Dear Friends in Germany,

I send warm greetings on this, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall! I hope that you’ve had a good day. I’m sure you’ve spent some time today thinking about that amazing moment in 1989 and all that has happened in the two decades since. I certainly have.

NYT-BerlinWallFalls

Y’all know of my keen interest in, and great regard for, your Federal Republic of Germany. And you may know that I am a person who celebrates milestones, hence this note.

It was fitting that I began this note last Saturday morning while onboard one of American Airlines’ 777s at Frankfurt Airport. As we waited to depart for Texas, I cued (on my iPhone) Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #1, an older recording from the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of the great Von Karajan.

BrandenburgGate

Brandenburg Gate, 2008

BrandenburgGate-1973

Brandenburg Gate, 1973

I thought back to 1989: a few minutes after I left work, after 6 p.m. on November 9, I turned on the radio to hear the news that the Wall had tumbled. I was so astonished that I pulled onto the shoulder of Interstate 635, turned off the engine and the radio, and sat in silence, trying to absorb it all. It was an emotional moment.

You see, when I was a pre-teen I was very worried about world events, especially the Cold War. So when the Wall went up in 1961, at age 9, I was so scared. Night after night, the evening TV news showed the U.S. and allied armies on one side, and the Red Army on the other. SieVerlassenCannons, troops, tanks. A few years later – after the harrowing Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of our young President Kennedy, and other bad news – I somehow came to understand that my worry would not fix anything. That realization was one of the seeds of the fearlessness that guides me, and for which I am so thankful.

BerlinWall-1973

Watchtower, 1973

I am happy that I visited Berlin during the Cold War, in September 1973. I took a route unusual for most American visitors: flying from neutral Finland, we landed at Schoenefeld Airport in East Berlin. One simply declared that one was in transit to West Berlin, hopped on a small shuttle bus (three dozen years later, I cannot recall the currency used for the ride), and rumbled into the center, to the scary side of Checkpoint Charlie. The driver pointed toward to entry point, a couple of hundred meters west. I wasn’t scared, but ambling across a sort of no-man’s land, armament and troops still plentiful, was sobering. I was happy to cross into freedom.

A couple of days later, I exchanged my powerful Deutschmarks at par for DDR Marks, and spent a day in the Workers’ Paradise. They wanted us to see the (to them) impressive Alexanderplatz, and the imposing new TV tower. I wasn’t all that excited, but I still had plenty of Ostmarks, so up I went. Woo hoo. It was good to cross back to West Berlin again, to see people free to be hippies or businessmen, to pray to their choice of God, or whatever. And not to wonder whether some creepy Stasi agent or informer was about to bust you.

Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have made a couple visits to Berlin, and lots of visits to other places in Germany. Indeed, in these years I have made friends with many Germans, including each of you – and for that I am thankful. And I passed along my great regard for your land to our son, Jack, who learned German in high school and college. As an incentive for his first lessons in fall 1999, I promised to take him to Berlin that Christmas if he made an A grade. Natürlich, he did well, and off we went in December, revisiting Checkpoint Charlie and Alexanderplatz and more.

I know that reunification has not been without its challenges. It is hard to undo 40-plus years of goofy policy. What has been impressive has been the commitment, the trying. More broadly, each time I visit, I marvel at all that has been built since your land was in ruins, in 1945. My German is weak, but I do fully appreciate the word wiederaufbau, for I have seen the photographs of devastation and human want. And I have met older Germans who remember the destruction and deprivation. Wolfgang telling me how cold he was as a child. And Rolf, born in Berlin in 1943, telling Jack and me in Berlin in 1999 that his first English was “Please, sir, may I have a piece of chewing gum?”

I salute all of the German people on this historic moment!

Mit freundlichen grüssen,

Rob

PotsdamerPlatz

New buildings, Potsdamer Platz, 2008

Kollwitzstr60

Kollwitzstrasse 60, Prenzlauer Berg, Former East Berlin, 2008. Note the inscription above the door, left and right.

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