Remembering the Other 9/11: Nov. 11, 1989 and “Walls Come Tumbling Down”

by Peggy McGuinness

Like many of you over a certain age, I have been thinking a lot about where I was when the Berlin Wall fell:  driving with a friend from Montreal to my parents house in New Jersey, listening to dispatches from Berlin over the radio.  My father was glued to the television set when we finally pulled in sometime in the late evening.  It seemed so surreal at that moment to see history unfolding live.  The feeling that is hard to replicate, with 20/20 hindsight, is how unlikely it had seemed to me — to us all, really — in early 1989 that the Cold War would end in my lifetime. And here we are, twenty years later.

Only two years before the wall fell, I had taken a study trip to Berlin and done all the requisite American student exploration of the wall and East Berlin: transiting through Checkpoint Charlie, trying in vain to spend the East German marks that we had been required to exchange (and finally succeeding at the Communist Party bookshop on Friedrichstrasse where we picked up copies of Das Kapital and the writings of Lenin in German), chatting with the VoPo officers in front of the Soviet embassy on Unter den Linden, taking pictures in front of the Marx statute at the Volkspalast, and having one of the world’s worst lunches (with service to match) in a depressing East Berlin coffee shop. Little did I know that day that in 24 months the wall would be gone and just seven years later I would be serving as a U.S. diplomat in a reunited Berlin and Germany.

My friends and I capped off that day in 1987 spray painting some “profound” words on the west side of the wall, a quote from one of our favorite bands of the time, Style Council (hey, I still like Paul Weller):

You see things can change –
Yes an’ walls can come tumbling down!

Governments crack and systems fall
’cause unity is powerful –
Lights go out – walls come tumbling down!

Full video of the song here. Boy, does it bring back the 80s and memories of the twilight of the Cold War.  For those of you celebrating in Berlin tonight, enjoy!

2 Responses

  1. I was stationed in Germany when the wall came down. It was my first duty station, and I had been there for only a few months, but life was quickly changing. The first sign that things weren’t going to be the same was the refugee trains that had been coming in from what was then Czechoslovakia.  We were providing relief in the forms of shelter, bedding, food, etc to those refugees.
    Not long before the wall came down, our unit had gone out on a review of our GDP – General Defensive Positions. As a young Lieutenant in charge of an anti-tank platoon, I was told that my position was expected to be overrun in the first 90 seconds if balloon went-up and the Soviets decided to cross the border. Less than a month later, it had all changed. That fateful night, and the next morning were extremely surreal, and to be living in Germany when it happened, to talk to the people, to know them, to see the East German Trabants coughing their way down the auto-bahn filled with people looking to reconnect with family and friends they had not seen in decades was one of the greater experiences I had in my military career.

  2. As a big fan of The Jam/ Style Council/ Paul Weller this is also part of my mental soundtrack for end of the Wall.

    As for another musical anecdote, I saw an interview with Bono describing U2’s arrival in Berlin around 11/9/89 to soak up the vibe while recording what would become Achtung Baby. On their way from the airport to the hotel, they watched for parties/ street fests where they could jump-in and participate in a historic moment. They saw a group marching so they got out of their bus (limo, whatever) and got into the crowd. They soon noticed two things: these people are pretty somber and they’re older than what they’d expected.

    Anyway, they were told that this was a Communist Party march against tearing down the Wall! Oops.

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