Although Remembrance Sunday will this year be focusing on the centenary of the First World War, the day also marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For those who lived during the Cold War there was a constant sense of anxiety, with the threat of nuclear war ever looming. The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989 was a triumph of human freedom.
The Gryphon interviewed Robert Harrison, a British army captain who managed West Berlin’s computer centre in West Berlin from 1982 to 1987. Although he was not present at the fall of the Wall he lived in Berlin during the crucial final years of the Cold War and as part of his duties visited the Eastern Bloc.
What was Berlin like while you lived there?
Berlin was a wonderful place, very cosmopolitan. Great opportunities for entertainment like ballet and opera. A lot of history to see, a lot of parks too and the river. Living there was quite a pleasure.
Did you ever get to go into Eastern Berlin and what was it like?
Yes, I was a tour guide. The first impression is that it was grey. I always called it a grey country. You were in the bright lights of the west and then when you went into the East it became grey, dull, old, unkempt, damaged and not well repaired. You could still see the bullet holes in the walls as you walked around.
You were in the bright lights of the west and then when you went into the East it became grey
No, we did not see Russians all that often actually. They guarded their tomb just near Brandenburg Gate every day and they guarded the prison while Hess, Hitler’s number three, was there. But we very rarely saw them over in the East.
What were the different check points like?
There were three check points. Checkpoint Alpha that was in Marienborn in western Germany, Checkpoint Bravo where you came into West Berlin, and Checkpoint Charlie where you went through to East Berlin. It was very scary for some people as you were going into a foreign country under foreign rule. I went over so many times that it did not bother me much.
Did people ever try to escape East Berlin?
The river used to form part of the boundary and a lot of East Germans tried to escape there but they drowned or got shot. Along the side of the wall there are little graves just to the left of the Brandenburg gate to remember these people.
What was the Wall like?
Very well decorated by graffiti. We lived up in Spandau, which is in the North West of Berlin, and the wall continued there and every 100 metres or so there was a watch tower with a soldier and a rifle on there, and that was over lots of points on the wall. But if you went to the middle of the wall all you really saw was graffiti.
Was the graffiti politicised?
There was everything. Fun and entertainment and some political stuff.
Twelve months or less before the Wall came down I went to a political broadcast by the military in a big hall in Berlin. They were telling us that the Cold War was getting worse and harder and how there was absolutely no chance of the wall coming down. I do not think anyone forsaw it happening.
I do not think anyone forsaw it happening.
Do you remember when the Berlin Wall came down?
Yes. I had left Berlin and went to a place called Bielefeld in West Germany. The news of the Wall coming down was absolutely fantastic. It was unbelievable for me because I had been told and seen that it never would come down, and there it was, I could see it on the television. People hitting it with a hammer and throwing bricks away. People were pouring through Checkpoint Charlie in big numbers. It was an amazing thing to happen.
What was it like having the Wall there and now returning to Berlin and it not being there?
One of the great things of the Wall being there was that you felt like you lived in a close knit community, no matter what language you spoke or where you originally came from. Everybody was welcomed in the West. We were inside this wall, we were all in it together and we all looked after each other. When you go across now it is just like any other city in the world. It is a little bit too open and certainly not as friendly as it used to be.
One of the great things of the Wall being there was that you felt like you lived in a close knit community
Do you think that the German culture has changed since the Wall came down?
I think the whole of Germany has changed quite a lot actually since it was integrated with the rest of Germany. Obviously they have spent a lot of money on improving the transport links and things like that and the people seem genuinely quite happy, but they are not as well off as the people who used to live in West Berlin.
Photographs: Robert Harrison, Enid Cartwright, YouTube