‘Freedom is the most precious possession’: How Berlin Wall’s fall sparked joy and upended lives

Three citizens of former East Germany recount how they experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall, from the joy of November 9th 1989 when the barriers opened, to the three decades of economic hardship and rebuilding that followed.

'Freedom is the most precious possession': How Berlin Wall's fall sparked joy and upended lives
A former GDR border sign at the Mauermuseum in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Three citizens of former East Germany recount how they experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall, from the joy of November 9th 1989 when the barriers opened, to the three decades of economic hardship and rebuilding that followed.

Thomas Wendt, 67: 'The most important moment of my life!'

The Berlin Wall appeared just a few hundred metres away from the house where Thomas Wendt grew up when he was nine years old.

On family walks, his father would visibly “bristle” every time their path was blocked by “this impassable structure”.

When news came that the border crossings were open on November 9, Wendt raced to the nearest one.

“It was crazy” being able to cross into the West “just a few minutes after the border guards first opened the barrier,” he remembers.

Once across, “I was hugging anyone who wanted a hug from me. Total strangers!” he smiles, clearly moved.

“It was the most important moment of my life!”

For all of The Local's coverage on the Berlin Wall click HERE

A former journalist who worked for a weekly that was “frowned upon” by East German authorities, Wendt had imagined the West as “simply a beautiful, smooth world where everything is shiny.”

People clambouring on top of the Wall on November 9th 1989. Photo: DPA

But the end of socialism quickly threw up difficulties, putting him out of work as the old newspapers closed one by one.

Finally, he found a job in politics, as assistant to a Social Democratic Party (SPD) manager.

Now retired, Wendt sees a mixed picture 30 years after that first step towards reunification.

“Three-quarters of Germans in the east lost their job or had to change career” after the Wall fell, he recalls.

Their “effort is completely underestimated by western Germans… who told us 'Stop complaining, things aren't that bad for you'.”

Stefan Newie, 37: 'Freedom is the most precious possession'

Just seven years old in 1989, Newie's family “missed the fall of the Wall”, the television technician jokes.

While capital-H History was unfolding on East German streets, “my parents didn't watch TV that night”.

Only the next day at school did he realise something big had happened.

“The class was half-empty, and the teacher wondered 'where are all the children?'. One of my classmates replied, 'they've all gone to the West!'”

That same day, he and his parents took their first steps across the frontier.

He mainly remembers “the colours” that set West Berlin apart from the East.

Celebrating the fall of the Wall. Photo: DPA

And when they entered a supermarket packed with groceries, “it smelled good inside, the freshly-ground coffee. We weren't used to those kinds of smells in the state-run shops in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).”

When the family later paid a visit to his great-grandparents in a retirement home in the west, the surprise was overwhelming.

“My father knocked at the door and they didn't recognize him. They couldn't imagine that he could be standing on their doorstep,” Newie says.

Now, 30 years later, he sees only benefits to the historic transition.

“Freedom is the most precious possession,” he says.

“I can say what I want, I can travel anywhere in the world and I'm happy not to have spent my entire youth in a dictatorship.”

READ ALSO: How Berlin is marking 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall

Helga Dreher, 74: 'I don't want to go back!'

At 45 when the Berlin Wall fell, Helga had suffered the bite of division more keenly than most.

The teacher had a daughter with a Frenchman in the 1970s, but the Iron Curtain kept their encounters few and hard to organize.

On the evening of November 9, Helga was watching live as government officials announced the border crossings were open but “I didn't believe it, I turned the set off.”

A border guard station stands at a section of the Wall today. Photo: DPA

The next morning, the father of her child called and said, “you can come to Paris! The Wall has fallen!”

Helga remained distrustful of the government, wondering “if the GDR wouldn't close the borders behind us once we'd all gone to the West,” she remembers.

Those first encounters on November 10th didn't all make for good memories.

Knowing that exotic fruits were rare in the GDR, the West Berliners “threw bananas at us,” like monkeys in the zoo. “It was horrible.”

“Me and my daughter went back to East Berlin after half an hour”.

READ ALSO: 'There was a human tide moving': Berliner remembers crossing the Wall

Things quickly got better. Helga went to Paris for New Year's Eve, and “I was so happy that my daughter could see her father!”

Luckily, she was able to keep her teaching job through the hard times that followed reunification.

Not all were so lucky, and women especially saw their position worsen compared with the years of work supported by state childcare under the GDR.

“Among my friends, many ended up unemployed and only a few were able to find their feet again,” Helga complains.

Nevertheless, “as far as I'm concerned, the changes that have happened have still been for the better. I don't want to go back to the past!” Helga says.

By Yacine Le Forestier and Yannick Pasquet

Member comments

  1. In 1989 I was a German linguist in the 142nd Military Intelligence Battalion, Utah Army National Guard and we were preparing to come to Germany to interview the people, who were coming into West Germany through Czechoslovakia to gain information about the GDR. Suddenly the wall fell and our mission was cancelled. A few weeks later they showed us motion pictures of the people coming through the wall and the mass celebrations. I cried like a baby through the whole presentation.

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France to compensate relatives of Algerian Harki fighters

France has paved the way towards paying reparations to more relatives of Algerians who sided with France in their country's independence war but were then interned in French camps.

France to compensate relatives of Algerian Harki fighters

More than 200,000 Algerians fought with the French army in the war that pitted Algerian independence fighters against their French colonial masters from 1954 to 1962.

At the end of the war, the French government left the loyalist fighters known as Harkis to fend for themselves, despite earlier promises it would look after them.

Trapped in Algeria, many were massacred as the new authorities took revenge.

Thousands of others who fled to France were held in camps, often with their families, in deplorable conditions that an AFP investigation recently found led to the deaths of dozens of children, most of them babies.

READ ALSO Who are the Harkis and why are they still a sore subject in France?

French President Emmanuel Macron in 2021 asked for “forgiveness” on behalf of his country for abandoning the Harkis and their families after independence.

The following year, a law was passed to recognise the state’s responsibility for the “indignity of the hosting and living conditions on its territory”, which caused “exclusion, suffering and lasting trauma”, and recognised the right to reparations for those who had lived in 89 of the internment camps.

But following a new report, 45 new sites – including military camps, slums and shacks – were added on Monday to that list of places the Harkis and their relatives were forced to live, the government said.

Now “up to 14,000 (more) people could receive compensation after transiting through one of these structures,” it said, signalling possible reparations for both the Harkis and their descendants.

Secretary of state Patricia Miralles said the decision hoped to “make amends for a new injustice, including in regions where until now the prejudices suffered by the Harkis living there were not recognised”.

Macron has spoken out on a number of France’s unresolved colonial legacies, including nuclear testing in Polynesia, its role in the Rwandan genocide and war crimes in Algeria.