Chipping away at the Berlin Wall
By Neil Brennan
I was an exchange student studying in Strasbourg when the news first broke. My immediate reaction was the same as everyone else – incredulous. How could it be? As a student of Soviet Political Systems, I knew things were moving quickly – but in our minds, the Wall represented all that divided East from West. It was impenetrable – wasn’t it?
When a fellow student from Saudi Arabia first told me on a street corner that travel between East and West Berlin was now permissible, we both had a hard time believing it. But then the images started to come out of Berlin, and I had to go and see for myself.
I immediately went to the car rental, for myself and two more students – a fellow Canadian and an American girl. We drove all night through incredible fog to get to Berlin. We set out the next morning for the Wall along the way realizing we hadn’t had the foresight to take any tools with us. A hammer would have been nice. I stopped at a construction site and grabbed a heavy pipe – necessity being the mother of all invention, and I would not be denied a piece of the Wall.
Even before reaching the Wall, the air along the streets was alive with energy, relief and confusion. People were gathering at random along the streets to engage in deep conversation and speculation, as if no one really knew what was going to happen. Foreigners mixed in intense debate with native Berliners about what it all meant. No one had answers, but there was a sort of nervous optimism. There was a hope that this was not a passing moment, but a momentous sea-change, which we now know it was.
At the Wall, a sort of carnival atmosphere without form prevailed. You could not help but be caught up in the feeling that anything could happen. There was no order, no format and no rules. People roamed freely along the path between any buildings and the Wall on the Western side that was, only days before, absolutely forbidden to enter upon penalty of death.
When people tried to break away at the Wall, other people would stop and cheer them on. We found a spot we thought would be good to take away our souvenirs. I tried to use my heavy pipe – it was useless. The Wall was made from exceptionally strong concrete – it was not easy to break. I grabbed a huge paving stone and started to hammer the Wall. My hands shook badly and a painful and solid vibrating sound carried down along the wall. The stone was no match for reinforced concrete. A West German guard stopped me, laughing with me at what must have been a terribly pained look on my face. He led me to another man who translated to say, I could not use the block but another man was going to share a proper hammer and chisel with me. After some great efforts on my part – and a lot of good natured advice and encouragement – I was able to knock out a very large intact piece, which drew great admiration and cheers from well-wishers. It was a shared victory all around!
And just in time as well. A patrol of East German soldiers came walking along the path. One officer, who had not yet resigned himself to the fate that was so evident to all, was chasing people away from the wall, confiscating hammers, kicking things out of the way. His junior officers followed him and laughed discretely from behind. They could see the future unfolding before them. Their smiles and ambivalence gave the people a freedom from fear and they returned to the Wall rejuvenated and determined.
They passed a man from a construction site nearby with a portable jackhammer – pulling his air lines as far as he could and then ramming the wall with it as he growled loudly. The crowd cheered, even if his efforts didn’t last long. It was the symbolism of what he was doing more than anything. The Wall was after all immense and stretched for kilometres.
All along the Wall, crowds built up around anything and anyone who was thought to do something exciting. I finally found people renting hammers for the equivalent of $2.25 CA for ten minutes use.
One man was bent over a manhole grate fishing a coat-hanger down into the pipes. A huge crowd built up around him. Intensely speculating and encouraging (although no one was sure what he was up to), it was surely something wonderful. After ten minutes, his coat-hanger came up – with his keys on the end! Everyone laughed!
I found a crevice in the wall knocked out by souvenir seekers like myself, and there were East German soldiers on the other side peering through, chatting amicably to people on our side. I held up my camera and they were happy to pose for me. One assumed a semi-serious look – as if he understood that this photo was for posterity. I gave him and his colleagues Marlboro cigarettes and Canadian flag pins, which they thanked me for. Their relief of what was unfolding around them was evident.
After a few hours of walking, we arrived at a site along the Wall where there were several crosses. On each one was the name of a person who died trying to cross, their birthday and the date on which they were killed. One had been erected in March, 1989 (only several months earlier) for a young man. This was a very sobering moment and everyone who reached this point was mentally drawn back to the cost of the Wall.
We crossed into East Germany later that day, through Checkpoint Charlie. The atmosphere on the other side was decidedly unlike the Western side. The streets were quiet. There were no spontaneous gatherings on the street, and no animated debates between strangers. We had a dreary lunch in a hotel restaurant while a small band played a sad version of Blue Danube. Later we followed what seemed to be people gathering and found ourselves in front of what we were told was a building of the Ministry of State Security – the infamous Stasi. A crowd of a few hundred people waved placards denouncing communism and the Ministry. This crowd was not jubilant and optimistic as on the Western side of the Wall. The crowd was angry and volatile and not in a mood to talk with naïve Westerners, as we found out when we tried to speak with several of them. We walked away and found our way back to the other side, trying to comprehend this study in contrasts.
I returned to Strasbourg with a bag filled with pieces of the Wall. I sent out dozens of pieces to friends and family as Christmas presents. With each piece, I included a signed certificate to attest to the fact that I did, “in the spirit of freedom and fraternity…liberate this piece of concrete from the Berlin Wall.whose physical manifestation has since 1961 divided a common people…”
Today a big piece of the Wall sits in my office and the picture of that soldier hangs on the wall, constant reminders of the power of people to overcome great divide.