As Germany celebrates the 31st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which ushered in the end of the Cold War and the country’s reunification, a history professor recalled how he and his family escaped from East Germany to start a new whole life, and how this pivotal event continues to shape the modern world.

Hartmut Marhold, a lecturer on EU integration at the Istanbul-based Turkish-German University and an honorary professor at Cologne University, was born in 1953, just three months after the death of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator.

At that time, he told Anadolu Agency in an email interview, “hopes for a reunified Germany were not yet entirely shattered.”

It was a historical “moment of immense though secret or private joy and hope in East Germany,” a moment in which “reconciliation or at least reforms seemed possible,” said Marhold, who is also the author of several books.

Yet flash forward to the end of the decade, and things had taken a sharp turn for the worse; Marhold’s parents decided to leave East Germany, as their “hopes had finally been buried definitely,” he said.

His father was branded “politically not reliable,” because despite being a master national handball player, he refused to take the role of representing the ruling Communist Party in demonstrations.

As his father was “not ready to subscribe to communist beliefs, he was denied any higher education and consequently any professional career,” Marhold explained.

And all this happened “when I was about to go to school – a moment when children had to be educated to become liars: What was right at school, was wrong at home, and vice versa,” he said.

To explain, he gave the example of kindergarten students learning to tell time who were told by teachers to draw a picture of a clock.

“Those among us who watched West German TV at home drew the clock they saw on the TV screen,” the distinctive clock as seen on the West German news, he explained.

But this innocent child’s drawing drew unwanted attention “since it was strictly forbidden to watch West German TV” – “enemy” TV – and so his parents and others too “got visits at home from the East German secret police, [and they] were interrogated and warned.”

As a result, his parents decided to flee, something that was “still possible via Berlin, where traveling with public transport was still allowed between East and West if you didn’t give any sign that you were not willing to return,” he recalled.

But to make it work, he explained, they had to carry, “no baggage, and [have] no communication between parents and children because the East Berlin police separated children [from their parents] and interrogated them – if they knew, the policemen would know, too.

“My parents had told me that we were on holiday, visiting marvelous castles and parks with huge fountains,” he remembered.

But starting in 1961, fleeing got much harder, as the Berlin Wall – or “the Wall of Shame” as the local government in the West sometimes called it – divided the city with concrete barriers and armed guards who would shoot to kill.

Marhold was 6 years old when his family left East Germany. “But we returned many times to our [extended] family, as soon as this was allowed, that is from 1971 on.”

“Until then, we were considered criminals in East Germany, since fleeing was considered a crime.

Now he says he appreciates his young firsthand experiences of living in the East, saying that “many Westerners cannot imagine what it means to live under authoritarian or dictatorial conditions.”

In West Germany, the family first went to their aunt who lived in Hannover, in the northern part of the country.

They spent several months together – four people squeezed into a one-room apartment – before moving to the city of Bremen.

“I am still a supporter of Bremen’s football team, Werder Bremen!” said Marhold.

His father studied architecture there, and they later moved back to Hannover.

After living in two more German cities and one French one, it was only at age 40 that he “finally settled down, being a refugee and a migrant due to our escape” from East Germany, he said.

Symbol of end of Iron Curtain

The fall of the Berlin Wall opened the door to German reunification, for the entry of former East Germany in the European Union, but “beyond the German borders, it was a symbol of the end of the Iron Curtain, all over Europe,” said Marhold.

The fall also served to open “up the road toward European Unification, too, finally achieved in 2004, with the ‘Big Bang’ enlargement of the EU,” he added, referring to the mass EU accession of 10 countries – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Malta, and the Greek Cyprus administration.

For Marhold, the fall of the wall “was full of symbolism, i.e. historically meaningful far beyond the event as such.”

“To some extent, the event reached out over the whole world, since it was the start of the end of the Bipolar World, too,” he said, referring to the Cold War rivalry between the US and USSR.

Other key moments leading up to the fall – a process launched by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, he said – included Poland’s first election of a non-communist prime minister in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

However, “for Germany, the task of reunification was much more difficult than the enthusiasm of the first months and years suggested,” he said.

“Despite speaking still the same language, the population in East and West largely ignored each other,” he explained.

“There were illusions about the state of the East German economy in the West, the psychological difficulty of a people used to submit to autocratic rule,” he said.

People there had been told what to do with both their private and professional lives, he said, so they had problems adapting to “freedom,” taking their lives in their own hands.

This deep schism remains a problem to this day, he added, and is “one of the origins of East German populism.”

Watching the fall through tears

On Nov. 9, 1989, when the wall finally fell, Marhold was living in France with his wife and two children “far away, but the experience was not much less emotional.”

“We watched the events on TV, and our elder son, then 4 years old, saw my wife and me in tears when we saw the East Berliners crossing the border,” he said.

The Eastern “Ossies” were “received with ‘hurray’ and Champagne in West Berlin – in tears for joy and emotion, and our son was entirely perplexed about that,” he added.

Though they regretted not being in Germany at the time, he said, “later that evening we got many telephone calls from French friends congratulating us on this happy moment in the history of our nation, sharing the joy and emotion with us – very emotional too, since a generation ago our parents were still shooting at each other!”

“And now our children were born in France, and now we had (and have) French friends, who were not fearful about German reunification, but happy with us!”

After the Iron Curtain fell, Marhold recalled, very soon they had family from East Germany staying for weeks and weeks in their home in the French Riviera, “a dream destination for them – and we were living there!”

But despite the initial jubilation, “Western Europe reacted to this situation accordingly, but only reluctantly and too slowly, in my eyes,” he said.

“The enlargement process was slowed down by the West European fear that the integration of the Central Europeans would be costly, the process was extremely bureaucratic, on a piecemeal basis – not an encouraging, trust-inspiring, value-based process, not enough political dignity.”

And the fruit of this process? “Mistrust in Brussels [the EU] and populism in Central Europe,” he argued.

‘Germany didn’t want a region of uncertainty’

According to Marhold, the fall of the wall was a great and marvelous moment in history, “a breakthrough for freedom and self-determination, individually and collectively.”

“But freedom and self-determination mean as well that everybody was and is free to choose its own way, which may lead to a multifaceted world of divergent ways of life – the ‘bipolar world’ was replaced by the ‘multipolar world.’

“Some emerged as winners – those who found a sustainable way of development, or an anchor to a community they belong to – whereas others relied on previous or traditional ways.”

In 2014, when the war over Crimea broke out, he said, a Polish friend – an ambassador and renowned economist – called Marhold to say: ‘Hartmut, I am so happy that Poland is now a member of the European Union! We know where we belong to, unlike our unfortunate neighbors in Ukraine, who are torn apart by the uncertainty of whether they should ally with Europe or with Russia!’”

In the years since, Ukraine has remained literally torn apart, with much of its east dominated by Russian-backed separatists, and Crimea having been taken away by illegal Russian annexation.

This uncertainty, he continued, “is why Germany was so much in favor of the Big Bang Enlargement in 2004 (and in the years before), much more than France: Germany did not want a region of uncertainty just beyond its Eastern borders, whereas France feared the extension of German influence in Central Europe.

“Russia, on the other hand, was in search of its own identity, after the loss of its empire, in search of a promising path of development, instead of selling its natural resources, like a developing country, in search of formula for an integrated society, instead of suffering from the brutal enrichment of a small gang of oligarchs.”

He concluded: “And Russia was additionally humiliated and ignored by the West. This is still the problem with Russia and its relations to its neighbors and Europe.”

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