Twenty-five years ago this week, I had dinner at the home of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, adviser for East-West relations, in Bonn. After an improbable candlelit dinner party discussion with several of the Chancellor’s top advisers about how we’d never see a united Germany in our lifetimes (after I suggested it), the “red phone” rang, and during dessert we were told to turn on the television where the news was shockingly announcing that the East German government was going to allow their citizens to cross into West Germany the following day—for the first time in decades. Die Mauer wird zerstort—the Wall will be destroyed.
After I dashed into town with my dinner colleagues, the chief aide in my Bundestag office called to let me know that former German Chancellor Willy Brandt was about to be en route to Berlin. I worked for the German Bundestag at that time and also worked for the Willy Brandt Foundation for Development & Peace (while I received a Deutscher Bundestag Fellowship). Willy Brandt was an esteemed member of the Parliament and chairman of the SDP Social Democratic Party.
So, a few pals and I, who attended the Friedrich Wilhelms Universitat together, rented three cars and drove through the night to arrive in Berlin to be among the very first at dawn to witness the East Germans crossing over Check Point Charlie and to see the first East German Trabant “Trabis” and Wartburg automobiles drive over the border.
Each of us ignored the soldiers standing guard with rifles in arm, and jumped onto the Berlin Wall in a celebration of freedom that still gives me chills today. We celebrated, we hugged, we danced and sang—and cried—as the borders opened and families united. I also was able to stand near Willy Brandt as he made the most remarkable first speech in front of Germans, who were standing united for the first time in almost 45 years.
I stood there chopping down the Wall as the son of a father from Bayreuth whose family traced its German roots back hundreds and hundreds of years. The son of the same father whose bar mitzvah would have occured on that same day, November 9, but 51 years earlier—had it not been for Kristallnacht. November 9: the day the Kaiser was forced to abdicate. November 9: the day Hitler attempted his famous coup “Putsch” in Munich 1923. November 9: the same day that in 1923 my father’s parents, my grandparents, married—also in Munich, Bavaria.
My head spun with joy and a bittersweet worry that a united Germany would forget the 12 horrible years of Hitler’s regime. Yet we celebrated, and I shared my family stories (how my dad served as the US Deputy Security Officer of Berlin after returning to Germany as an American soldier in the Battle of the Bulge, just a few short years after arriving on one of the last ships allowed to leave Germany for the United States six months after the start of World War II).
November 9: I was in Berlin. I stood on the Wall. And I celebrated as we chopped it down. I was hosed by the guards who just hours earlier would’ve been ordered to shoot us. November 9: a day of freedom.
Several months later, on May 8, 1990—45 years to the day that Germany surrendered (and 45 years since my Dad was with General Eisenhower at the “Little Red School House” witnessing the surrender of Nazi Germany) I was sitting with Willy Brandt in his offices in Bonn. He had perhaps spent the best months of his political life. As the chairman of the Social Democratic Party, and the father of “Ostpolitik,” he embraced East-West relations in the 1970s when no one argued for it.
The Chancellor, the former Mayor of Berlin who stood next to President John F. Kennedy as he declared “Ich bin ein Berliner,” was beaming, embracing, and relishing in the thought of a united Germany when we sat together that day in May. He was quite distressed, however, that while I too was excited, I was also quite worried—and that I especially feared the talk that the Unification Day (Germany’s version of July Fourth) would be November 9, a day that held such sad significance in German modern history. He was at first among those who thought the date’s significance would make a positive out of a negative—but he later understood my worry, and that of so many others, that November 9, while extraordinary in its meaning and celebration, could not and should not whitewash its significance in history at the end of WWI, in 1923 in Munich, and in 1938 when all of Germany’s synagogues burned or were destroyed (including the one that day which was meant for a certain 13-year-old German boy’s bar mitzvah in Bayreuth).
That could not happen then. And November 9 could not be celebrated as Germany’s Unification Day now. I can’t take credit for this, nor could I try—especially considering Willy Brandt’s deep understanding and appreciation for perception and the significance of symbolism (he was indeed the first German Chancellor to fall to his knees in Warsaw before the monument commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto) and it is Brandt who quietly worked with others to be sure that German Unification Day would not be November 9 but rather October 3—the day Germans (East and West) voted to be one.
And, like so many world citizens that day—and every day since October 1990—I, too, celebrate a unified Germany while never forgetting the joy I felt on top of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Alan H. Fleischmann is president & CEO of Laurel Strategies, the global strategic communications firm. He lived and worked in Germany during the period before, during, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He Iives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with his wife and two children.