When the Wall Came Down

I was there when the Wall came down on November 9th, 1989. On the very evening the changes were announced on East German Radio, I was sitting on a tour bus that was taking students of the Cologne Musikhochschule to Berlin. At the time, I was studying composition with Prof. Krzysztof Meyer who had set up an exchange with the Berlin Hochschule der Künste (now Universität der Künste). For this, the composers from his class as well as a few other musicians embarked on this trip, for which I had just completed a new piece in 17-tone equal temperament (later named Two Cartoons) and had the whole bus wait for me as I had problems saving the last, definitive version of the piece.

After finally leaving Cologne in the early afternoon, the sun had already set when we passed the border to East Germany and we were gently rocked by the many potholes of the GDR autobahn. The driver had tuned into the Radio DDR II when the news were announced that no one on this bus would have expected during his lifetime. For the first time in decades the citizens of the Democratic Republic of Germany were allowed to travel where they pleased which was equivalent to the abolition of socialism as we knew it. It was pitch dark outside, which together with the announcement created an eerie atmosphere in the order of Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds.”

Arriving to Berlin, it was clear that something out of the ordinary had happened. To the dismay of Meyer, I decided to stay with my friends Peter and Barbara whom I knew from Cologne. We agreed to meet after the concert, which took place on the next day and to inspect the situation a bit more closely. The next day, my piece was performed by my good old Atari ST 1024 computer, which I use to log around just like people nowadays tote their laptops.

Since arriving to Berlin, Meyer had been in a strange mood; he seemed nervous and irritable. What went on in his head, I asked myself. Did this have anything to do with him leaving communist Poland before the Warsaw block officially returned to democracy? It was hard to picture that the historical events which concurrently took place in Poland would have any repercussion on him, considering that he was able to smoothly travel between those two worlds and never uttered anything publicly that would have compromised him? We will probably never find out.

Anyway, after the concert, which took place on Hardenbergstraße, Peter, Barbara and I walked down on Straße des 17. Juni to the Wall joining more and more people, all headed for this monstrous monument of political insanity that my parents had escaped from in 1956 when they fled Hungary. It felt we were at a huge outdoors party and when we finally arrived to the wall, which, at hardly 3 meters tall, again felt so diminutive that I kept asking myself how it was able to contain 17 million people for so long, everybody got totally excited. There were people standing tightly packed on the wall, some helping others to climb on top assisted by those standing below.

In my memory the wall was wider than it actually was at 1.3 meters, but obviously  spacious enough for dozens of youth who in a provocative manner had raised their arms and shouted “Sieg Heil” to the Volkspolizisten lined up on the other side of the Mauer, which quickly put a damper on my excitement. And indeed in the aftermath of the liberation and reunification a nationalistic sentiment swept high during the West, which was quickly contained and subdued by the ruling political parties. After spending some time on the wall, we climbed down again and walked towards Checkpoint Charlie which we reached after midnight. Most people had already left the scene but I remember clearly that the ground was littered with thousands of bottles of beer, wine and champagne. We decided to go home at this point.

The next day, it was Saturday, I decided to spend a few hours downtown by myself which at this point in history mainly meant Charlottenburg. I encountered vast amounts of East Germans who all had the same two questions: Where is Ku-Damm (Kurfürstendamm) and where is the KDW (Berlin’s famous department store and beacon of capitalist excess)? On the way back to my friends, I experienced a situation in the subway, which I had only seen in TV features on the Tokyo subway, where masses of people are being shoved into the trains by special personnel: I stood so closely packed with all the other passengers that I could hardly breath.

A few hours later I joined my colleagues from the Cologne Musikhochschule and we embarked on a trip that was going to become the longest bus tour of my life. Shortly after leaving the Berlin city limits, we got into a huge traffic jam which lasted for 10 hours until we reached West Germany again. An armada of Trabis (the nick name for Trabant, the East German folk’s wagon) had hit the autobahn, their owners keen to quickly experience what they had yearned for over years: a little bit of personal freedom. During our frequent stops, the musicians pulled out their instruments and gave little impromptu concerts on the autobahn to everybody’s delight except for the bus driver who couldn’t stop complaining about the extra hours.