Editor's note: This essay launches the Global Post special project "After the Fall: 20 Years Since the Berlin Wall Came Down."
I first saw the Berlin Wall in 1971. It was then about 10 years old and was the ugliest human structure I’d ever seen: gray, brutal, pitiless, unyielding. Unlike the walls built around ancient European cities (and the one being proposed for the U.S. border with Mexico), this one was not created to keep people out. It was to keep East Germans in. If they tried to leave the workers’ paradise, they must go to the dungeon or the grave. Only Stalinists could have built this most vile symbol, people with hearts and minds made of concrete certainties.
A friend and I passed through Checkpoint Charlie, a process on the East German side that resembled visiting someone at Leavenworth prison. The guards wore faces as blank as the wall. An East German woman in front of me had been visiting relatives in the West. She had a bundle which the guard pulled open. Among other items, there was a large Cadbury’s chocolate bar, and he began breaking it into bits. Assured that it did not disguise an M-16, he looked at her with a blank challenge, as if snarling: Go ahead, say something. She gathered her items and went through in silence.
The Great Anti-Fascist Protection Wall was 16 feet tall, and in some places 10 feet thick. On the communist side the air seemed heavy with a fog of control and paranoia. As we began to walk that day long ago, the city revealed itself as a kind of stage set for a dystopian movie, its faceless, dominating totalitarian architecture meant to look permanently unassailable.
The streets were almost empty, without children playing or lovers strolling or workers heading for a friendly bar. They were like a scene painted by De Chirico, without the warm colors. The few faces were pure George Grosz, clenched in smothered rage as if time-traveling from the Weimar Republic of the 1920s. We asked one man for directions in my wretched high school German, and his eyes moved, furtively searching the streets for observers. He turned away in silence.
We soon fled. Somewhere in that half-city there must have been laughter, irony, doubt. On this day, there was no sign of such human impulses. Instead, a giant television tower was rising from the concrete silence, looking like an intercontinental missile designed to promote invincible stupidity. I hoped never to return.
Eighteen years later, in the extraordinary year of 1989, I returned. My wife, Fukiko, and I had been in the thousand-year-old city of Prague for several weeks, reporting on the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.
Day after day, and through many nights, we moved in the company of the fearless, laughing men and women who had had enough. They gathered at the small theater called the Laterna Magika, to hear from the leaders of the revolt, including Vaclav Havel. They listened to rock ‘n’ roll. They sent bulletins via fax machines (no laptops yet) and published mimeographed newspapers to correct the lies of the official press. Their demands for freedom were laced with mockery and laughter. They gathered in huge rallies in Wenceslas Square, where you saw old people moving among the young, with tears in their eyes.
I walked on some days up the long cobblestoned path to Prague's Castle. Mozart had walked that path, as had the painter Oskar Kokoschka, and Franz Kafka, who made the Castle a symbol of the dark powers of the state. One morning I saw, just beyond the armed guards, the Stalinists arriving by limousines and hurrying into the Castle. As the crisis deepened, they appeared more on state television. They looked like archbishops who no longer believed in God. They were fighting for those limousines and the parking spots. Once it was clear that Mikhail Gorbachev would not send the Russian tanks, they lost. The story of the Stalinist era was over.
On Dec. 11. one last great crowd gathered in the square, more than 200,000 people, young and old, men, women and children, and even soldiers from the Czech Army flashing V signs with gloved fingers. Through smiles, tears and hugs, a gigantic chant began: HAVEL NA HRAD! HAVEL NA HRAD! Havel to the castle. Havel, a writer of plays. Havel, who spent much of his life in Stalinist jails. Havel, now looking embarrassed. And so it happened. It had been a long time since many of us had witnessed a happy ending.
A few days later, Fukiko and I left for Berlin. All of the communist regimes were tottering, even East Germany with its lies and Stasi informers. We arrived on a morning dense with an icy rain. A translator was driving us into East Berlin, where we had booked a hotel. The guards seemed resigned. They did not crumple chocolate bars. We passed through and got into a car. The rain was harder now. Then I saw a long line of people, about 300 of them, using umbrellas against the rain or just letting it pound their faces. The line was more than two blocks long.
“What is this?” I asked the driver. “Are they lining up for food?”
“No,” he said. “Today is the first day that we’ll have books from the West.”
Pete Hamill hits the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Courtesy of Fukiko Hamill
That’s what was defeated. All over the communist world of that time, nasty little men made the rules. They wanted no choice, no doubt, no questioning. They would tell the people what they could do and what they could read. They had the guns and they wanted obedience. They had turned the old socialist ideal, for which many decent people had given their lives, into a triumph of the stupid. They created ignorant states where the binding emotion was not pride but fear.
A few days later, walking along the Western side of the wall, heavily marked with graffiti, I came across a man in his 30s, dressed in a pale blue nylon ski jacket and dirty jeans. In a gloved hand, he was holding a three-pound, thick-handled hammer, and he was battering the Wall. When he stopped for breath, he handed me the hammer. I hefted it, flashing on a job I had for a year at the Brooklyn Navy Yard when I was 16. I gave the Wall a good whack. Then another. And then I was into it, seeing the guards at Checkpoint Charlie in 1971, seeing all those people who died trying to get over this goddamned ugly thing, seeing all those Stalinist bureaucrats, filled with what Orwell called “the smelly little orthodoxies.” I kept smashing until I had no strength left. "Fuck you," I said out loud and hit it one final time.
“Ja, gut,” said the man in the blue nylon jacket. “Gut, ja, ja.”
Yes, very good.
Pete Hamill, a contributing writer for GlobalPost, is a novelist, essayist and journalist whose career spans 40 years. He has been a columnist for many newspapers and magazines, including the New York Daily News and the New York Post where he also served as editor-in-chief. He's also done his fair share of international reporting, including disptaches from Vietnam, Nicaragua, Mexico, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Berlin and Prague. Hamill is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. He is the father of two daughters, including Deirdre Hamill, a photographer whose photo essay on the events of 20 years ago accompanies this piece.