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Walls of the World: Berlin, front line of the Cold War between East and West (1)

Torsten Peter tells of his daring crossing of the Berlin Wall from East to West Germany, in Berlin, on Sept. 22, 2018. (Mainichi/Keisuke Nakanishi)

Next year, the world will mark 30 years since the end of the Cold War in 1989, but the world that had made steps toward reconciliation is once again building "walls," with efforts to divide the globe once more coming to the surface. The Mainichi Shimbun will explore the current situation from the historical perspective of various "walls."


BERLIN -- "Stop! I'll shoot!" On the night of May 4, 1988, those words echoed against the back of Torsten Peter, now 54, as he attempted to cross the Berlin Wall. The wall itself was made of two barriers, and he was not out of the woods yet. The space between the two walls was known as the "area of death," as many of those aiming to cross over the wall where fatally shot there.

Running over the roughly 100 meters of sand to the second wall, Peter began to scale it. The two companions with whom he had cleared the first wall were nowhere in sight. He threw himself over the wall, and slid into the darkness on the other side. This was it. He had made it to the land of freedom and democracy -- West Germany. Even though he had sprained his legs, he ran, rushing into a telephone booth. When he called his mother in the East, she asked, "Are you coming home for dinner tonight?" He answered, "No, I can't. I've crossed over the wall now."

After World War II, sovereignty over Germany was divided between the socialist Soviet Union to the east and the capitalist nations of the United States, United Kingdom and France to the west. The frontline of the Cold War between East and West was the roughly 155-kilometer wall that divided the city of Berlin down the middle.

After being told by an East German intelligence organization to give up his ties to relatives living in West Berlin if he wanted to participate as a track and field athlete in the Olympics, Peter gave up his dream. He got a job at a hotel, but his co-worker stole the passport of a customer in order to escape to West Germany, and he was fired on suspicion of being involved. It was economic and political pressure that left him unable to imagine a future that drove him to decide to jump the wall.

Peter began a new life as a "refugee" in West Berlin, West Germany's "show window" pumped with investments so that the East could see the economic prosperity of the other side. However, Peter was shocked when a mere year after he risked his life to go to the West, that wall he crossed came tumbling down.

Head of East Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall, Egon Krenz, reflects on the events of almost 30 years ago, in Berlin, on Oct. 19, 2018. (Mainichi/Sandra Berke)

--- Exodus and Elation

Close to 9 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1989, former leader of East Germany Chairman of the State Council Egon Krenz received a phone call. On the other end was the feared head of the Ministry for State Security, better known as the Stasi, Erich Mielke. It was around that time that a large group of people had gathered at the Berlin Wall calling for passage into the West.

When asked how to handle the situation, Krenz asked Mielke if he had any suggestions. Krenz had just come to power in October, following the long dictatorship of Erich Honecker. If Krenz were to let East Germans cross the border now, the sovereignty of the nation would be compromised, but if the government used force to crackdown on the people, the streets would run with blood. Faced with a difficult choice, Mielke simply said to Krenz: "You are the commanding officer."

When Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, the Eastern bloc began to move toward the revolutionary policies of "perestroika," restructuring, and "glasnost," transparency. While East Germany was hopeful that the reforms would reach them as well, "Honecker told Gorbachev that 'perestroika has the possibility of bringing about difficulty. I want to see how it goes first,'" Krenz, now 81, told the Mainichi Shimbun.

Honecker had been against any reform, and that in turn fueled the people of East Germany's will to leave the country behind. In the summer of 1989, many tried to flee through the socialist nation of Hungary to West Germany, and protests calling for freedom of travel and expression spread throughout East Germany.

It was under these circumstances that the East German government decided on Nov. 9 to allow citizens to leave the country as of 5 a.m. the following day. But it was here that a historical "mistake" would occur. When a party official was asked at a press conference when permission would be granted, he overlooked the date and said, "As far as I know -- immediately, without delay." Those who had heard the announcement gathered along the Berlin Wall.

In the end, Krenz told Mielke, "If it will go into effect tomorrow, then there is no need to do anything today." However, that decision ultimately led to the destruction of the sovereignty of the nation. As border guards stood by, people climbed the over 3-meter wall to the other side. It was in that moment that the symbol of division, the Berlin Wall, lost its meaning.

That night, Peter went with his friends who had also escaped East Germany to watch the scene as people spilled over the wall into the West one after the other.

"The next day, I called West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and we confirmed that 'the destruction of the wall did not mean the destruction of the national border,'" said Krenz. At the time, no one believed that the fall of the Berlin Wall would lead to the unification of East and West Germany. However, the passion of the citizens who wished for freedom and prosperity for 40 years eventually forced the hand of history. Less than a year later, on Oct. 3, 1990, East Germany was absorbed into West Germany and unification was realized.

--- Disappointment and Xenophobia

Now, it can be said that Germany enjoys the best economy since that unification. States that used to be part of the East have been redeveloped and have also become prosperous. But on the other hand, the political sphere has been shaken to the core. With the weakening of the cohesive power of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who came to represent the liberal values of the West with the nation's acceptance of refugees and other policies, people are beginning to speak of a break from the two party system that has been the basis of the German political world since the end of the war.

What has come to stand out is the anti-Islam, nationalist "Alternative for Germany" (AfD) party. Many of its members are hailing from former East Germany. Joachim Klose, who researches the transformation of former East German society, explained, "What is engraved in the hearts of AfD and other (xenophobic) group supporters are East German narratives of equality and fairness."

In response to the inequality born out of the capitalist system, are xenophobic tendencies rising in Germany from the East out of a wish for economic stability?

For Peter, he felt uncomfortable in post-unification Germany, where wealth was the measure of someone's happiness, and ended up living outside of the country for a while. However, when his marriage and business failed, he decided to return to the city where he was born and raised -- Berlin. Now, he works as a security guard to support his new wife and two daughters.

"I think that Germany is rapidly falling apart," Peter said. Whenever he sees the mainstream media or people from former West Germany look coldly upon people from East Germany each time nationalism flares up, he feels disheartened. "This country has lost its own culture, and it seems that we are also losing respect for one another."

(Japanese original by Keisuke Nakanishi, Berlin Bureau)

This is Part 1 of a series.

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