Sabrina Ben Aouicha, project curator, Germany: memories of a nation, British Museum
Wach auf, Sabrina! Du musst dir ansehen, wie Geschichte geschrieben wird!
‘Wake up, Sabrina! You have to witness this; history is being written!’ These were the words my father woke me with, on a cold November night 25 years ago today. Although I was 8 years old (nearly 9) at the time, I still remember them today.
I think there are just a few events in recent history that are shared by people all over the world and become part of the human memory. I even dare to say there is one memory shared by every German over the age of 30. This can be summarised in one question: ‘where were you the night of 9 November 1989, when the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall) fell?
So, where was I? I would love to say I was on the streets when it happened but I wasn’t. The fact is I was in bed after an exciting and exhausting day in school, probably dreaming of becoming the first German-Tunisian female astronaut (my career aspiration at the time). After my dad woke me with those words, he sat me on the sofa in front of the TV between him and my mother. On the screen we were astonished to see people pouring through the different crossing points along the inner German border. At this moment I hadn’t really realized that the life I knew until then would change forever.
I was born and raised in West Berlin in the early 1980s, as daughter of a German-Silesian mother and a Tunisian father. For the first years of my life it felt normal to live in a city that was like an island. I knew there was an ‘end’ on each side of the city, a massive wall in the east, and border controls to the west.
Growing up in West Berlin in the 80s was an adventure with a taste of danger. Although my parents never really spoke to me about this when I was a child, I could sense that our situation was different to the people who lived in West Germany. It was normal for me to go on walks along the Berlin Wall with my parents and be watched by suspicious East German border guards in their watch towers; or to be told how to behave when we needed to cross the Border and drive through the GDR (East Germany) to visit my grandparents in West Germany or Tunisia – a situation that was always very stressful for my parents.
All this changed after that night in November 1989. One of my first impressions of this new situation was how busy ‘our part’ of Berlin became. My father worked near the Kurfürstendamm, the main boulevard of West Berlin, and my mother and I picked him up from work from time to time. I never saw the city so busy and crowded then in these first days after the Berlin Wall fell. Most striking and memorable for me were the crowds of mainly East Berliners in front of the local McDonalds, in a queue that went around the whole building.
The first few weeks felt like a real party. My parents took me to the Wall to join the vast numbers of Mauerspechte (so-called ‘wall woodpeckers’), who hacked at the wall after the border crossings were opened, mostly to take a piece of it as a souvenir. I still have a piece on my desk in Berlin that I hacked out myself.
Life in Berlin started to change more and more in the next few years. There was a spirit and a sense of new beginnings in the air that we could all feel. I grew older and so Berlin did as well; I share most of my unique memories of my early teenage years with the changing city.
The last Military Tattoo in 1992 – a highlight of my early years as I always went with my Dad – was one of them. Another was the day of the Farewell Parade when French, British and American troops were marching the last time on the Strasse des 17. Juni on the Western Side of the Brandenburg Gate on 18 June 1994. Surrounded by over 75,000 other Berliners I waved ‘goodbye’ and ‘au revoir’* to the British, American and French troops who were such an important part of my childhood. Although it was the end of an era, it was also the beginning of a new one, as Berlin was handed back to the German government as capital of a new and reunited country. The city was free from foreign military presence for the first time in 49 years.
While I saw old women crying on the streets and asking: ‘Who will look after us now?’ I just thought, well it’s up to us now to look after ourselves.
Today, the evidence of the division within the city is fading out more and more. Sometimes I remember things and events of my early childhood while walking around the city; especially when I am showing British friends around, trying to explain them the difference of the Berlin of my childhood to the one they see now.
I would like to finish this post with the same question I asked at the beginning: where were you the night of 9 November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell? I look forward to reading your memories in the comments section below.
*I remember (from talking to my older relatives) that they a) didn’t really know the difference between ‘au revoir’ and ‘adieu’ and b) still hoped some of them would return as friends/tourists rather than military personnel.
The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.
Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor.