(HOST) This coming Monday marks the anniversary of a series of historic events that for commentator Kerstin Lange – were also intensely personal.
(LANGE) These days in Germany, a kind of collective remembering is taking place – of events that brought about something few people had dared to imagine: the opening of the Berlin Wall. For me, the memories are still so vivid it’s hard to believe twenty years have passed since then.
All that fall, as a young West German abroad, I had followed the news from East Germany with amazement – news of demonstrations in East German cities that openly challenged the Communist government; images of people chanting "We are the people", and finally "We are ONE people".
On the evening of November 9, 1989, I sat glued to the TV, watching in disbelief as people streamed through openings in the Berlin Wall. For 28 years, the Wall had been an ugly and brutal border between East and West, making West Berlin an island in East Germany and an outpost behind the Iron Curtain. Now, people were dancing on top of the Wall, or exchanging bear hugs in the crowded streets and squares below – sometimes with family members or friends from whom they had been separated since the wall was built in 1961, and sometimes with complete strangers.
All this happened so rapidly that only the day before, no one discussed the opening of the Berlin Wall as a serious possibility, or expected that Germany would be formally reunited less than a year later with Berlin its capital once more.
But even though Berlin got all the big headlines that day in November of 1989, there is another city that deserves as much, if not more, credit for German reunification. That city is Leipzig, located about two hours southwest of Berlin.
Demonstrations began there in the summer of 1989, first with only a few people holding weekly prayer services in a local church, then with more and more people walking very peacefully around the center of the city with signs declaring their wish for more democracy. It’s hard to imagine now what risks these protesters were taking. Other attempts to challenge the East German government had been met with an iron fist – for all these marchers knew, they were risking their lives.
Then, on October 9th, 70,000 people marched in the streets of Leipzig.
Even though another month would pass before the Berlin Wall fell, this demonstration created a momentum that could not be reversed. To me, the people who marched in Leipzig – and those who smuggled images of the march to Western media – are true heroes. What they did changed the world – not only theirs – but those of many others, because of everything that was to follow, from the fall of the Soviet Union to the independence of the Baltic states.
Until that day in November 1989, history had most often seemed to me like something remote that happened to people who were long dead. That day, for me, history became personal.
(TAG) You can find this commentary by Kerstin Lange – and more – on line at VPR-dot-net.