By Cole Caviston, Staff Writer
For over an hour on Tuesday, Oct. 21, generations came together in MUB Theater II to participate in a thoughtful, often self-deprecating reflection on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of the Cold War in a divided Germany.
As the room slowly filled around 7 p.m., the theater screen showed photographs depicting the protests of 1989 within East Berlin that led to wall’s dissolution as well as the aftermath of a united Germany.
The audience that night was mainly composed of students, but there were also older members, many whom vividly remember the Cold War and the impact it had on global society.
Three University of New Hampshire academics were present to share their personal experiences of the Berlin Wall and its legacy in modern Germany.
History department professor Jeffry Diefendorf and Murkland lecturer Johannes Frank provided the perspective of those who lived through a time when the wall and the shadow of the Cold War loomed over West Germany, while Dr. Jan Kotowski from the political science department gave the view of a younger German’s generation.
Professor Mary Rhiel of the German department acted as panel moderator. Before opening the panel discussion, she acknowledged the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany’s sponsorship of the event.
During the discussion, Diefendorf discussed the multiple times he was able to visit the divided city of Berlin and his work in both West and East Germany by recollecting his visit to West Germany in 1965 as a sophomore exchange student, 20 years after the end of World War II. As a student, he attended an event and saw Mayor Willy Brandt (later chancellor of West Germany) deliver a speech in front of the ruin of the Reichstag parliament building, a reminder of the remaining damage to the city from the war.
Later that year, Diefendorf and other students went to East Berlin and witnessed a Russian military parade adorned with marching soldiers, tanks and missiles atop of trucks. The parade was also attended by Western troops stationed in West Berlin, who easily managed to enter East Berlin to watch the parade due to the military customs of the time.
“Much to our surprise, and also much to the shock of the East Germans, was that on some of these tanks we could see the Soviet drivers sitting next to American and British military men and talking about how wonderful it was to destroy Germany in 1945,” Diefendorf said. “[The East Germans] thought the Soviets were on their side.”
Other tours to the eastern part of the city brought Diefendorf and his student companions into contact with border security. On one occasion, the girls in his group were stopped by guards, who confiscated the girls’ tampons and, unable to understand what they were despite the girls’ attempts to explain, later destroyed them.
Diefendorf returned to Berlin in 1975 as a teacher, and for the following two decades sustained an academic relationship with both halves of the city. He found his experiences there to be very rewarding, except for one occasion in 1982 where he was strip-searched by East Berlin border security suspicious of his visit to their city.
While working in Cologne in 1989, Diefendorf received a call from an NPR reporter who was interested in a perspective of an American historian living in the growing unrest in the East. In his interview, Diefendorf “very confidently” gave an assessment that, as the Soviet military presence in Germany was an essential part of the Soviet Union’s security program, the Soviets were unlikely to withdraw.
Now years later, Diefendorf still receives comments from associates about his prediction, which he admits was very wrong.
Frank, a native German, grew up in Bonn, the then-capital of West Germany, and was only 12 when the wall was first erected. As a conscientious objector to West Germany’s mandatory draft, he chose to move to West Berlin, which did not adhere to the same requirements the rest of West Germany did, and started a family there.
Living only 400 yards from the wall, in a district known for its culture of artists and “rebels,” Frank couldn’t help but observe how his neighborhood’s quiet environment made it a perfect condition for raising his daughters.
“For us, the wall was a very nice place for Sunday walks,” Frank said. “It was very normal to live in this environment and, for myself as well, it was easy to get used to.”
Like many, Frank could not have imagined that the wall would come down at all. On Nov. 9, the day the wall fell, Frank had just gone to bed with the window open, as “good Germans always like fresh air.”
“I woke up and something smelled very strange. It smelled suddenly like East Berlin,” Frank said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “[East Berliners] used, back then, two cycle engines that had the specific smell like a lawn mower.”
It was then that Frank and his wife went to the window and saw the trucks in the square below that were the cause of the smell. Frank then turned on the television and saw the news of the wall’s end.
Despite the jubilation that he and many others felt, Frank was also quick to point out the negative effect of unification, with the growth of xenophobia, that left many immigrants in Germany isolated and threatened. Not long after the fall, a Turkish student of Frank’s said that she wished the wall had not come down.
Kotowski, who also grew up in West Germany and was the youngest member of the panel, addressed the concept of national identity and how it shapes perceptions.
His first memory of when he knew that he was a German, was the World Cup in Mexico in which West Germany lost to Argentina, causing Kotowski to cry despite knowing very little of soccer at the time.
Kotowski first came to comprehend the division between West and East Germany when his mother told him that a German girl had won an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. Kotowski told this news to his elementary school teacher but was told by that teacher that an East German had won.
“For him, the East German was not really German, and it clicked to me that there was more than one Germany,” Kotowski said. “In 1988, most people in West Germany [thought] it was obvious that there were two parts of the country and that it would stay that way. It was unconceivable to most people in the West that it would change so quickly.”
Despite having no memory of Nov. 9, Kotowski experienced the legacy during the next decade of the persisting division in Germany, even as both nations worked toward unification.
For Kotowski at the time, unification was nearly as relevant to him as soccer was for a teenager in the 1990s, but the social effect of Germany’s division was present in his life. In a school trip to the Baltic States, Kotowski remembers that he and his peers made countless derogatory comments about East Germans.
“The division was the wall in our heads,” Kotowski said. “For many West Germans, East Germany was no longer a historical occasion to be celebrated, but was seen as a burden and East Germans were seen as ungrateful and strange.”