25th Anniversary of the re-unification of Germany on October 6 and what it should mean to you
Photo credit: Ralf Weiser
This past week Germany’s president Gauck visited the U.S.A. He first visited Philadelphia and then he went to Washington DC culminating in meeting with President Obama last Wednesday. Little did I know that I would actually be within 3 feet distance in the same room with him and to meet the German Ambassador Peter Wittig.
A fabulous friend of mine invited me to the residence of the German Ambassador Wittig last Tuesday. There was a major reception taking place celebrating the 25th anniversary of Germany’s re-unification. When we got to the security check point at the residence we were told that we had VIP access and as such were led to the main reception area segregated from the area where 2900 other guests were located. We met with Mr Wittig briefly and even had a photo-op with him. Then we gathered with around 100 to 150 people in a mini art gallery area of the residence. President Gauck eventually showed up and greeted many guests and he spoke with many of them. I unfortunately did not get a chance to meet him – with only 2 people in front of me left he had to leave the room to get ready for holding his speech.
What a humbling night this was. For one thing I would never have imagined being this close to my home country’s president – ever. What really struck me was is how much of a kind and considerate person he is. I could tell that by how he greeted everyone at the reception and how he listened and spoke with each individual. Listening to his speech just a little later he shared a few stories with the guests and they really deeply impressed me.
For one he shared his impressions from the trip to Philadelphia with us. He actually felt very connected to the city and its history since it is associated with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He is a former Lutheran pastor from the Eastern part of Germany and the liberation from the oppressive communistic party when the Wall fell is what I suppose reminded him of the Founding Father’s penning the Declaration. He felt very much compelled to touch the Liberty Bell much to the concern of the National Park rangers attending his visit to the Bell.
He then reflected upon his connection with the U.S.A. What impressed him the most was a little boy whom he had met many years ago to the Library of Congress waiting in line for taking a look at the Declaration of Independence. It impressed him how this little boy was embracing part of his country’s most prized document with ease and curiosity. With it he embraced the most basic set of rights everyone enjoys: our Bill of Rights – the Constitution. President Gauck was impressed how American’s so easily accept and cherish their rights and also their history. He was very enthused about how alive the thoughts and motivations still are even well over two centuries after the revolutionary war ended. He was reminded of this spirit reflecting upon how he felt during the time prior to the Wall coming down. In one incident the Declaration of Independence was even suggested to provide possible text for generating a new constitution for the new Eastern Germany States after the fall of the Wall. That was in the tumultuous phase right before East Germany collapsed and Mr Gauck and many other East Germans were planning for what form of statehood could possibly follow the communist rule.
Three words stuck out to him the most: “We the people” – that is what any state is supposed to be about. Wow! These are indeed such powerful words. Perhaps these do not mean much to many of us who have never had their freedom taken away from them. Very often I feel surrounded by folks who are so blessed with so much and yet they have no idea how good we have it. My personal experience with how bad things can be are my personal reminder keeping me humbled with what freedom and opportunities I am blessed with on a daily basis.
It is hard to believe that it has been over quarter of a century since the Berlin wall and all the other silly borders came down. I remember it well. I had just gotten to the U.S.A. a few months earlier when one night my host Phyllis called me into her condo’s living room. I could not believe my eyes: right before my eyes the wall was coming down on evening TV on the news.
Wow! I would have never imagined that this would ever happen. I was born in the late 60s and I had not known a unified Germany at all. The separation of both “countries” was all encompassing and outright intense. Although westerners could travel into East Germany, no East German could visit their family and friends in the West. My hometown of Hameln Germany was all but 2 hours away from the East German border.
I remember going to the Harz mountains for skiing and sledding. That was very close to the border. We could get right up to the fence (the wall existed only in Berlin). The moment we would get within a few hundred feet we could see the guards getting busy checking us out with their binoculars. Patrols on foot and cars would wander up and down the fence on pathways sandwiched between the fence and the “death zone” on the East German side.
The “death zone” was approximately 200 feet wide. It started with car and truck barriers that looked not unlike the steel cross barred tank barriers in the beach scene of “Saving Private Ryan”. They were not as tall though. Some areas used concrete barriers that looked like the spikes on the wheels of a landfill trash compactor. Then the next strip of land consisted of bare land that had been smoothed over with harrows. We had been told that this strip was covered with mines, trip wires, and automated shooting apparatuses. Rows of barbed wire were further installed trying to prevent anyone making it to the actual fence separating the East from the freedom of the West. I still cannot believe Germans did this to keep Germans from reuniting.
In 1982 I went to Berlin with our high school class. What a trip that was. We went on the train. Right before entering the border the engine had to be uncoupled just for letting an East German engine take over. When we crossed the border we could see the death zone up close and personal. Western Berlin was nothing but a little island of the West right in the middle of East Germany. Standing in front of the wall was surreal. We could get close to it and touch it (that is why there was so much graffiti on it). Only East Germans could not get close to it at all.
The American sector had Check Point Charlie where westerners could cross over to East Berlin. There was a forced exchange rate of 25 German Marks West (roughly 15 Dollars). The East German Mark was not worth a 1 to 1 currency exchange but the state did not care much about this. You could think that this is not much considering that while being over there you need to buy food and drinks. Except there was not an awful lot to buy to start with. Furthermore, anything addressing basic needs was not expensive at all. I found out about these little details when we took a day trip over to East Berlin.
Really humbling was the having fellow Germans beg me for West German currency. They did so in utter secrecy. This was forbidden activity and possessing any Western currency was forbidden. The few folks I spoke with were so afraid that they would be discovered that they would nervously look to the sides and behind them all the time. Horrible. Just horrible stuff.
When I got home from the school trip to Berlin I was a changed young man. The trip had convinced me that re-unification must be the ultimate goal and that one day all
Germans would unify into a single country with freedom and prosperity for everybody. Little did I know it would happen not even a decade later.
I am so glad Germans can celebrate the Fall of the Wall today and the annual re-unification day. The states men from back then did Europe and Germany a great favor by moving the reunification forward fast. In fact it was so fast that it happened within less than a year. When has government ever been this efficient and fast with anything? Though some disparity between income and unemployment still exists to this day, we still now enjoy a single Germany. Let’s never forget the unfortunate people who lost trying to cross the border that no longer exists today. They were part of the “We the people” who felt compelled to do something about not being free and paid the ultimate price for trying to attain it.
Please reflect upon your freedom and opportunities afforded to you. You can live a life where “We the people” is very much alive today. Make sure you do your part to uphold and help make it even better. We have the moral obligation to do so.