was curtailed–if only temporarily. After some friendly cajoling on my part, the guard threw up his hands and let me through to the West. Here was a diminutive replica of his courageous colleague’s famous decision at Bornholmer Strasse a few weeks earlier–presaging a kinder, gentler united Germany.

Unnamed (2)Not long thereafter, my German friend took me to Dresden over a small, remote border crossing near Hof, in northeast Bavaria, not telling me until the last minute that Americans were still required to go through Checkpoint Charlie, hundreds of miles away. When we arrived at the modest customs building on a barren hilltop, my friend took our passports and disappeared inside. As the tense minutes passed, it seemed inevitable that we would be turned back.

Then the door opened. Three border guards came out with my friend and approached my side of the car, all smiles. I was the first American they had ever encountered, an ultralight UFO that needed to be seen to be believed. Not only did they let us through (for a small fee), they also directed us to a barricaded autobahn that had fallen into disuse when the wall was built—one of Hitler’s old autobahns—our very own private shortcut to Dresden. We cruised along at hair-raising speed, in solitary splendor, to the ticking rhythm of the concrete plates rushing past under the tires.

Outside of Dresden we were stopped for speeding. The young policeman must have come from das Tal der Ahnungslosen (Valley of the Clueless), an area which had been shielded from western TV and radio broadcasting. He asked to see under the hood of the large BMW. Looking down at the massive V8 engine, he shook his head. “They lied to us. They always said you were worse off than us.

In early 1990, I commuted to the DEFA Film Studios in Babelsberg every day for a month, over yet another border crossing near Berlin, my passport slowly filling up with the green algae of in-and-out stamps. The rumor persisted that we were zapped with radiation every time we passed through, but Berlin was a hotbed of rumors in those days. What would happen to the GDR? Would the two Germanys be reunited? Was there asbestos in the wall?

Jokes abounded too, some charming, some malicious, and some which still apply: An Ossi (a German from the East) meets a Wessi (from the West) and says proudly: “We are one people!” The Wessi answers: “So are we.

At DEFA I was given a tour of an atelier where plaster casts by the hundreds were produced and stored: lots of Lenins, multiple Marxes, a few Davids, an Engels or two, some Napoleons, Julius Caesars, etc., many of them life-sized. My guide reached up to a top shelf and brought down a small 8-inch cast of the Statue of Liberty which had been made for a TV series about Albert Einstein (whose Princeton home was perfectly replicated on the DEFA lot, right down to the tacky house number). Until the fall of the wall, this tiny significant symbol of freedom had been locked away every night in a safe, by the studio boss himself.


Walls are everywhere, seen and unseen. Most walls keep people out, or apart. Some keep people in, as was the case in Berlin. There is still an intrinsic, invisible wall between the peoples of the former West Germany and those of the new federal states in the East. And seen from space at night, Berlin is still divided, white street lights in the West, yellow in the East. At the time the Berlin Wall was torn down, I was facing my own wall, the daunting German language, until I dismantled it brick by brick, word by word, so that I could march freely into a different culture. New walls rise up all the time, physical and psychological, in other parts of the world, and in every life–to be broken through, taken down, or endured. The Berlin Wall serves to remind us of that–its symbolic, metaphoric power far outweighing and outlasting its original intent.

Postscript: German’s first channel ARD has broadcast a splendid, bittersweet comedy about the events of November 9, 1989 at the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing in Berlin, where border guard Harald Jäger made the courageous decision to open the border to the West for the thousands assembled there. ‘Bornholmer Strasse‘ can be seen on their mediatheque until November 12. http://www.daserste.de/unterhaltung/film/filmmittwoch-im-ersten/sendung/filmmittwoch-im-ersten-bornholmer-strasse-100.html