East Germany and the Human Spirit

In August 1961, a barbed-wire barrier was erected between East and West Berlin. A few days later, workers started building a concrete block wall. Residents of East were no longer allowed to enter the West. The “Iron Curtain” that Winston Churchill had spoken about in a 1946 speech had now come to fruition. (MSN homepage 8-13-2011)

This photo from 1961 shows the Berlin Wall, built by the East German government to seal off East Berlin from the part of the city occupied by the three main western powers (U.S., Great Britain and France), and to prevent mass illegal emigration to the West.

To see the complete article By Chris Rodell, msnbc.com contributor:


As a young man on military assignment in what was then, “West Germany,” I had the opportunity to spend several months monitoring military activities on the border of “East Germany.” Having first learned about the construction of the Berlin Wall in grammar school history class, the sense of what it was all about was not entirely clear, but later on in high school, the full implications of the separation of East and West Germany were much clearer, so when I was sent to Germany on my first overseas tour of duty years later, I had a keen sense of what the “Wall” represented. After my first visit to the border area, the value of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans took on a whole new level of appreciation.

My assignment took me to a number of small towns and villages on the West German side, and it was clear from the particularly warm and friendly reception US troops experienced in these places that the people who lived in the border towns knew very well that the wall was meant to prevent the East Germans from leaving, and not to keep the Westerners out as the Soviets proclaimed. After World War II, millions fled the Eastern section to escape the difficult economic and political disadvantages until the wall was built, beginning fifty years ago today, August 13, 1961 in Berlin.

It is difficult for people today to appreciate what it was like to experience such a sight during the “Cold War,” and as a young soldier on duty there, in the winter of 1975, I wrote a description of the first time I saw “The Wall:”

“The road leading up to the border was sinister, desolate, and uninviting. The trees which lined the road were all barren and lifeless, silhouetted against the snow and the sun-lit mist which lingered in the valley ahead. I paused momentarily along the roadside and took a deep breath. An unnatural silence filled the air around me, and I felt my heart begin to throb against my chest; my very life force making more noise than anything else around me. As I slowly began to move toward the wall, my footsteps crunched rhythmically in the snow, and I felt frightened even though I was unaware of any particular cause for alarm.

Finally, I stepped up to the “grenzubersichtspunkt,” or “border observation point,” and saw the fence which ran conspicuously along the landscape, cutting it in half.”

“All fear had left me now, replaced by bewilderment. The mass of barbed wire and concrete appeared more menacing up close than it had from a distance, and I was momentarily stunned, holding my breath until I slowly exhaled as I took in my first up-close glimpse of the inexplicable sight. I searched within myself for some sort of understanding or context to explain the experience in terms of my own temporal life. There was none, and there could be none.

As I turned to leave, I wished there had been more than just a vague recollection of history lessons to prepare me for what I saw on that frozen road, thousands of miles from home. I walked away from that place changed forever.”

Thousands of young East Berliners crowd atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on Nov. 11, 1989. One day earlier, an official had declared that starting from midnight East Germans would be free to leave the country, without permission, at any point along the border. (Gerard Malie / AFP – Getty Images)

The triumph represented by the demolition of the wall in 1989 is clear evidence of the power of the human spirit, and also demonstrates how our cognitive endowment, which provides us access to an extraordinary experiential awareness, gives us a sense of unity with all humanity–an essential component to our understanding of human consciousness.

8 thoughts on “East Germany and the Human Spirit

  1. Hallo John,
    Deine Seite habe ich gelesen, und ich finde das super-spannend!!! Wie kommt es, das Du dich so viel mit Deutschland beschäftigst? Ja, es ist eine unglaubliche Geschichte, was passiert ist. Was mit uns allen auf der Welt passiert ist. Ich war damals in Berlin, zwar eher aus Zufall, aber was ich erlebt habe, wurde mir erst später wirklich bewußt.
    Viele Grüße.. Peter

  2. Die Zeit, die ich in Deutschland verbracht hatte einige der wichtigsten Zeiten meines Lebens. Es war mein erstes Mal weg von meiner Heimat als junger Mann, und es gab viele wichtige Erfahrungen für mich während dieser Zeit. Ich lebte mit einer deutschen Familie für kurze Zeit, und sie wurde zu meiner zweiten Familie. Ich liebte meine deutsche Familie sehr. Meine amerikanische Familie kam, um mich zu Weihnachten besuchen im Jahr 1976, und dies war ein sehr großes Ereignis in meinem Leben.

    Die Schrift, die ich tue in meinem Blog, hatte ihre Anfänge in Deutschland. Ich habe viele schöne Erinnerungen an meine Zeit dort, und ich war sehr traurig, als der Tag kam, Deutschland zu verlassen. Ich denke oft an jenen Tagen.

    Ich suche noch für meine Bilder, aber ich werde etwas darüber schreibe bald ….. Vielen Dank für Ihr Interesse ……. John H.

  3. Hi John,
    I never met or hear a story from the West side of the fence, you are the first one who’s talking about it as a private person with your own feelings.

    I saw numerous pictures of the painted walls on West Berlin side, people able to walk up to it but of course the East side was a bit different. I taught the west saw it as a unique place but nothing more. Nothing to talk about kind of accepting it and ‘punkt’ I am glad I was wrong.

    As a Hungarian to me the wall meant a whole lot more, and Berlin was on my next scheduled place to visit after my return from Hong Kong in the spring of 1989. (I visited Hong Kong to see the place before the take over, because I was interested to see what will happen on my next visit how the place will look after the change, and I had a first hand knowledge what can become)

    Well, I visited the Wall last year, (as a long but never given up promise) and sad to say but I felt right home. Every story on the wall brought back my teenage memories, and to see the faces of the young people who died reminded me all the DDR teenagers I saw or met during the 1970’s in Hungary.

    So just let you know we had lots of feelings and story’s on the other side of the wall and thank you for sharing yours.

    Take care,

    1. Janos,

      I am so glad that you took the time to write to me and to let me know about your experiences “on the other side of the wall.” During those years when I was an American soldier on duty in West Germany, I had an intense interest in the lives of the people behind the wall. I studied every book I could find on East Germany, and spent two years actively engaged in monitoring communications along the border. My job as an analyst gave me access to some amazing experiences both in the monitoring and in the analysis of the way of life for those on the other side. I had the privilege of making friendships with the West German border guards, which permitted some socializing with their East German counterparts during repairs and activities along the fence. As a young twenty-two year old man, who learned about the wall in school, I had no idea how it would feel to actually experience these real-life scenarios, and it affected me profoundly.

      I am envious of your travels, and always wanted to actually stand in Berlin at the wall, but never got the opportunity. My own experiences were still fascinating and provoked deep respect for those on the other side of the wall.

      Thank you so much for communicating with me and for sharing your story.

      Warm regards….John H.

  4. I am apprehensive about posting a comment on this deeply personal experience of a soldier who had been there, yet I wish to leave an acknowledgment of the fact that I value this piece of reading so much. Thank you for sharing,

    1. Please accept my thanks for your visit and your comment. My service at the wall was a very important part of my time in the military, and I wanted to give it the attention it deserved and share my true feelings. You are kind to express your appreciation and I was glad to share. Please don’t be apprehensive whenever you visit. I am always glad to hear from the visitors and readers here!

      Regards…..John H.

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