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Revisiting Life Behind the Berlin Wall

by Bethany Wagner '14

In March, thousands of German citizens gathered in East Berlin to protest the removal of the last remaining sections of the Berlin Wall to make room for a modern housing development. “Many Germans treasure the remains of the wall as a sober reminder of East Germany’s Communist era so today’s generation will not forget those days of oppression and a divided country,” said Jim Willis, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Communication Studies.

A veteran news reporter and editor, Willis is a leading authority on the Berlin Wall era. He has traveled and spoken extensively throughout East Germany as a representative of the U.S. State Department. A special correspondent for Oklahoma’s leading metro daily newspaper, The Oklahoman, he covered the 10th and 20th anniversaries of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which eventually became part of an 18-year research project of the Cold War era.

Willis researched in-depth everyday life behind the wall, interviewing East Germans who lived during that period, studying the history of Communism and the Soviet Union, visiting German museums, and reading leading German newspapers from the time of the Berlin Wall. Willis compiled his findings in Daily Life Behind the Iron Curtain (Greenwood, 2013), a book capturing the stories of the people who lived behind the Iron Curtain and specifically the Berlin Wall—a people who did not taste freedom for 28 years. Through true historical narratives and anecdotes, Willis records the everyday lives of these people, as well as their ingenious, daring attempts to escape over, under, and through the Berlin Wall.

On the morning of August 13, 1961, the inhabitants of East Germany woke to find themselves cut off from West Germany by more than 100 miles of barbed wire, eventually to become the stone Berlin Wall erected by the Communist Soviet Union government occupying East Germany. Fittingly, this day became known as “Barbed Wire Sunday.”

For many, to live in East Germany behind the Berlin Wall meant to live in fear and distrust. The state security service, known as the Stasi, monitored citizens, used wire taps, bugged homes, and interviewed friends and family members to terminate movements of rebellion.

Nevertheless, many East Germans pressed on toward freedom despite the high risks. Willis uncovered the story of an engineering student who collected an odd assortment of parts and crafted a homemade airplane that he flew over the wall to freedom in the West. Another student climbed over the wall’s 11,000-volt power lines using protective boots and gloves.

“Most of the escape attempts were carried out by young idealistic college students and graduates,” said Willis. “Also, those involved in creative endeavors such as artists, musicians, and writers were at the forefront of protesting Communism. They believed life was not worth living if they were not free to pursue their creative passions.”

In addition to valiant success stories, however, Willis discovered sobering accounts of East Germans who paid for failed escape attempts with imprisonment and even their lives. “These stories reveal that people cannot be held in a cage for long before they resist, rebel, and struggle toward freedom,” said Willis. “The East Germans provide a powerful historical example of humanity’s universal desire to be free.”

The wall separated East Germans from friends, families, and jobs in West Germany, leaving them to face food shortages, government persecution, and severe punishment for escape attempts. It was not until nearly three decades later on November 9, 1989, that the communist government collapsed and the borders reopened, resulting in a joyful celebration of cheering, singing, reunions, and the destruction of the once-feared wall.

While the Berlin Wall fell decades ago, this era holds lessons about the value of freedom that ring true today. “The Berlin Wall reminds us that walls opposing freedom still exist, and that they need to come down,” said Willis.