The 25-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin War

25 years ago (next month) I was at the Berlin Wall at 2am yanking off a hefty chunk of rebar that I proudly still have. (I had to torque the thing back and forth for 20 minutes until it finally got so hot, and the metal got so worn, it broke off).

The Berlin Wall officially, metaphorically, came down on November 9, 1989. While the wall was still in place for a good several years it took to tear it down (it was, after all, solid concrete), on that date in November the East German government decided to finally let East Germans cross the border to the west at will.


I was there on December 2nd, 1989, or so. And while the mood was jubilant, it was also still somewhat tense and uncertain. East German troops were still patrolling the tops of the wall. They were still carrying machine guns. Some clearly welcomed the rapprochement with the west — smiling and posing for photos with well-wishers from the other side.


I’m pretty sure she had just offered him a cig. (The Berlin Wall, December 3rd (or so), 1989. ©John Aravosis)

Others patrolled as usual, seeming a tad unsure of how to handle the increasing throng of visitors tearing apart the border. We all took a leap of faith that the East German troops “probably” wouldn’t shoot us for attempting to rip a chunk from the wall, but the concern was still in the back of your mind (it was in mine).


The Berlin Wall, December 3rd (or so), 1989. ©John Aravosis

There were also still Soviet troops all over East Berlin. I met a few at a museum on the dark side, who were very interested in chatting me up (sadly, my Russian only excels when I’m drunk).

The Berlin Wall, December 3rd (or so), 1989. ©John Aravosis

The Berlin Wall, December 3rd (or so), 1989. ©John Aravosis

I decided to strike out at 2am, with an American friend who was studying in Berlin at the time, and get the biggest chunk of the wall that I could. It wasn’t easy. Concrete is surprisingly hard. Seriously. It’s nearly impossible to get a chunk off of it. Rather, it tends to flake (unless you have a sledge-hammer).

Bejeweled Lenin oversees my best chunk of the Berlin wall.

A bejeweled Lenin (that I got from a Russian friend in Kamchatka) guards my best chunk of the Berlin wall.

And here, below, is my prized possession, the three-foot long piece of steel rebar that I broke off of the wall that night in December (it’s the long steel rods that run through cement). It broke right where it connects to the wall, so it’s a wonderfully sinuous question mark of a thing. I’d read the other day that small pieces of the wall are going for only $13 on eBay, in part because no one can prove that their pieces are real. And while I’d never sell my rebar, I suspect this photo is likely provenance enough :)

The Berlin Wall, December 3rd (or so), 1989. ©John Aravosis

Breaking off my 3-foot chunk of rebar from the Berlin Wall, December 3rd (or so), 1989. ©John Aravosis

As an aside, no, I had no problem getting it on the plane as I was in Berlin with a congressional arms control delegation. We were flying with the US military, and the troops flying the plane, as well as the other members of our delegation, actually got a kick out of it when I arrived with my unique piece of history.

It’s weird for someone my age or older to imagine what it must be like to be raised in a world where the Soviet Union, and the occupation of Eastern Europe, wasn’t a given. And it isn’t even a memory for most people under 30. I’m still conflicted as to whether “knowing” the Soviets has informed or marred my world view today. I tend to believe the former, especially of late. My feelings towards the Soviets were certainly a precursor to my ensuing civil rights work. (I remember writing an angry letter in high school to the Soviet premier over his mistreatment of Andrei Sakharov.)

The Berlin Wall, December 3rd (or so), 1989. ©John Aravosis

The Berlin Wall, December 3rd (or so), 1989. ©John Aravosis

Finally, when I think of 1989, and all those East European dictatorships exploding month by month, after decades of seemingly permanent oppression, I’m reminded of that wonderful GE commercial (I think it was GE, it was a light bulb commercial), with the elderly (Hungarian?) couple dressed to the nines, dancing the waltz in that beautiful old hall, and while swirling in circles the woman says to the man: “I feel young again.” I wish I could find that commercial — I wish someone from GE would post it on YouTube — I still get chills thinking of that time.

What I do have is the Jesus Jones video, “Right Here, Right Now,” which is about the liberation of eastern Europe. I still get chills from that too. Enjoy

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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18 Responses to “The 25-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin War”

  1. AlexanderHamiltonsGhost says:

    I definitely recall that bit of rebar…

  2. HeartlandLiberal says:

    A good friend of ours, who is German, in her late 40’s, sent me an email the other day asking if I was watching the lights on Deutsche Rundschau on the web. I missed it, but reading your article today, I realize now what she was talking about,not Christmas lights as I thought, but this. I just sent her the following email:

    I think this may be what you were watching on Rundschau the other day? Lights celebrating the fall of the wall 25 years ago.

    The article is a blog entry by an American who was there. Towards end is an aerial night view of the lights outlining where the wall was.

    (link to this blog entry was included here)

    It makes me rather sad to watch this nation, the USA, for which my father’s generation went to war to defeat dictatorships and madness around the world, descending into insanity and a police state totalitarianism right now, where the Constitution and the Rule of Law have been swept into the dustbin of history, and 1% of the richest have simply purchased Congress to do their will, and to hell with the other 99% of the population.

    I am sure there is some irony here somewhere, if only I could put my finger on it….

    We have a trip scheduled next May – June which will include 18 days on the ground from Copenhagen down through northern Germany ending in London and Southampton. Our German friend plans to fly home from the USA where she is teaching now to visit with us and her parents in Kiel, and give us a few days grand tour of the area. We have not been back to Germany since the late seventies. We lived in Southern Germany for a year during early seventies, back when Willi Brant was Chancellor. We did spend a day in East Berlin in 1971, while spending a week touring Berlin. It was an indelible experience to cross the wall as an American and walk around East Berlin then. To say the very least.

  3. Jackie Hill says:

    Damn I wanted to sell my moms chunk. But you say authenticating is dubious.
    My sister was stationed in Germany for 7 years, my nephew has dual citizenship.
    And heres my parent s from one of there 2 trips over.

  4. I did post the photos before, so it must have been.

  5. FLL says:

    I somehow ended up with a few bucks when I graduated from high school. In the late 80s, West Berlin was fun, fun, fun. But the subway rides were strange because some subway lines in West Berlin ran through East Berlin. You’re riding in the subway and you continue without stopping through dungeon-like abandoned stations with everything closed off by barricades.

  6. AlexanderHamiltonsGhost says:

    You posted this on the 20th anniversary, I’m sure of it!

  7. Bill_Perdue says:

    Herpes is rarely terminal but syphilis deaths are not uncommon. It certainly killed
    the USSR which, because of its inherent strength and enormous support, got
    infected in 1929 and finally died at the hands of Stalinists in 1991.

    Nazism and Stalinism had different social bases and defended different social
    systems. However, I doubt that it mattered much to the prisoners in Bergen-Belsen and camps in the Gulag. There was a vast difference, though, between the Gulag prisons and the Nazis death camps and the military murder machine which committed uncounted atrocities like Babi Yar in the Ukraine where German and Ukrainians fascists murdered about 34,000 Jews in September, 1941,

    Nazi atrocities and wars of aggression have much in common with US mass murders in Vietnam and Iraq. The difference is that the Nazis killed around 50 million and the US has only killed a few million. So far.

    1) “In his new book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, Turse argues that the intentional killing of civilians was quite common in a war that claimed 2 million civilian lives, with 5.3 million civilians wounded and 11 million refugees.

    2) at they estimate a death toll of around 1,445,590 in Iraq, not counting those who will die in Obama’s reinvasion.

  8. East Germany was grey. I remember we went to Leipzig, in addition to East Berlin. Just very sad, grey places, very much like the Soviet Union.

  9. Don Chandler says:

    I use to have those nightmares of nukes going off in NYC and me running through the city. They went away after the fall of the Soviet Union. Ofc, they were supplanted with new nightmares, mostly homework due.

  10. Indigo says:

    And, true to form, we here in the States have taken on the characteristics of our most recent conquest. We used to imitate the Nazi efficiency but now we’re as slovenly as the Comrades ever were.

  11. Indigo says:

    The herpes, maybe, but I’d hold off on the syphilis . . . unless you hold up up along side Adolph Hitler, then there’s two of them and maybe yes, that’s a syphilis analogue and, alarmingly, looks like evidence that the two extremes were in fact, almost identical from a moral perspective. Not unlike today’s extreme party system which looks to me like a snarling two-headed dog.

  12. Indigo says:

    It felt so weird when that happened. Now, it’s history and things have gotten . . . weirder. Go figure.

  13. nicho says:

    The only thing missing is a picture of Mr. Gorbachev tearing down that wall.

  14. Naja pallida says:

    I was living and going to school in West Germany at the time, it was very crazy. People were a frenzied combination of excited and scared. Nobody really saw it coming, at least not at that specific time. Eastern Europe in the 80s was like stepping into a world of grey. Like all the color and life was drained out of everything. A stark contrast to how most western Europeans were living.

  15. nicho says:

    Every few miles on the highway there were TV camera’s and the atmosphere was gloomy, dreary and quite frankly—-paranoid.

    Sounds like a lot of the US today.

  16. I’ll never forget the small radio in our hotel room that we couldnt’ turn off. You could turn it down, but not off. And it had a hard-wired plug into the wall, so you couldn’t unplug it.

  17. Bill_Perdue says:

    This is all you need to know about Stalinism – “Stalinism is the syphilis of the workers’ movement.” Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army and, along with Lenin, a primary leader of the Bolshevik
    Revolution, Trotsky was murdered by Stalin.

  18. 2karmanot says:

    It’s true, so many younger people have no concept what-so- ever of the oppressive atmosphere of Soviet rule. I remember hitchhiking through Eastern Europe in that late 60’s. Every few miles on the highway there were TV camera’s and the atmosphere was gloomy, dreary and quite frankly—-paranoid. I share your opinion of the Soviets and the not-ready-for- first world current status of Russia.

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