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MU lecturer recalls life before and after the Berlin Wall came down

Monday, November 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 9:48 a.m. CST, Monday, November 9, 2009
Olaf Schmidt, left, stands on the western side of the Berlin Wall with his brother Axel on Nov. 10, 1989. Schmidt was born and raised in East Germany and is currently a lecturer in MU's German and Russian Studies Department.

COLUMBIA — On the night the Berlin Wall came down, Olaf Schmidt did not go to Berlin. In fact, he didn't learn about it until the next morning. When he heard, Schmidt and his brother drove from Madgeburg to Berlin at once to see everything first-hand. 

“People were crying like crazy,” Schmidt said. “We never thought we’d see the Wall come down during our lifetimes. Anyone who says otherwise is lying or maybe altering their memory.”

Schmidt, now a lecturer in MU’s German and Russian studies department, was born in East Germany in 1965, four years after the concrete barrier was built. The wall physically separated East and West Berlin, blocked emigration from East Germany and symbolically divided the Soviet Bloc and the Western world. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, for Schmidt, a time for reflection.

In 1999, the 10th anniversary of the wall's demise, Schmidt was in Berlin, but he was busier enjoying the explosion of culture in the city than thinking about the historical impact of 1989. “The '90s were a time to enjoy the freedom and have fun, and Berlin was the place to be,” Schmidt said. “I’m a bit more reflective now. I know I was there, and it will always be a part of me. But I’ve never celebrated it myself.”

Jonathan Sperber, who is chairman of MU's history department and a specialist in German history, said Americans tend to think of the fall of the Berlin Wall as a singular event. In truth, Sperber said, it was the outcome of a long, complicated process.

“Think about the way the people of East Germany fought against a tyrannical government," he said. "It was a fabulous triumph. It's one of the four great revolutions of modern Europe: the French Revolution of 1789, the Revolutions of 1848, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and this.”

Echoing Sperber's comments, Schmidt said that while the fall of the Berlin Wall is, of course, an emotional memory, in retrospect he does not think of it as the turning point for East Germany.

For him, the more important events had already occurred when thousands took to the streets in weeks of nonviolent protest against East German policies. Footage of East German police and the Stasi — the secret police — beating East Germans attempting to jump on trains going to the West had outraged many East Germans.

Schmidt said he, too, was shocked by the events. Although he opposed many East German policies, he said the government’s rhetoric of humanism and being a government of the people had sunk in. Schmidt said he and his friends sat in front of the TV, watching Western footage of the beatings and crying. “The shock was in the way they treated their own people,” he said. “These people weren’t criminals; they weren’t radicals.”

Protests on Oct. 2, Oct. 7 and Oct. 9 gathered more and more support. Protests and planning took place outside of work hours so that everyone could participate. Schmidt laughed and called it a “leisure-time revolution.” By Oct. 9, the numbers of protesters in Leipzig had swelled to 60,000, and many feared the day would end in bloodshed.

“People knew this would be a decisive day,” Schmidt said. “There were all these rumors about transports of body bags and blood (into Leipzig); there was this sense that something bad would happen.”

Schmidt, who was interning in Leipzig at the time, remembered marching and wondering where the police were. “We kept marching,” he said. “Then we saw them. They were hiding in the side streets — police, Stasi, even army troops, thousands of them. There was a sense of fear; people were screaming, ‘No violence,’ which was one of the slogans at that time.”

To his relief and amazement, the police did nothing. “They could have had a massacre,” Schmidt said. “But they didn’t. From then on, we knew something had been accomplished. We had crossed a line, and there was no going back.”

Schmidt said the East Germans actions are an example of something he believes is overlooked in Western narratives of the Cold War. He credits the election of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and his policies of  "perestroika" — or restructuring — and "glasnost" — or openness — for the accelerated, almost sudden downfall of the communist system in Europe.

“I’d argue there was some humanistic quality (to the government)," Schmidt said. "When they realized the people were against them, they gave up without a fight. That’s not the narrative of the Cold War here (in the U.S.). It was not inevitable. The government could have fought back. But they gave themselves up, which was amazing.”

Schmidt also stressed that the fall of the Wall was not the end of a story — it was also the beginning of the reunification of Germany.

“We had been locked in,” he said. “We knew about Western Germany from television, but it’s up for debate how true that image was.” Although East and West Germans had their stereotyped ideas about how the other half lived, there was now an entire generation that had to get to know each other.

As West German entrepreneurs came into East Germany, Schmidt said, they brought with them a certain arrogance and winner’s mentality that did not sit well with the East Germans. “They said we were lazy, stupid, naïve, not competitive,” he said. East Germans became defensive about their own culture.

“During the '90s, you had to adapt to a new system,” he said. “You kind of defined yourself as an East German. When the threat of the communist state was gone, people began reinventing their past searching for identity. It was the period of ‘Ostalgie’, a kind of nostalgia for life in East Germany. Now it was, ‘You’re not going to tell us that everything (East Germans) did was worthless, done out of fear and laziness.’ (The Western Germans) said we had a chance at a new life, but we had some pride, too. If you were 50, maybe you didn’t want a new life.”

Schmidt said he originally wanted to go to the West once the border opened, but he decided against it at his own farewell party.

Instead, he stayed in East Germany and then went on to study theater and literature and take part in the art and culture of newly hip neighborhoods of East Berlin. In 2001, he went to teach at Tulane University in New Orleans and then moved to MU after Hurricane Katrina.

Schmidt still lives in Germany for part of the year. He said Germans are tired of talking about the division between East and West.

It’s not exciting to discuss it anymore, he said, though there are still some strong divisions in provincial East Germany, where unemployment remains high. It can be difficult, Schmidt said, to realize that the country he grew up in may soon be merely a footnote.

“The period of East Germany was 40 years, and here we are at 20 years after the wall was opened. Soon it will just be an anecdote in history,” he said. “Looking back now, I wish I was maybe five years younger when the wall fell. That would have given me both, a conscious East German identity and a little more time to live my life the way I wanted to.”


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