View From Washington: As the Berlin Wall Collapsed, Up Rose RIAS Journalist Program

November 30, -0001 12:00

By Barbara Cochran, RTDNA President Emeritus

On Nov. 9 Germany and the rest of the world will commemorate an important moment in history – the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has been 20 years since the brutal dividing line between East and West Germany collapsed, signaling the last days of the Soviet empire.

As a journalist, I remember those days well. And, thanks to an RTDNF exchange program for journalists, I had a remarkable opportunity this summer to visit Germany and see first-hand where these historic events occurred and to assess their lasting impact.

In fact, you could say that without the fall of the Berlin Wall, I might never have made the trip. I’ll explain in a moment and tell how you too can travel to Germany, but first a little history.

When World War II ended, Berlin, the capital of Hitler’s Germany, was divided among the victors – the United States, Great Britain, France and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The city was an island surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany, with the former allies uneasily facing off from their separate sectors.

As the Cold War grew more frigid, the Soviets and East German officials cracked down on their citizens who kept fleeing to the West. In 1961, they began constructing an impregnable wall through the heart of Berlin. The wall was actually two parallel walls, each topped with electrified barbed wire and separated by a no man’s land dominated by concrete guard towers housing soldiers with machine guns. In spite of the obstacles, thousands tried to escape from the east, with more than 100 losing their lives in the attempt.

By the 1980s the Soviets were having more and more difficulty retaining control over their sprawling empire. In Poland, the ship workers union led the Solidarity movement to protest the communist government, a movement that was curtailed but not crushed when the government imposed military rule. Protests were mounted in other countries behind the Iron Curtain, including East Germany.

By the fall of 1989, East German authorities decided to relieve the pressure by allowing their citizens to cross the borders to the east. Finally on Nov. 9, an East Berlin official told journalists at a press conference that the government would let citizens enter West Berlin. Asked when this change would take effect, the confused official replied, “immediately.”

It took a few hours for word to spread, but soon East Germans showed up at the checkpoints demanding the right to leave. The crossing guards had no instructions, and began to let people through. The trickle turned into a torrent. East and West Germans met at the wall and danced in a frenzy of liberation and delight.
 
The images of celebration were beamed around the world by the news media. American networks rushed correspondents and resources to the scene. In newsrooms, journalists who had covered the Cold War for years could scarcely believe their eyes. The totalitarian German Democratic Republic was through. Within months, the two Germanys were united as one nation.

One of the institutions affected by this cataclysmic change was a broadcast station in Berlin called Radio in the American Sector, RIAS for short. Established by the U.S. government after World War II, the mission of RIAS Berlin was to transmit news, entertainment and information programming and serve as a counterbalance to the totalitarian propaganda of the East. RIAS Berlin became a trusted source of news for those living on the other side of the wall.

But when the wall came down, there was no longer any need for such a broadcast station. RIAS’s frequency went to a commercial broadcaster. But RIAS wasn’t dead.

The U.S. and German governments decided to establish the RIAS Berlin Commission to honor the RIAS legacy as a beacon of freedom and to promote understanding between the two countries, especially among broadcast journalists. The RIAS Berlin Commission searched for an American partner and found RTDNF. That’s why, since 1993, RIAS and RTDNF have brought German broadcast journalists to the United States and American broadcast journalists to Germany to learn about the history, politics, culture and media practices of each others’ countries. Over 16 years, more than 1,000 journalists have taken advantage of this extraordinary program.  

I had the good fortune to be one of those participants this past June. Our group of 16 included local and network television and radio reporters and producers, a university official and three new journalism graduates. Our ages ranged from the 20s to the 60s and geographically we came from Ohio, North Carolina, New York and Hawaii, among other states.

Rainer Hasters, the veteran executive director of the RIAS Berlin Commission, planned an exciting two-week itinerary for us, focused on Germany’s past and present. We began in Berlin with a tour that took us along the path where the wall had stood. We learned that most of the wall has disappeared over the past 20 years, but some sections have been preserved to show just how harsh the wall was. Throughout the city, a cobblestone line marks the path the wall took, skirting the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building, and blocking western access to Berlin’s most famous symbol, the Brandenburg Gate.

We visited Checkpoint Charlie, where Soviet and American tanks faced off for a few tense days in 1961. We admired the new murals on the sections of wall that still stand. Before 1989, only the western side of the wall was covered in graffiti. Now, splashy paintings face east. We even saw where the wall crossed the River Spree, with markers erected on the riverbank to memorialize those who lost their lives trying to swim to freedom.

We visited some of the institutions that made life in the old GDR so unbearable. A snowy-haired 80-year-old man led us through the Berlin prison used by the Stasi, the German secret police, to coerce and punish dissenters. At one point, he took us into the cell he had occupied for seven years in total isolation and explained how he preserved his sanity by reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets.

We were immersed in Germany’s past, including a visit to a Nazi concentration camp and a glimpse of the graffiti left inside the Reichstag by Soviet troops who reached Berlin first. But we also learned about the present, with visits to bustling sections of the city where skyscrapers have replaced grim industrial areas of East Berlin. We even experienced some “Ostalgie,” or nostalgia for the East, when we saw tourists sightseeing in Trabis, the old East German cars that were an automotive joke.

We left Berlin to visit Leipzig, a city in the east that has become a thriving high-tech center, and Cologne, a city in the west where Germany’s largest private television network is headquartered. We ended the trip in Brussels, with briefings at the European Union and NATO.

One of the best aspects of the program was the balance between policy briefings and cultural and personal experience. We heard from the top political parties and we went to the opera. We learned about labor policy and we laughed at the cabaret. In every location, we received a geographic and historic orientation. The schedule was demanding, but we still had time to explore on our own. In every instance, the logistics were outstanding, up to and including a flawlessly executed transfer at the Frankfurt train station in just 12 minutes.

So next week I’ll be watching the commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall with special interest and rich memories of standing where these historic events took place. If you decide to participate in the RIAS program, you too, like hundreds of other American journalists who have traveled to Germany, will have the chance to feel history come to life.