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Living-History Lessons in Berlin

Cover photo: © Sepavo | Dreamstime.com

It’s one thing to stand in a place where a historic event transpired a thousand years ago. It’s entirely different to stand in a spot where history was made during your own lifetime.

This lesson resonated for me on a mind-expanding cruise around the Baltic Sea in the summer of 2014. Our voyage included day tours in Stockholm, Tallinn, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Copenhagen. In each city we gazed at grand, centuries-old cathedrals and statues commemorating epoch-making events. And yet in each, history remained somehow cerebral and out of reach—until we reached Berlin.

My wife and I traveled by train from the port of Rostock to Berlin’s central rail terminal, where we met a wonderful guide, Sabine Mueller, who immediately took us to the Brandenburg Gate.

As we stood in the shadow of the iconic arch, Sabine said, “I want to tell you about the night the Berlin Wall came down.”

She recalled that in a news broadcast aired at 8 p.m. on November 9, 1989, the East German authorities announced that the eastern borders, including the borders between East and West Berlin, would be opened. She was 20 years old at the time and had been living in West Berlin since she was a toddler.

“People in East Germany listened to these broadcasts, too, and as soon as they heard this news, they streamed to the borders,” she said. “The East Berliners were afraid that the decision might be reversed at any moment and wanted to take advantage of it while they could.

“The next morning I was awakened at dawn by a phone call from my fr...