The fall of the Berlin Wall and seeing WNYers in Germany today
Editor’s note: This is part II of Fredonia native native Christof Morrissey’s reflections of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
BERLIN — With two buddies from my battalion, Lieutenants Robert Lutz and Randy Taylor, I drove down to Checkpoint Charlie. A large crowd of West Berliners lined the narrow street that led through the checkpoint (which looked a little like a toll plaza, but with armed guards!), past the border post used by the American, British, and French military police, and into the West Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg.
The onlookers cheered each East German car that drove past, pounding their approval on the roofs and hoods of the eggshell-colored Trabants and boxy Wartburgs. West Berlin police officers and U.S. Army MPs tried to keep order, though that wasn’t necessary. It was a festival of happiness and peace.
To get a bird’s eye view of the proceedings, the three of us clambered up the scaffolding on a facade of a building beside the checkpoint. Normally, that was illegal, but we figured the West Berlin police had other concerns at that moment.
We hopped back into Lutz’s black Ford Mustang and drove a mile around the corner to the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of German unity throughout decades of division. Two years previously at the same spot, U.S. President Ronald Reagan had appealed to Gorbachev to ‘tear down this Wall.’
The famous landmark stood just across the boundary in East Berlin, clearly visible from the West across a wider, flatter stretch of the Wall. A cordon of young East German border guards were standing atop the concrete structure where only hours before hundreds of Berliners had been celebrating. But the guards were smiling and appeared to be unarmed. Some chatted with still wary-looking West Berlin policemen. Television vans were parked throughout the crowd. Everywhere, Berliners and tourists were using hammers and chisels to break off pieces of the hated barrier. My friends and I joined in.
Celebrating at the Brandenburg Gate
That evening, the crowds at the Brandenburg Gate peacefully reclaimed the top of the Wall. As Lutz and I stood among the revelers, we found our thoughts transcending the excitement of the moment to consider the prospects for German unification — something that still seemed only vaguely possible at that point. I asked an East German border guard standing below if he would trade his uniform cap for my jeans jacket, but he politely refused. Later, I was glad, because those caps were soon being sold everywhere in central Berlin for only a few Deutschmarks!
Despite the electrifying atmosphere of joy, we Americans had to resist the temptation to get too carried away and simply jump over the Wall into East Berlin. For members of the U.S. military, going to ‘the East’ still required travel orders signed by the unit commander. The Four-Power Agreement that regulated movement between the two halves of the divided city hadn’t foreseen a situation when the Wall would suddenly be open and anyone could go to the other side through dozens of uncontrolled new crossing points. As far as we knew, an American lieutenant entering East Berlin without authorization could have sparked an international incident — especially if he had been drinking too much celebratory champagne!
On to Freedom Bridge
The following evening, Saturday, 11 November, our battalion officers held a hail-and-farewell at the Rod and Gun Club restaurant, deep in the woods on the westernmost edge of West Berlin. Somebody shouted ‘They’ve opened Freedom Bridge!’ Several of us piled into cars to drive down to the famous span across the Havel River that connected Berlin and the town of Potsdam in East Germany.
Glienicke Bridge, its official name, had been blocked off throughout the Cold War. It was only opened for high-profile exchanges of spies, such as U2 pilot Gary Powers in 1962, or Soviet dissidents like Anatoly Shcharansky in 1986. Now, joyful pedestrians and cars were coming and going, sending cheers and honking their horns into the night.
During the next days and weeks, my buddies and I went down to the Brandenburg Gate and other central sites at every opportunity. The ‘normal’ duty of soldiers in garrison resumed. A few weeks later, our battalion hosted a group of East German refugees for Thanksgiving dinner in our mess hall. As one of the few German-speaking officers, I was tasked with taking an army bus to pick them up at the Marienfelde camp and explain Thanksgiving to them — while standing in the aisle of the moving bus.
Berlin commemorates 30 years since the fall of the Wall
Today, in 2019, the Berlin Wall has been gone 30 years, which is longer than the 28 years it stood. Parts of the Wall still exist in a few places as tourist attractions. But the city has slowly grown back together, helped by three decades’ worth of new construction, and most people can no longer recognize where the border used to be. Germany, and Europeans, are now dealing with a whole range of new political problems.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, the city of Berlin is putting on a mammoth program of events which started on Nov. 4 and spanned a full week. It’s heavily skewed toward the cultural scene of today’s metropolis, with viewings of short films, poetry slams, creative lighting installations, theater adaptations of literature, performance art, and many other offerings. For my part, I just plan to quietly revisit the scenes of where Berlin, and the world, were once divided, and say a prayer of thanks that the nightmarish division ended without any more blood being shed.
One day in September of this year, I skipped the bakery and the bistro and instead ordered a pizza at an Italian restaurant two blocks into what used to be East Berlin. A few tables away I overheard a group of Americans talking. When they get up to leave, I see that one of the men, who’s about my age, is wearing a Buffalo Bills sweatshirt. Turns out they’re fellow Western New Yorkers, from Cheektowaga. This is their first visit to Berlin.
We make small talk about the history of this city and then about the Bills. Throughout the many years since I left Fredonia, I’ve come to appreciate our common love of the Bills as the glue that helps Western New Yorkers connect when we’re abroad. It’s the week before the 2019 NFL season begins and we joke about going ’16 and 0.’
In Berlin, the past is still very much around us, but it’s still the past. Most people look to the present and future.
About the author: Christof Morrissey is the son of Thomas and Gerda Morrissey of Fredonia. He graduated from both Fredonia High School (1984) and SUNY Fredonia (1987). As a second lieutenant serving with the 6th Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army Berlin Brigade, Christof was in Berlin when the Wall fell in November 1989. His involvement in the historic events of that period helped create a lifetime bond, and he has lived in the reunified city for most of the last 30 years, with his wife Beate (‘Lisa’) and their son Liam. He has a PhD in Modern European History from the University of Virginia.