11/06/2014 01:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall


Rethinking the Unthinkable

Twenty-five years ago this week, the unthinkable happened. On November 9, 1989, East Germany opened the gates, allowing its citizens to travel west. The people celebrated by beginning the process of pulling down the wall that had separated them from the "free world" for decades.

In 1961, when the Soviet Union began to build the wall, that was the unthinkable. China had once built a Great Wall to keep invaders out, but no government had ever built a wall to keep its residents in.

On a recent tour of Berlin, I was struck by how often the "unthinkable" suddenly becomes reality, gradually becomes the norm, and is ultimately undone to the surprise of a new generation that has grown up believing there are some things that will never change.

The "New and Improved" Berlin

My wife and I were on a Holland America Baltics cruise, and one of the port stops was Warnemünde, the site of a submarine base that had been critically important during World War II. Rather than stay on the coast and tour the historic sites, we opted for a three-hour train ride to Berlin. My wife had never been there, and the last time I had visited the city, it was divided. Back then, I, too, assumed it always would be.

We were both excited to see the large, strong, vibrant city that the reunified Berlin has become, and fascinated to see how it dealt with its unique history. The border of the ringed portion of the city, known as West Berlin, had been 155 kilometers long. Today, a row of distinctly-colored cobblestones marks where that border was, reminding tourists how it used to be.

When I was there as a teenager, in 1971, the West Berliners had built a platform overlooking Potsdamer Platz, on the other side of the wall. It was desolate - a sharp contrast to the picture on a nearby billboard showing what the area looked like in 1929.

I was looking forward to seeing how it had evolved since the reunification of the city, but I could not have imagined as a teenager what I was about to see. Potsdamer Platz is now a bustling, thriving business area, with (of all things) the Sony Center as one of its main attractions.

Back when I was standing on the platform, East Berlin still showed signs of the World War that had ended more than a quarter century earlier. The idea that it would someday resemble Times Square - with a Japanese corporate giant at its center - was unthinkable.

Same Symbols, New Symbolism

The Brandenburg Gate, another major Berlin landmark, was built in the 18th Century as a monument to peace. When the city was divided, it wound up in East Berlin, but it was so close to the wall that it was inaccessible to the public on either side. It came to symbolize the division of Europe, and President Reagan used it as a backdrop in 1987 when he issued a challenged to his Soviet counterpart: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

The Brandenburg Gate on Pariser Platz once again stands as a monument to peace, but now it represents freedom and unity, as well. Where public access to the center of the gate was once reserved for royalty, today the public can stroll through freely.

Stumblestones of History

Nearby, in front of a small white building, a single cobblestone in the square carries a small plaque. A German Jew once lived there, and the so-called "Stolpersteine" (stumblestone) commemorates her life and death during the Nazi era. The stumblestones are part of an art installation - the work of one artist, Gunter Demnig - that recognizes individual members of the many groups that were persecuted by the Nazis. Today, the installation consists of tens of thousands of stones and spans several countries in Europe, commemorating yet another piece of history that was unthinkable.

On the way back to the ship, as our train raced through the former East German countryside, a tour guide who was still a baby when the wall came down told us what she had heard of life under Soviet domination. Rike Träger referred to her parents, who lived in a little village in East Germany when the wall went up, as "locked up in their country." Although they were allowed (once) to go to Moscow for a five-day vacation, her parents (like other East Germans) were otherwise restricted to East Germany. No travel was allowed without special permission.

By the time we got back to the MS Eurodam and headed out to the Baltic Sea, our heads were swimming with the unthinkable events of history. Ian Page, Holland America's Destination Director, was narrating the departure, telling stories of the battles that had taken place near the submarine base and the ships that had been sunk there.

One More Surprise Before Leaving

Suddenly, although without any alarm in his voice, he announced that a submarine was heading straight for the ship. At first, it sounded like a radio play, as he explained that the ship was dead-ahead. He couldn't see what kind of sub it was or what country it belonged to, but it was just beginning to veer off to pass on our port side.

It turned out to be an Israeli Dolphin-class sub. Ian told us that the Germans built four of them for the Israelis, as part of reparations after World War II. The Israelis still bring them to Warnemünde when they need maintenance.

On this visit, the Israelis provided us with one more photograph of the formerly unthinkable - a submarine being driven by Israelis, in German waters, flying both countries' flags.

And as we left, we found ourselves wondering what intractable world problems will turn out to have solutions unthinkable today, but merely history to the next generation of travelers.