Berlin Wall

''concert'' on a silent keyboard, 1989 (an interview by Victoria Yeh)

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Location: Taipei, Taiwan

Monday, August 12, 2002

Silent Concert at the Wall

(Rolf-Peter Wille interviewed about the fall of the Berlin Wall by Victoria Yeh)


1. Can you describe what happened? (please be VERY detailed)

In the year 1989, there were dramatic events in Eastern Germany, such as a massive flight of inhabitants of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) via Hungary and Czechoslovakia and big demonstrations in Leipzig on Mondays. After weeks of discussion about a new travel law, the leader of East Berlin's communist party (SED), G├╝nter Schabowski, said on November 9, 1989 at about 7 p.m. in somewhat unclear words that the border would be opened for "private trips abroad". Little later, an onrush of East Berliners towards West Berlin began, and there were celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate (Berlin landmark built 1788-91) and at the Kurf├╝rstendamm in West Berlin. On November 10, demolition works began with the aim of creating new border crossings. On November 12, a checkpoint at the Potsdamer Platz was opened, and on December 22, a checkpoint for pedestrians was opened at the Brandenburg Gate. So-called "wall woodpeckers" hammered pieces out of the wall, many of which were sold as souvenirs. A few larger segments were officially donated or sold.

Since we had traveled to Germany in December 1989, my wife, Lina Yeh, and I (Rolf-Peter Wille), decided to visit Berlin on 30 December 1989. Since we had just recorded a CD, featuring piano-duo music, we took along a silent keyboard and the public relation posters for our CD release, in order to participate in the "open air" activities at the Berlin Wall. A "silent keyboard" is a piano keyboard used by pianists for practicing. No sound can be heard--hence the name "silent."

2. Why were you performing there?

I had visited Berlin in the past-tense and was fascinated by the very peculiar political situation of the divided city. 1989 was a pivotal year for the city. The government of Communist East Germany had become very weak due to the situation in the Soviet Union.
I was born in Western Germany after the 2nd world war and had neglected the existence of another political entity of Germany. Because of the dramatic events in 1989 the reality of this situation suddenly became conscious to many Western Germans. There was a sudden eruption of compassion for Eastern Germans. I had heard rumors about the "wall woodpeckers" and about the very special atmosphere and street activities at the wall and I suddenly conceived the idea of joining those activities. Since it was not feasible to move a grand piano to the wall, I borrowed the silent keyboard of my brother, took my father as a photographer and went to Berlin by train on 30 December 1989.
Of course there can be no real performance on a silent keyboard, since no sound can be heard. The activity was more of a symbolic nature. This was also an opportunity to shoot some public relation photos for our CD release in Taiwan.

3. What did you feel about the event?

Originally I was driven by curiosity and I thought our "performance" would just be a joke. But when we arrived at the scene of the Berlin Wall, being demolished by the wall "woodpeckers," it became obvious to me that this was a real historic event. People were truly emotional about this.
I had visited Berlin in the past-tense and I always felt very strongly about the surreal situation of that divided city. It was very difficult to travel to the Eastern section of the city (for Eastern Berliners it was virtually impossible to visit the West). The wall looked awful, "Kafkaesque," and forbidding, and I remembered that so many people had died there. The most fantastic scenario was the Berlin subway. Some lines in West Berlin actually passed under the territory of Eastern Berlin: an extremely eerie situation. For 28 years people had lived in utmost geographical proximity and utmost social distance at the same time. My hometown, Brunswick (Braunschweig), was very close to the German-German border. Helmstedt, the closest border crossing-point, was only a half-hour car drive from Brunswick. This means that my neighborhood was entirely cut off from my awareness. In December 1989, all of a sudden, this situation had changed, and I could witness how these two worlds would meet. Berlin, the former German capital was the focal point of this event.
Naturally I was thrilled to participate in this historic event, especially since I had left Germany for so many years. I felt this to be an opportunity to reattach to the reality of German society.

4. Is there any background information that I should know about the event and the wall?

Having lost the 2nd world war, Germany was partitioned into four distinct zones governed by the allied war-powers, USA, Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France in accordance with the conference of Yalta. In 1948 the three Western zones, controlled by the USA, Great Britain , and France formed the Federal Republic of Germany. The Eastern zone, governed by the Soviet Union, did not join this republic and founded the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). Since that time two distinct German states existed side by side. Berlin, the former capital of Germany, was situated in the territory of the GDR. Like Germany it was partitioned into four distinct zones. The Eastern sectioned, controlled by the Soviet Union was proclaimed the capital of the GDR.

In August 1961 the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall to stop the mass exodus of people fleeing Soviet East Berlin for West Berlin and the non-Communist world. The wall was a mass of concrete, barbed wire, and stone that cut into the heart of the city, separating families and friends. For 28 years, it stood as a grim symbol of the gulf between the Communist East and the non-Communist West. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the end of the cold war.

Because of dissatisfaction with the economic and political conditions (forced collectivization of agriculture, repression of private trade, supply gaps), an increasing number of people left the GDR. From January to the beginning of August 1961, about 160,000 refugees were counted. Also, the international political situation was tense. On 1958-11-27, the Soviets (Khrushchev) had delivered their Berlin ultimatum, demanding that the western allies should withdraw their troops from West Berlin and that West Berlin should become a "Free City" within six months. The meeting between US President Kennedy and the Prime Minister of the USSR, Khrushchev, on 1961-06-03/04 in Vienna ended without any noticeable results.

Generally, measures of the government of the GDR had the aim of preventing people from leaving the GDR. At an international press conference on June 15, 1961, Walter Ulbricht (the leader of the East German Communist party, SED, and President of the Privy Council) answered to the question of a journalist: "I understand your question as follows: there are people in West Germany who want us to mobilize the construction workers of the GDR to build a wall. I am not aware of any such plans... No one has the intention of constructing a wall."

Early in the morning of Sunday, August 13, 1961, the GDR began under the leadership of Erich Honecker to block off East Berlin and the GDR from West Berlin by means of barbed wire and antitank obstacles. Streets were torn up, and barricades of paving stones were erected. Tanks gathered at crucial places. The subway and local railway services between East and West Berlin were interrupted. Inhabitants of East Berlin and the GDR were no longer allowed to enter West Berlin, amongst them 60,000 commuters who had worked in West Berlin so far. In the following days, construction brigades began replacing the provisional barriers by a solid wall.

The reaction of the western allies was moderate, since the three essentials of the American policy regarding Berlin were not affected: presence of allied troops, free access to Berlin and the right of self-determination of the West Berliners.

After 1961-08-23, citizens of West Berlin were no longer allowed to enter East Berlin. On 1961-09-20, the forced evacuation of houses situated immediately at the border to West Berlin began. On 1962-08-17, Peter Fechter, an eighteen years old citizen of East Berlin, bled to death after he was shot down by East Berlin border patrol in an attempt to escape over the wall.

On 1963-06-21, the Minister of National Defense of the GDR gave orders concerning the installation of a border area at the frontier between the GDR and West Berlin. Afterwards inhabitants of East Berlin living within a distance of 100 m to the border had to register.

The GDR propaganda called the wall an "Anti-fascist protection wall."

The border between West Berlin and East Berlin and the GDR had a total length of 166 km, and there was a deeply staggered system of barriers. There was a wall with a length of 107 km at this border. Finally, the border area looked about as follows: First, there was a wall which was made up of concrete segments with a height of 4 m, usually with a concrete tube on top of it. Behind it (at the "eastern" side) there was an illuminated control area (also called death area). Refugees who had reached that area were shot without warning. A trench followed which should prevent vehicles from breaking through. Then there was a patrol track, a corridor with watchdogs, watchtowers and bunkers, and a second wall.

The border cut through 192 streets, 97 of them leading to East Berlin and 95 into the GDR.

At least 100 people were killed at the Berlin Wall, the last of them was Chris Gueffroy (1989-02-06).

5. What were other people doing there?

In December 1989 the entire area west of the Berlin Wall resembled a huge folk festivity. Western Berliners and tourists were celebrating the imminent fall of the wall. "Wall woodpeckers" were hacking away at the wall, chopping off huge chunks of stone and concrete, which were sold as souvenirs. The noise of this could be heard everywhere. There were many stalls and people were selling food and memorabilia. There were also lots of street performances and street art.

6. Did the event affect you in any way?

Naturally the expression and reaction of people at historic events is more truthful and more spontaneous than in other situations. I also noticed that the behavior of some Berliners is more urban and cosmopolitan than that of other Germans. If you would "perform" on a silent keyboard elsewhere in the German province, people would certainly be bewildered and react in a strange manner. But some Berliners joined in, when we "performed," and started to sing old Berlin songs, such as "Berliner Luft, Luft, Luft." I was quite touched by this, because it proved to me, that some kind of special spirit was still alive.

7. How did they demolish the wall?

In December 1989 the wall was not yet officially demolished. The acts of the "wall woodpeckers" were just symbolic. Nevertheless they managed to cut some substantial holes into the wall, which allowed some people to cross between the two sections of the city. The actual demolition of the wall started in 1990. Ironically the wall was demolished completely and tourists these days regret that no remnants of the wall exist. Because of this, the government now plans to artificially reconstruct a segment of the wall as a tourist attraction.

8. Did the event affect others?

Our performance certainly did not affect others. But the fall of the wall greatly affected Germany. The two states were reunified and the life style in Eastern Germany changed dramatically after this. The situation today is very ambiguous: Despite the political advantages, many Germans now regret the present day situation. Western Germans think they lost a lot of money helping to modernize the east, and Eastern Germans believe they are loosing their identity, their social institutions, their simplicity of life, and their soul because of the reunification.

9. Can you describe what the wall looked like and where you were?

The wall looked forbidding. It was a mass of ugly concrete complete with watch towers and barbed wire. Even a science fiction movie could not manage to reenact the horrible magnetism of the wall. On the Western side the wall was painted with graffiti, some of which was obscene, while other drawings had a very peculiar artistic message that could only have been inspired in such an extreme environment. I do not know what the wall looked like on the Eastern side, but I believe that it was virtually impossible for Eastern Berliners to even approach the wall since the entire wall area was cordoned off.

10. What were you doing the whole time?

Mostly we were sight seeing. After we found a free section of the wall, we pasted our posters at the wall and positioned ourselves in front of it. Then we began to unfold our silent keyboard and proceeded to "play" it. Of course this was a kind of ironic street activity. Then we tried to interact with the passers-by, some of which were Berliners while others were from different parts of Germany.

11. What else do you think I should know?

There were some other events preceding our Berlin Wall "performance." My brother had invited an orchestra from Moscow to participate at his music festival ("Braunschweiger Kammermusikpodium"). The orchestra members traveled by train and were to arrive at the Eastern Berlin train station. There was a delegation from Braunschweig, including my wife, Lina Yeh, which was to receive the orchestra members. Lina did not have a valid passport and had to cross the border illegally. The Eastern Berlin train station was overcrowded with refugees and gypsies trying to sell all kinds of merchandise to the delegation. When the orchestra wanted to return to Moscow, the Eastern German train conductor pretended that there was no seating room on the train. A member of the Braunschweig delegation finally managed to bribe him with some fake wrist watches which my brother had smuggled from Taipei.

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