2009-11-19 / This Week's Attitude

This Week’’s Atti tude

Witnessing History At Fall Of The Berlin Wall
By Neil S. Friedman
Iwas several months late for the beginning of the fall of the Berlin Wall. While I may have missed the party that kicked off the momentous occasion on November 9, 1989, I did have the opportunity to see segments of the infamous concrete barrier still standing the following spring. Moreover, I got the chance to chip off several dozen pieces of it, which I later presented as gifts to family members and friends.

Taking a souvenir of the Berlin Wall in 1990. Taking a souvenir of the Berlin Wall in 1990. In the spring and summer of 1990, as the world’s politics was going through a major transformation, I was working in Europe for the Rolling Stones during the band’s “Urban Jungle Tour,” which, in its first weeks, played concerts in four West German cities and one in West Berlin. In August, the tour returned for two shows in East Berlin before the nation formally reunited that October.

During the tour, I saw several of Europe’s grandest cities, but was most anxious to see remnants of the Berlin Wall, which had been standing since 1961 when it divided the capital city and was raised to prevent East Germans from fleeing a totalitarian society. Two years after the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, practically ending Communism as an international political force.

A lengthy section of the Wall from the West Berlin side. A lengthy section of the Wall from the West Berlin side. The tour entourage — made up of the Rolling Stones, musicians and backup singers, plus the group’s management team and other essential personnel, including the press representatives, of which

was one of three — boarded a train after the second show in Munich and spent the next 11 hours, including a bureaucratic delay, heading for West Berlin. We arrived early in the morning on June 4, but when we reached the outskirts on Berlin in the German Democratic Republic (the formal name for East Germany) government officials refused to let us get off the train for several hours until all the personnel and tour’s paperwork were thoroughly examined.

As we waited, Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards invited curious onlookers peering in the train to board for breakfast. Several dozen complied and ravenously sated their appetites with an assortment of eggs, toast, jams and fresh fruit.

After several hours the train rolled into West Berlin. After unpacking and catching up on overdue sleep, I awoke the next day and made plans to see the Wall with Bob Funk, a member of the Uptown Horns, part of the tour’s backup band.

Along a stretch of the Wall still standing, there were vendors selling chunks of the concrete barrier that looked authentic, including bits of painted graffiti, but we were skeptical and opted to rent a hammer and chisel for $5 and chip off our own pieces. I collected about 10 pounds worth and returned to the hotel to drop them off before returning and walking into East Berlin past Checkpoint Charlie, the allied post where vehicles entering or leaving West Berlin were stopped to ensure they were properly credentialed.

When the tour returned to play two shows in East Berlin later that summer, I went back to the Wall, which was substantially smaller, for more souvenirs to send home.

In the end, the Berlin Wall was razed with little bloodshed, although enough had been spilt over the years. In the nearly three decades it existed, more than 136 people died trying to escape to West Berlin. Along the 500-mile border of the frontier fence that separated East from West Germany, over 10,000 people lost their lives. However, at a rate estimated at 1,000 a year, many were successful in daring attempts via tunnels, hot air balloons, home-made airplanes, subway, hidden automobile compartments, ramming the wall with armored vehicles, leaping over poorly fortified sections and other creative means.

Each successful escape was negative propaganda, so the GDR reinforced the Wall to make it more difficult for the next attempt. The cost to maintain and strengthen the Wall cost the East German government about $500,000 a year, which took its toll on the totalitarian nation’s economy already weakened when thousands fled to the West before the barrier was erected. All the same, those who yearned to be free and join relatives in West Berlin still managed to find a route to cross over.

Today, 20 years after the Berlin Wall started coming down, the tunnels that once offered an escape route are a popular tourist attraction. Sections of the Wall are scattered across the world and pieces sit on the shelves of souvenir collectors.

While I was thrilled to be a part of what was then the biggest rock and roll tour ever mounted, the tour was more meaningful because some of the places where it was staged were experiencing the most revolutionary changes since the end of World War II. In August, when I revisited Checkpoint Charlie and saw the guardhouse had been dismantled, it struck me that I was witnessing history in the making.

Today’s American youth most likely can’t grasp the magnitude of the daunting years after World War II as the unseen Iron Curtain was a symbol of Communist rule in Eastern Europe in an era burdened by the fear of nuclear annihilation as the world’s superpowers — the U.S. and Soviet Union — possessed enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy the world five times over. The intangible symbol became visible with the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, resulting in a more palpable divide between freedom and totalitarianism.

As pockets of rebellion spurred the desire for freedom across Eastern Europe and Russia in the late 1980s, Premier Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a series of reforms that subsequently led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The dismantling of the Berlin Wall was a victory for freedom over tyranny. Two years later, Communism was finished as an international political force and, with it, the end of the threat of World War III’s risk of global thermonuclear warfare.

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