The Cold War, also known as the East-West Conflict, lasted from 1948 until 1989. The construction of the Berlin Wall was an expression of this conflict. When the Iron Curtain began to crumble in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell in Germany. How was this event perceived more than 4,000 kilometers away in the United States of America? Our American colleagues David Trebing and Cynthia Albert from the External Affairs and Public Policy Department at Daimler’s Washington office gave us an impression of how they experienced the division of Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The East-West Conflict and a Divided Germany
The Federal Republic of Germany and the United States were and are until today both member states of the Western defense alliance NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). NATO’s counterpart was the Warsaw Pact, the defense treaty between the Soviet Union and the Eastern European states, including the GDR (German Democratic Republic). There was a clearly defined separation between allies and non-allies on both sides.
This line of conflict shaped the people’s perspectives in West and East. David Trebing grew up in the small town of Okemos, Michigan, during the Cold War. He remembers: “When I thought of Germany in the years before 1989, I always associated the Federal Republic of Germany with it. The GDR was closely allied with the Soviet Union and it was not one of our allies.”
In particular, during the 1960s, the fronts between the two defensive alliances hardened. It was not until the 1970s that both sides successfully attempted rapprochement.
An American goes to Germany — explorations in East and West
Cynthia Albert lived and worked in West Germany in the 1980s. During her time in the Federal Republic of Germany, she traveled several times through the GDR to West Berlin and to the GDR to East Berlin. Before making these trips, she could not imagine how different the people in both German states lived.
For me the biggest difference was in the selection of goods in stores and supermarkets in the two countries. In the U.S., we are used to having very big supermarkets and a big variety of products. The supermarkets in West Germany came very close to that standard. In East Berlin, the situation was very different. The GDR government determined the amount of goods available in advance for each year, and thus, the selection was very limited. That was a new experience for me.
Words that went down in history: “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Tear down this wall”
The U.S. presidents had called for a reunited Germany ever since the construction of the Berlin Wall. A short time after the wall was built, former U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, expressed his solidarity with the people of Berlin and all Germans in both the East and the West during his speech at the Schöneberg City Hall in Berlin on February 28, 1962 by saying the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (“I am a Berliner”)
In 1987, another U.S. president spoke to the people in Berlin. With the words “Tear down this wall” in his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan called on the Secretary General of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to end the division of the city. He declared, to him there is only one Berlin: “Es gibt nur ein Berlin.”
Was it possible at this point to foresee that the Berlin Wall would fall only two years later? From Cynthia Albert’s point of view, definitely not. She says: “Of course, I also wondered if one day the two states would be reunited. But in retrospect, I definitely have to say that back then, this was more of a hypothetical concept than a realistic expectation.”
“Quite unexpected”: The fall of the Berlin Wall
Weeks of demonstrations and the instability of the GDR government ultimately resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall. On November 9, 1989, people were climbing over the wall and, thus, symbolically tore it down. These images went around the world. In the United States, the news were broadcasted on every media channel.
David Trebing remembers: “I was surprised that the wall came down so suddenly, and I had the impression that the U.S. media did not see it coming either. The fall of the Berlin Wall dominated the news reports in the media in the United States for days.”
Many Americans believed this was a generally positive development. The US president at the time, George H.W. Bush, and his Secretary of State, James Baker, supported the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s concept of a plan to reunite the two German states.
From our perspective on the other side of the world, two states became one again. No doubt, to me this was and still is a good thing. However, it also generated problems. I realized that when I went to the eastern part of Germany for business purposes in the 1990s. Once I took a closer look at the process of reunification, and especially at the economic integration on the ground, I quickly realized how difficult the process was and would become in the future. This development also had a downside for the people who had to adapt to a new situation overnight. After reunification, the economy in East Germany collapsed. Many people lost their jobs, although they were well educated and trained in their fields. Some of them have been struggling to get back on their feet ever since.