Architect Karen Van Lengen recalls the mood in Berlin as the young people chipped away at the wall that divided the city — and how East and West Germans struggled to adapt to each other in a new Berlin.
***This transcript comes from an earlier broadcast of this show. There may be minor changes to the audio version you hear above.***
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh. And I’m here with my buddies, Peter Onuf–
PETER: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: And Ed Ayers.
ED: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: In 1989, Karen Van Lengen was working as an architect in New York City. ThatNovember, she was immersed in the final phase of a competition to design a public building inWest Berlin.
KAREN VAN LENGEN: I was in my office working, and someone had a radio on. And the newscame across the radio that the border at the Brandenburg Gate had been opened. It was ahuge shock. I was so surprised that we went and found a television.
DIANE SAWYER: (ON TV) At this moment, we are taking you live to the Brandenburg Gate andthe Berlin Wall.
TOM BROKAW: (ON TV) Brandenburg Gate, of course, is in East Berlin. And the sound that youhear, and what you’re seeing tonight, not hammers and sickles but hammers and chisels, asyoung people take down this wall–
SAM DONALDSON: (ON TV) This is really a scene of happiness. The wall is still standing, asyou see. But the wall is political rubble. Because today, the government of East Germanyannounced that its borders are open.
BRIAN: That announcement, it turns out, was a bit premature. Earlier that day, East Germany’sleaders had decided they would soon ease travel restrictions between East and West. Theywanted to stop street protests, and they also wanted to slow down an exodus of East Germansto the West through Hungary.
But the spokesman tasked with announcing this news hadn’t been fully briefed. And hemistakenly told reporters that the changes would take effect immediately. Within hours,thousands of East Germans were swarming the walls’ checkpoints. No longer ordered to useforce against the people, the guards had little choice but to let them through.
ED: One week later, Karen Van Lengen was living in a loft apartment next to the Western sideof the wall. Five floors up, she could look out across the no-man’s land on the Eastern side thathad, for almost 30 years, separated the two sides of Berlin.
KAREN VAN LENGEN: And my very particular memory of that period is at night, listening topeople chipping away at the wall. It’s a tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. So you end up two orthree days later finding these small holes all over in the wall.
ED: There was nothing inevitable about this remarkable chain of events. It came as a completesurprise to people on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Earlier that year, the East German leader,in fact, had predicted the wall would stand for another 50 years at least, maybe 100.
And so when the wall did fall, Berliners were absolutely ecstatic, as well a surprised. For weeks,all-night parties raged in the streets.
BRIAN: But at the same time, it was becoming clear that the profound social and economicdivisions between East and West were not going to fall away with the wall. Karen tells one storyabout the cars that East Germans were accustomed to driving.
KAREN VAN LENGEN: There were these small German cars that were called Trabies. And theywere very, very simple cars. And if you saved up your money and you had a slightly better job,then you could get a car. And it was a very prestigious thing to have a car.
BRIAN: And then came November of 1989.
KAREN VAN LENGEN: And suddenly, they drive to the West and see these super-duperMercedes. And they feel ridiculous in these small little two-button cars. You turn it on, you turnit off. There’s a windshield wiper.
And so each month that I went, I’d hear another car story or another story like this, wherepeople were trying to adjust to becoming someone else– something else.
ED: Today, Berlin really is a unified city. You’d be hard pressed to find anything but smalldifferences between East and West. But reunification was a process, one that took its toll onboth sides.
Westerners were shocked to discover the level of deprivation that their fellow Berliners hadfaced for years. Easterners, for their part, were also disoriented. They found themselves in acity that was both familiar and foreign.
KAREN VAN LENGEN: There was a lost generation in there of young people who were comingof age in the East– had grown up in the Eastern system of education and training for jobs thatwould not be there anymore. And some of them make it, and some of them are able to adapt.But a lot of people were not, and it was very hard on them– very, very hard.
BRIAN: Conflicts like the Cold War– conflicts that span generations– they can take on kind ofa lifeless quality in the history textbooks. But in the immediate shadow of these conflicts, lifehas gone on. Children have grown up, shaped at least to some extent by the narratives ofconflict that surround them. And so what happens when those conflicts end? How do peoplelearn to live alongside their former enemies and, in a sense, to live alongside their formerselves?
ED: These are questions we’ll be considering for the rest of the hour today. We’re marking the25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a show about reconciliation– and its limits–through an American perspective. We’ll consider the difficult process of reconstructing theSouth after the Civil War and consider the relationship between Reconstruction andreconciliation. We’ll hear about a detente between two New York City gangs and about whatthat truce enabled. And we’ll discuss reconciliation with a person who survived the atomicbombing of Hiroshima and still remembers every moment of that terrible day.