Almost two decades since the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, the University’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies marked the historic milestone by bring together academics and diplomats who experienced communist East Germany firsthand for “Fall of the Wall: Twenty Years Later” on Monday.
Nancy McAdams, associate director for the Educational Schooling and Society minor, lived in East Berlin while her husband was on academic leave from Princeton just 18 months before the wall fell. One day, she and her daughter returned to their car to find a man trying to unlock it.
“Before I could say ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ he threw me a strange look, smiled knowingly and disappeared down an alley,” she said. “My first instinct was to call for the police but on second thought I realized he probably was the police.”
The “two worlds” separated by the wall were peacefully united when it crumbled — to the astonishment of many people at the time.
Ambassador J.D. Bindenagel, who was U.S. deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in East Berlin at the time, said few people foresaw the event and the peaceful transition that ensued.
“The East Germans would not be the first ones out of the bloc,” he said, repeating the conventional wisdom of the time. “They’d be the last ones. If the Soviet Union would intervene anywhere to protect its interests, it would be in East Germany.”
In the months leading up to Nov. 9, Bindenagel said nonviolent confrontation became the rule for East Germany’s police force.
“On November 9, the day we all remember as the fall of the Berlin wall, things unraveled. I began the day with the military leaders of East and West Germany,” he said. “We were meeting not having any idea that something would change rest of the world.”
Administrative assistant for the Nanovic Institute Jennifer Lechtanski commented on the peaceful nature of Germany’s unification.
“When the fall happened there were no guns going off, there was rejoicing,” she said. “There were demonstrations, people protesting for their rights, for their freedoms. There wasn’t the violence we see quite frequently all over the world in people’s bid for their political rights.”
Before the fall of the wall, McAdams said she found advantages to living in East Berlin, despite the lack of political rights. Crime, she said, did not exist as we experience it in the West, because of an ever-present police force.
“For example, to my utter amazement, parents could leave strollers and baby buggies with infants inside outside of stores while they shopped,” she said. “No one would consider that a child might be harmed or snatched when left in a buggy on a public sidewalk.”
McAdams said a communal spirit emerged in East Berlin, as people coped with the burdens of goods scarcities and an invasive government.
“Looking back now, it certainly was paradoxical that in the climate created by such a suspicious government, people still managed to believe, at least somewhat, that they could depend upon the goodness in human nature,” she said