KENNESAW — Thirty years after the fall of the militarized wall that for decades split German families and communities in two, Dorte Schmieta, 51, stood before a Berlin Wall art piece created by Kennesaw State University students and painted in red letters the phrase, “Ich war dabei!” or “I was there!”
On Wednesday, KSU’s School of Government and International Affairs marked the approaching 30th anniversary of the Nov. 9, 1989, collapse of the Berlin Wall with a commemorative ceremony.
Following Germany’s defeat in WWII, the capital city of Berlin was partitioned in 1945 among Allied Powers France, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In 1948, the Soviets closed all land and water routes into the city, forcing Western Allies to air drop food and supplies into the western portion of Berlin. In 1961, East German troops constructed the Berlin Wall, which stood up to 12 feet tall and stretched for 27 miles as part of nearly 100 miles of barriers that separated democratic West Germany from other areas of the Soviet-controlled East German state.
Schmieta, who attended KSU’s event, grew up in The German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, and was 21 when the wall came down amid pro-democracy protests in Berlin nearly 30 years later. Schmieta moved to the U.S. at age 29.
“Suddenly we could do whatever we wanted. I mean, it was very, very different for us. For the longest time we were always doing what we were told, and we were taught to just go along (with everything) and shut up,” the Marietta resident said. “I never felt that oppressed until we realized what we were missing.”
Schmieta said she grew up sheltered from much of the politics surrounding the division of her home country, but she still felt the oppression of her mostly state-controlled life. Both mothers and fathers had to work to make enough money to support their families, spies kept an eye on everyone down to schoolchildren and often supplies were scarce, she said.
“Sometimes you would go to the grocery store, and there was one piece of meat left on a Friday afternoon. My mom would buy half of the piece of meat so the person behind her would get the other piece,” Schmieta said.
She recalled that as a teenager she’d been questioned for more than an hour by the Stasi, the official state security service of the German Democratic Republic, when she received a letter from her Italian pen pal she’d met at a summer camp as a teenager. If schoolchildren revealed that they’d picked up a West German TV station and watched cartoons, like Bugs Bunny, their parents would be punished, she said.
So when the wall came down, Schmieta, then a kindergarten teacher in East Germany, said it was a shock to learn on Nov. 9, 1989, that a day after East Germany had been behind the Iron Curtain, suddenly, it wasn’t anymore.
Speaking directly to students who wouldn’t have been born yet when the wall came down, KSU President Pamela Whitten said she’d lived in a town near Frankfurt in West Germany in 1987, when Cold War tensions were still high.
Whitten described traveling to the eastern side of the wall as a “time warp.”
“It was like going back to the 1950s,” she said.
The university president described her limited travel between the two halves of the country, the guard towers on the top of the Berlin Wall, the rationed food portions and the bullet holes in buildings that remained from WWII combat.
As early fall approached in 1989, Whitten said she remembered seeing Russian soldiers walking down the highway in West Germany, a rather strange sight for the time. That, she said, was the first of massive change in the region.
“Some other things happened, and then, boom, it almost felt like overnight, the wall came down,” she said, recalling her visit to the wall that weekend, where she found that the guard towers, formerly filled with machine-gun-wielding soldiers, had been abandoned and their windows broken. “We just walked over into Eastern bloc countries.”
Fast-forward to 2019, Whitten said, and there is little left to show the fraught history in the formerly divided country. What is most stunning, said the KSU president, is not that the country divided in the first place, but how West Germany welcomed the East back.
“West Germany said, ‘These are our brothers and sisters, and even though we are absorbing tens of millions of people and a crashed economy, we are going to spend a lot of money and go into great debt ourselves ... to bring East Germany into the lifestyle to have one, unified Germany that lives at the same level,” Whitten said, adding that in a relatively short time, they accomplished that goal.
Whitten and others spoke at KSU’s Legacy Gazebo near the social sciences building and just steps from a piece of the wall that stood as one of the most divisive symbols of the Cold War.
Chuck Clay, former Cobb County commissioner and state legislator, donated the monument. He is the grandson of Gen. Lucius D. Clay, who orchestrated the year of supply drops into West Berlin known as the Berlin Airlift (1948-1949).
Gen. Clay, a Marietta native, was assigned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as military governor in Germany from 1945-49 and as U.S. ambassador to Berlin by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Chuck Clay told the crowd of KSU students and staff that during his grandfather’s service in Germany, the general refused to abandon the citizens of Berlin and organized a series of high-profile challenges that exposed the Soviets as the true oppressors of the East German people.
Most notable, Chuck Clay said, was the August 1961 tank standoff at Checkpoint Charlie, the most well-known Berlin Wall border crossing.
“His point was that the Russians had said, ‘This is a German operation. East Germany was an independent stand-alone nation. We don’t tell them what to do. They don’t tell us what to do. They built the wall. It’s their problem, not ours,’” said Chuck Clay, who also works at KSU as an adjunct professor of political science. “(Gen. Clay) said, ‘OK, let’s ... send a half dozen tanks up to the line at Checkpoint Charlie. Let’s see who responds.’ Guess who responded? There were no Germans. It was Russians.”
Chuck Clay said it’s paramount that the international community not forget times of reunification after bitter division throughout history because they represent decisive moments when, in the face of conflict, Western powers “stood tall” for what they knew was right.
Even more important is that the wall crumbled after peaceful protests and political pressure, not war, though an estimated 262 people died at the wall, said Heike Fuller, German consul general in Atlanta. Fuller, who was raised in West Germany, said reunification of Germany seemed “unthinkable” when she was growing up. But, she said, citizens of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, were the ones who physically toppled the wall, showing not only Germans had a stake in the ousting of the communist government.
“It is still almost a miracle that no blood was shed. In 1989, a peaceful revolution turned Germany into the happiest nation of the world,” she said. “A collapse of this nature required the active participation of individuals, and this active participation was the essential factor. Some left, some fled and others were speaking up, as I said. All of these people contributed considerably to the destabilization of the system.”
And of course, Fuller said, Germans will never forget the Americans’ support, from the Berlin Airlift to the Marshall Plan, which helped to rebuild Western European economies after WWII.
She urged Americans never to forget the appreciation German people feel for the U.S, and said she hoped to never again see a wall that so bitterly divides a nation and its families erected again.
“The fall of the Berlin Wall is a very important symbol of German-American friendship and cooperation. We look forward to expanding our precious bonds of friendship for the future,” she said. “On behalf of many, many Germans, please let me say ‘Dankeschön (thank you), America.’”