As the 25th anniversary of German reunification approaches, a Ruskin couple, Ron and Kathy Smith, pause to remember that turbulent time in history. “We remember the demolition of the Berlin Wall because we were there,” said Ron. “People were celebrating everywhere, glad for their freedom after all those years.”
Ron was stationed with the military in Froehstheim, Germany after World War II, where he met German-born Kathy Muller. The pair married and spent the next decade living in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.
“We were in the West section of Berlin, but we had friends and relatives in the East,” said Kathy. “We were close enough to reach out and touch them, but because of the wall, we could not.”
Germany was divided by the victors of World War II in 1945. The occupying powers of Britain, France and the United States combined and rebuilt their sectors into a modern Western economy, while the Soviet Union punished its sector, creating a huge difference in living standards. The Soviets decided to close cargo routes to Berlin, making it impossible for Berliners to get food or supplies. They hoped this would drive Britain, France and the U.S. out of the city for good.
The allies responded by initiating the “Berlin Airlift,” which lasted for more than a year and carried 2.3 million tons of cargo into West Berlin.
“The airlift was a massive effort that saved many lives,” said Ron. “Most of those people wouldn’t have survived without it.”
As East Berliners continued to flee westward, Soviet leadership ordered the Berlin Wall to be built. The barrier included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, which restricted a wide area and later became known as the “death strip.”
“There were guards and vicious dogs posted all along the wall,” remembers Ron. “And they kept them hungry. We would toss boiled eggs over the wall and the dogs would rush to gobble them up.”
The East Berlin government claimed that the wall was erected to protect its citizens from fascist elements threatening to subvert the “will of the people” building a socialist state in East Germany. In reality, the wall served to prevent the massive emigration of East Germans during the post-war period. Officials in West Berlin condemned the wall, referring to it as the “Wall of Shame.”
The Berlin Wall came to symbolize the “Iron Curtain” that separated Western and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The 96-mile wall became a symbol of the division between communism and capitalism, and split friends and families apart.
Kathy also described how trains and vehicles were searched at the border, and how East German guards were ordered to shoot anyone who attempted to cross. Reportedly, more than 5,000 people attempted to escape, with an estimated death toll of 200.
“People would crawl through the fences or hide in trunks of cars to try and cross over,” said Kathy. “I remember one man who went over the wall in a hot air balloon. He actually succeeded.”
Unfortunately, others did not. “There’s a cemetery down by the river in Berlin, full of white crosses,” said Ron. “Those were the ones who didn’t make it.”
The Berlin Wall was rebuilt several times — each time bigger and stronger — with hand-mortared bricks and concrete slabs. The Western world, trying to avoid a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union, did nothing to stop the wall’s construction. But in 1987, President Reagan gave a historic speech at the Brandenburg Gate, saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
In 1989, after several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government finally announced the fall of the Berlin Wall. Crowds of euphoric Berliners began chipping away at the wall with hammers, mallets and chisels. The government completed the full demolition in 1992.
“Everybody was happy when the wall fell,” said Ron. “Every family got 100 marks [about $60] as a welcome gift.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, and on Oct. 3, 1990, East Germany officially became part of the reunified Federal Republic of Germany, with Berlin as its capital.
Today, said Ron, October 3rd is a national holiday in Germany, and Berliners celebrate it in a big way, with dancing in the streets and fireworks. The Brandenburg Gate is one of the main sites for the festivities, and is today considered a symbol of German unity and peace.
Despite the tumultuous times when she lived there, Kathy Smith still has many fond memories of Germany. “I still have family there, and go back every year to visit,” she says. “It will always be home to me.”