November 9, 1989 was the day the Berlin Wall fell, almost by accident. The summer had been marked by a series of uprisings throughout the "workers paradise" that was eastern Europe. Hungary opened its border with Austria, and a flood of East Germans – vacationing in one of the few places they were allowed to travel – piled onto trains with nothing but the clothes they carried, in a mad dash for freedom.
The East German government, star pupil of the Soviet regime, was now faced with a choice: prohibit travel from East Germany to any of the growing list of Eastern Bloc countries that were trying to throw off their Communist overlords; or allow East Germans to travel to West Germany.
At a press conference to address the matter, a mid level apparatchik named Günter Schabowski was tasked with announcing that the East German government had decided on the latter – they would allow East Germans to visit West Germany, to see family and friends that they had not seen for nearly four decades. Maybe the East German government was playing for time, hoping this would all die down and they could forget about opening up the Wall. Maybe they were hoping to set up some sort of visitation system, whereby they would allow some East Germans to leave for a short time while other family members remained in East Germany, ensuring those who left would return, like good workers.
Whatever their intention, a reporter at the press conference asked Schabowski when was this order was to go into effect? When would East Germans be allowed to travel to West Germany? Unprepared for the question, Schabowski replied "As far as I know, immediately..."
And that was it. Tens of thousands heard the announcement and rushed towards the Wall. Confused guards didn't know what to do. Shoot them, or let them pass? From the point where they decided not to shoot, the fall of the rest of the Communist regimes in the Eastern Bloc became a foregone conclusion.
In most parts of Berlin, this is all that's left of the Berlin Wall. Two rows of cobblestones, marking the path of one of the most ominous structures ever built.
Almost half of the population of the United States was born after November 9, 1989. I'll never forget the first time I mentioned the Berlin Wall to a twenty-something traveler. All I got was a blank stare. The term 'Berlin Wall' meant nothing to them. I might as well have been talking about the failed launch of New Coke.
They have no memory of the evils of Communism, and an education that has largely skipped this period of history. To quote George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Germany is usually thought of as the model of efficiency – projects done correctly, on time, and maybe even under budget. So it was quite a shock to everybody when a sparkling new airport slated for Berlin failed to open on time. Construction began in 2006, and the airport was originally scheduled to begin receiving passengers in 2011. And then it was announced that the opening date was delayed. And delayed again. It soon became obvious that there were serious design and technical problems.
Projected to cost around $2 billion, Berlin Brandenburg (BER) airport finally opened its doors last week, nine years late and more almost $5 billion over budget. And it opened in the middle of a pandemic, with massive lockdowns in dozens of countries. This year has had the lowest number of air travelers in decades. The number of employees on site is currently just a fraction of the planned number. Ouch.
The new airport, located southeast of the city center next to the old East German Schönefeld (SXF) airport, will now handle all of the air traffic in and out of Berlin. Schönefeld is closed, as is Tegel airport (TXL), the old West German airport that handled millions of passengers flying into (and out of) West Berlin during the Cold War. For older Berliner's, Tegel is a symbol of freedom. The World War II era Templehof (THF) airport, famous as the landing point for the 'Raisin Bombers' – thousands of daily flights that carried essential supplies to West Berlin during the Berlin Blockade – closed in 2008.
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