Reflecting on the fall of the Berlin Wall - 25 years later from a CTA train station in Chicago

Today, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I reflect on its rise and fall from an unlikely spot – a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) train station.

Recently, I learned that a portion of the Berlin Wall is here in Chicago, just inside the Western Ave. CTA train station. Located in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, an area where German people, restaurants and culture thrives in the Windy City, the wall is a constant reminder of “the invaluable assistance rendered by the United States of America in securing the safety and freedom of Berlin, in bringing down the Wall, and in supporting reunification of Germany and Berlin” – as noted on the plaque at its base.

But, just as it’s just one piece of the wall, the actions of US citizens are just one part of the story of the Berlin Wall.

The wall stood and fell during my youth, more than 4,000 miles away from my home in Chicago. But, I remember its significance within the “free world” and the celebration of freedom that accompanied its fall.

The rise of the Berlin Wall

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) began construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 to prevent the large-scale emigration and defection of people from East Germany after  World War II. Seemingly overnight, the Berlin Wall separated families from one another. It prevented people from getting to their jobs. And, it divided a city and a nation.

Once complete, the Berlin Wall was more than 96 miles in length. According to Reader’s Digest, more than 87 miles of the wall were built out of “improved” concrete blocks that were more than 12 feet high and 4 feet thick.  The wall also was lined with anti-vehicle trenches, watch towers, bunkers and other defenses.

During its 30-year history, approximately 5,000 people attempted to escape over the wall that separated communist East Germany and democratic West Germany, with hundreds dying as a result.

The Berlin Wall changed and impacted people’s lives in so many ways. And, then it came down.

The miscommunication that brought down the wall

As someone who works in communications, I have a keen understanding of the power of words to incite emotions and illicit actions among people. And, with that power comes responsibility. Any error in communication can potentially have serious, unintended results. A relevant example is the miscommunication that is said to have been the impetus for the fall of the Berlin Wall.

According to Wikipedia, during a press conference on November 9, 1989, Gunter Schabowski, then an official of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, announced that East German refugees would be allowed to exit directly through established crossing points between East and West Germany, and that private travel would be permissible. But, when he uttered this announcement, he did so without having been completely briefed on the timing.

When pressed for when the changes would go into effect, Schabowski incorrectly replied that it was effective immediately. But, in truth, the changes were not supposed to be instated until the following day. To further complicate matters, at the time of his announcement, the border guards along the wall had not been informed of it yet.

But, the power of Schabowski’s words were felt and soon spread among the German people.

News of the announcement quickly traveled throughout the region, with a German television news “magazine” declaring that: “East Germany has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The GDR is opening its borders… the gates in the Berlin Wall stand open.”

Moved to immediate action, thousands of East Germans gathered at the six checkpoints between East and West Germany, and demanded that the unsuspecting border guards open the gates of the wall.

Faced with a quickly growing mass of people, the border guards felt overwhelmed and knew they couldn’t hold back the crowd without using lethal force. In an attempt to prevent any bloodshed, that evening, the commander of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing allowed his guards to open the checkpoints and allow people to go through the gate without checking all of their identities.

With East Germans crossing into West Germany, freedom was celebrated and Germans rejoiced together. To them, the Berlin Wall could not and did not hold them back.

From that point on, people came to the Berlin Wall to knock it down almost piece by piece, opening new areas for people to cross from East to West Germany, and back again. The free flow of Germans across the 30-year dividing line continued, culminating in the issuance of visa-free travel for West Germans and West Berliners on December 23, 1989.

It is those images of people breaking off pieces of the once formidable wall the are the very ones I’ll never forget. And, remaining portions of the Berlin Wall make that an enduring reality.

The raw emotion felt in seeing pieces of the Berlin Wall – even today

Last winter, my husband and I traveled to Berlin for a short holiday. We bought small, commemorative pieces of the Berlin Wall back for our sons as souvenirs from our trip. But, those small pieces don’t do justice to the emotions we felt upon seeing large portions of the wall that still stand in Berlin.

Today, many of those pieces are used as a canvas to share messages of freedom and hope within Berlin and Germany. This can be easily seen at the East Side Gallery, a 1.3 km stretch of the former Berlin Wall. This piece of history is now adorned with art that translates the emotions associated with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the unification of a once-divided city as told by an international group of commissioned artists.

During our visit in Berlin, we also saw sections of the wall at Potsdamer Platz, in Mauerpark and along Niederkirchner Strasse, as well as bricks laid out in the ground that trace its former path.

But, portions of the Berlin Wall aren’t just found in Berlin – and Chicago for that matter.

According to Buzzfeed, pieces of the wall can be found all over the world, including Kiev, Kingston, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Mexico City, Montreal, Moscow, New York City, Paris, Seoul, and Washington, D.C.

Today, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of the thoughts and emotions from my time in Berlin and my family’s ties to Germany have flooded back to my mind once again. But, I remain grounded in the unification of a city and a country, the continued celebration of freedom, and the undying hope for the future – by people in Germany, in Chicago, and around the world.

A small portion of the Berlin Wall in the Western Ave. CTA train station in Chicago.

A small portion of the Berlin Wall stands in the Western Ave. CTA train station in Chicago.

There’s lots more multicultural discussion and fun to be had together.  Be sure to “like” Raising World Citizens on Facebook to join in on the conversation. And, join me on a visual journey of my efforts to raise two world citizens on Instagram.

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