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When the wall came tumbling down in Berlin

A man hammers a section of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate after the opening of the East German border was announced in Berlin, November 9, 1989
A man hammers a section of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate after the opening of the East German border was announced in Berlin, November 9, 1989 REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/File Photo

30 years after the Berlin wall fell, RFI's Jan van der Made spoke to a veteran Berliner and a young millennial about the landmark event.

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Gero Neugebauer, a retired scholar, remembers the fateful night thirty years ago.

“The evening of 9 November I was with friends in a French restaurant in Berlin”, Neugebauer recalls.

There was tension in the air, he said, but not enough for him to have a look at the wall.

“We went home. The next morning, a friend from Potsdam (in former East Germany) called me up and said ‘when can I come?’

“I said, well, you have to do the police checks, get a passport, a visa, you know, the works.

“But he said: it’s over, I can come now. Switch on the radio!

“I did, and there it was. I was completely puzzled, didn’t see it coming at all.”

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Past protests and future causes

At Berlin Alexanderplatz, inside one of the pavilions set up for the commemorations, 20-year-old Tom Patzelt reflects on the events in 1989.

Tom Patzelt, who was born after the Berlin wall fell, draws inspiration from the 1989 protests for current issues like protecting the environment
Tom Patzelt, who was born after the Berlin wall fell, draws inspiration from the 1989 protests for current issues like protecting the environment RFI / Jan Van Der Made

Unlike Neugebauer, who was already in his late forties when the wall came down, Tom had not been born yet.

The massive protests that helped to bring down the wall in 1989 have been an inspiration for him.

“I think you can see what a movement can make possible”, says Patzelt.

“If it hadn’t been for these people taking the streets and fighting without violence for their freedom maybe the world wouldn’t have been what it is now.

“It was a very strong moment and we can learn from it. When you mobilise people for freedom, then we can make another world possible”.

Tom is doing in Berlin what climate activist Greta Thunberg is doing in Sweden and other parts of the world - organising weekly Friday protest marches against what he calls the “policies of ignorance” that endanger the global climate.

At the Berlin Alexanderplatz pavilion, he is surrounded a group of young children. Tom tries to elicit their interest in the future of our planet, encouraging them to play an active role in trying and improve it.

Crossing over to East Berlin

Mass protests that helped bring down the Berlin Wall had their roots in both the eastern and western sides of the partition.

Neugebauer travelled frequently to East Germany between the 1960s and the 1980s.

“Initially, it was as if you were going to a zoo”, he recalls.

“People had different habits. They worked much harder, six days a week. And the supply of goods was very bad.

Neugebauer had friends from both East and West Berlin, with whom he discussed political issues.

“We would talk about the church, or trying to find ways to skip military service (which was dreaded by many as soldiers were ordered to shoot and kill anyone who tried to escape from East Berlin over the wall)”, he remembers.

“There were the roots of a climate movement which we discussed as well.”

The omnipresent tentacles of the Stasi

As a specialist of East German politics, with frequent visits and many contacts in East Berlin, Neugebauer was on the watchlist of the Staatssicherheit (State Security), or Stasi.

Gero Neugebauer is a political specialist from West Germany who used to travel frequently to East Berlin before the wall fell. His activities were monitored by the Stasi.
Gero Neugebauer is a political specialist from West Germany who used to travel frequently to East Berlin before the wall fell. His activities were monitored by the Stasi. Frei Universitaet Berlin

Omnipresent secret police who checked on everybody, the Stasi thought that he could potentially “become a head of a network of spies in East Germany.”

After the wall fell, Neugebauer found out that some of his friends had been reporting on him to the Stasi.

He managed to get hold of his personal files and found “absurd details, jokes and nonsense” that he and his friends made during their meetings, “but nothing serious enough to incriminate me.”

He confronted his friends to find out their motives.

“Some of them did it on a voluntary basis, but some were under heavy pressure”, Neugebauer said.

The Stasi would threaten against family members or cancel study trips to the Soviet Union in case of non-cooperation.

But all is forgiven now.

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