November 09, 2009
Twenty years ago today
Posted by Erik Gerding

I didn't plan to start my first ever blogger stint on the anniversary of the fall of the Wall, but I thought I'd share a few personal experiences from 20 years ago before I move on to law-related posts.

I spent the summer of 1989 in West Germany on a high school exchange program.  Towards the end of my stay, my two American classmates and I visited West Berlin for a week.  We decided to spend one day in East Berlin even though our German hosts couldn't travel with us.  We travelled to the East sector by the subway, passing the old abandoned ghost stations before arriving at the subway checkpoint in East Berlin.  The border guards delayed me for several anxious minutes as my passport photo was already several years old (I think it was taken when I was 12).  Being alone in the booth with an unfriendly DDR border guard was a nerve-wracking test for my still spotty German.

Finally, the three of us were allowed to explore East Berlin for the day, which we spent mostly on the Unter den Linden avenue from the Neue Wache to Alexanderplatz.  It was a strange and unsettling sightseeing excursion.  The streets were largely empty of cars and the only people I remember on the streets were two busloads of Russian tourists.  We started our walk at the old German history museum and the Neue Wache memorial.  Both commemorated the Soviet and socialist sacrifices in defeating National Socialism, but I didn't see any mention of the Holocaust or of the other Allies.  After walking through room after room of propoganda in the museum, I will never look at a history museum in the same way.

You could feel the oprressiveness of the city even on a bright summer day.  Some of it was explicit -- being told by the police not to take photographs from a bridge on the Museum island -- much of it was just beneath the surface.  I was relieved to return to West Berlin at the end of the afternoon and only fully relaxed when our train back from West Berlin to the rest of West Germany crossed the final border several days later.  It was only a small taste of what it must have been like to live in that society.

So I was dumbfounded by what happened only a month later when Hungary opened its border with Austria and protest movements began springing up throughout Eastern Europe.  That summer I had no sense that any of this was coming -- let alone that the Wall would topple.  I don't think anyone did.  The shocking suddenness and bloodlessness of the Wall's collapse will always remind me of what it is like to live in history, not just study it from afar.  History doesn't follow iron laws, a lesson I try to remember when I write on financial crises.

It was strange to experience the Fall back in New Jersey.  Most high school students took the events in stride as if they were just fodder for the new Jesus Jones song.  Even stranger is how quickly history buries itself.  I've gone back to Berlin every few years since 1989 -- the first time on a fellowship between college and law school and later as a practicing lawyer secunded to Frankfurt (I posed as a hipster and say Christo wrap the Reichstag) -- and the city seemed completely remade each time.  I could mark changes in my life and yet find the city changed even more.

I'm taking my wife and two kids to Berlin this summer to do research courtesy of the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst.  I am excited to do my research in German and European banking and securities law (I'm still a nerd - some things don't change over 20 years), but am even more excited to introduce my family to a city that stays stuck only in strangeness.  

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