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20 Years After The Berlin Wall Fell

A remaining section of the Berlin Wall near C&EN Berlin

A remaining section of the Berlin Wall

C&EN Berlin’s office is about a block-and-a-half from where the Berlin Wall used to stand, on the former Communist, East side (known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR). When I get out the wrong subway stop exit, I have to retrace my steps across the infamous death strip–a no-man’s land just before the wall to the West–where people were shot dead trying to escape. Just down the road, one of the few remaining stretches the Wall has been left standing. Where the Wall has been torn down, a double brick strip in the pavement demarcates its former path. Even after two years in the neighborhood, I am amazed and sobered by how easy it is for me to pop over to the West, to buy some printer toner or to pick up lunch supplies at a nearby supermarket.

wallpath2009 In this week’s issue, I’ve got an article about what it was like for GDR chemists who worked behind the wall. I talk to researchers who describe what it was like to be surveilled by the Stasi, the East German spy service, or what life was like after their supervisor escaped to the West. One chemist I spoke to named Christoph Naumann escaped by foot from Hungary to the former Yugoslavia and then to West Germany.

On Monday’s 20th anniversary, the city of Berlin will be buzzing with political dignitaries (such Hilary Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nicolas Sarkozy) who will congregate near the Brandenburg Gate where Jon Bon Jovi will sing (yes, exceptionally weird, I know) before Berlin’s mayor knocks over a sequence of large, painted dominoes that look like chunks of the former Wall.

When the Wall finally came down, it was due to a bureaucratic mistake–kind of. After months of civil unrest, and many East Germans escaping like Naumann did, the GDR was planning to loosen travel restrictions. But, while most Communist Party officials were in the throes of a conference, a poorly-briefed East German bureaucrat mistakenly announced, at an evening televised press conference, that travel restrictions were immediately removed. Shocked but excited Germans slowly began to congregate on both sides of the Berlin Wall, much to the dismay of border guards who had no idea what to do…

Here’s some awesome raw footage from that night, with some decent subtitles, from the East side, at the Bornholmer checkpoint. The video culminates in a wonderful rush of people through the wall at about minute six.

West Germans also gathered on their side of the wall near Berlin’s Brandenburg gate. See some raw footage from that night here:

A more detailed history of why the wall fell and other good historical stuff can be found at der Spiegel’s English website and elsewhere.

As I was working on the article, many of the chemists I spoke emphasized that a common misconception about the former GDR is that people had no idea what was going on in West Germany. In fact, most parts of the GDR could receive West German television. “We were informed about the most up-to-date politics, cars–everything that was broadcast on Western TV,” Ruediger Beckhaus told me. He says that after the Wall came down, he was surprised that West Germans could not name all the West German state governors, because he and many others from the GDR could. California aside, I’m willing to wager that most Americans need Google to name the governors of less populated US states, say Nebraska, Vermont and Montana. (Mea culpa, at least.) But East Germans used to watch so much Western TV, that another chemist told me that on his family’s first jaunt to the West side, his young daughter already knew what toy she wanted to buy–from having seen it advertized on West German TV.

In fact some journalists who lived in the GDR before the Wall fell, such as Timothy Garton Ash, argue that East Germans pushed so hard to get through the Wall on November 9th, because they had heard the Wall was open on West German TV, which they trusted more than GDR state TV news. (Incidentally, Timothy Garton Ash wrote a great book called The File, about his search for his Stasi informants.)

Also during the course of my research on science in the former GDR, I came across some great archival photos of scientific space in the former GDR and how it’s been revamped now (see the photo gallery below).

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During the GDR era, especially the latter years, science was stymied by poor access to equipment, but as Ernst Schmitz, an organic chemist told me, scientists were forced to spend their times supporting the chemical industry, following research plans and agendas, such as the development of new routes to make synthetic fibres. During his academic career, Schmitz says he really missed having the freedom to follow research in new directions when data pointed to something exciting. He says that in 1961, the year the Wall was built, he went to a conference in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Russia, where he met the famous chemist, Robert Burns Woodward. Schmitz says something Woodward said to him always popped into his mind when he was receiving new official research plans from on-high. Schmitz says Woodward had quipped to him, “A chemist who makes plans and keeps to them will be dead in two years.” When Schmitz heard the news that the Berlin Wall had come down Schmitz, then in his sixties, said the tears ran down.


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  • Nov 9th 200907:11
    by Ryan

    Amazing that it’s been 20 years. My grandparents lived on the West side of the wall. They’ve shared some amazing stories over the years detailing the brutality of the regime. Thank God the wall is down.

  • Nov 9th 200910:11
    by Ivan

    There’s nothing like having feet on the ground to get reporting that you just won’t get sitting in an office chair thousands of miles away. Fascinating, uplifting stuff.

  • Nov 9th 200922:11
    by Chemjobber

    This is a great article. Thanks, Sarah!

  • Dec 16th 200922:12
    by Nikki

    Wow – very powerful – loved the archival footage and the passion of the people. Great view into it through the scientific community too.

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