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Monday, November 9, 2009

"I Want My Wall Back"

Posted by Dan Savage on Mon, Nov 9, 2009 at 10:42 AM

I was living in Berlin—in West Berlin—on November 9, 1989. I moved to the city earlier that year with my boyfriend, Peter, and we quickly fell in with the expats and artists and queers that filled the city and made it their own. But the city was by no means "full." It was actually underpopulated and food was expensive, as everything had to be shipped in, so there were massive public subsidies for residents and a West German males could avoid military service by moving to West Berlin. There was a huge U.S. military presence and the city stank of the dirty brown coal East Germans burned to heat their homes. Most of the West Germans who lived in West Berlin moved there from other parts of West Germany because they didn't want to be at the center of German life—politically or socially—and they were attracted to the existential quality of living on this island in the middle of East Germany. By choosing to live in West Berlin they were somehow rejecting West Germany. Most cities and states in West Germany were conservative and constipated. West Berlin was easy and liberal and vibrant and teamed with Turks and faggots and artists.

And then the wall came down and West Berlin was suddenly the center of Germany—it felt like the center of the universe—and soon West Berlin was filling up with Russians and Poles and East Germans selling off military paraphernalia and nesting dolls and busts of Lenin (I still have one on a shelf at home). The Russians and Poles and East Germans would buy up bananas and water heaters and used clothes to take back home and sell. Soon other West Germans arrived, conservative and constipated, and they started buying up apartments and speculating on land in corners of the city that had been isolated by the wall but were now at the heart of what was going to be a reunified Berlin and a united Germany's new/old new capitol. The character of the city changed so quickly and so radically that the people who had moved to West Berlin to escape Germany and the Germans—and most of the people who moved to Berlin to do that were themselves German—started wearing "I WANT MY WALL BACK" t-shirts in protest and loudly telling anyone who would listen that they were moving to Prague.

My favorite memory from the days after the wall came down: There were gaping holes all along the wall and you could peer into the no-man's land, the death zone, which had been guarded by East German soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders just days before. No one knew if there were still soldiers in the guard towers or if the shoot-to-kill orders were still in effect or if Soviet tanks were coming or what. One night my boyfriend and I slipped through a hole in the wall and stood still, waiting to see what would happen. Nothing happened. We started to walk along one of the marked trails in the no-man's land and eventually wound up near a guard tower right behind the Reichstag. There was a door at the back and it was open. We went inside and climbed up the ladder to the top and peered out over the wall and into West Berlin through the guard tower's mirrored glass. From the outside the glass was this weird shimmery burnt orange/brown color that you saw all over East Berlin. We looked down at the crowds gathered along the wall, chipping away with sledgehammers, and some people were looking up at the tower, no doubt wondering if there were still East German soldiers up there, if they were still being watched from those towers, and what their orders were.

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