I came from New York to the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin-Dahlem in December 1988. For me, the Wall was simply a fact of life – and one that didn’t look it was going to change any time soon. In the spring of 1989, I was sightseeing with some new employees from the United States and we visited the Berlin Wall viewing platforms at the Brandenburg Gate. “When do you think it will be taken down?” one of them asked me, visibly intimidated. “You will not see it in your lifetime,” I answered reassuringly. I myself had neither relatives nor acquaintances in the GDR, and only ever made sporadic trips to East Berlin on day visas. Years earlier, as a chemistry student in Marburg, I had bought textbooks there that were recommended by and frequently used in our department. During my time in Berlin, the sight of the Wall – for example during evening strolls through Kreuzberg – became an almost comforting familiarity.
Then came the refugees in the embassies, the New Forum, and concerns about the violent suppression of the democracy movement in Beijing in June. Everyone was following the daily news very closely. Radios and a small television were always switched on in the evening in my research group’s laboratory – including on November 9, 1989. This was where I watched the press conference with Schabowski’s surprising announcement regarding the opening of the border. The voices of the reporters at the border crossings were overwhelmed with excitement. The lab, usually well-staffed until late at night, quickly emptied.
I also went into City West shortly before midnight. There were crowds of people on Kurfürstendamm and Tauentzienstrasse, most of them from the East. The situation was so surreal that many looked as though they were sleepwalking – maybe I did, too. Others were very upbeat and in the mood to party.
We followed the events closely over the next few days, and visited the Wall frequently. Some of my team members became “wallpeckers.” An employee from Boston was interviewed live over the phone in our laboratory about the events in Berlin (“Marc, you are now on the air in Maryland”). In the following weeks, East Berlin scientists paid frequent visits to us in Dahlem. I was surprised that several of the older colleagues knew each other very well – from the time before the Wall was built or from international congresses where researchers from both sides had been invited to participate.
© ullstein bild / Stiebing