The Berlin Wall: An Interview with Museum President and CEO Dr. John Young

Thursday, September 15, 2016
Museum President and CEO John Young as a young man living in West Berlin.

There are few moments in time that change the world instantly – the kinds of moments whose significance is immediately felt and understood by every person watching it unfold. When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, the world was forever changed. The wall dividing Communist East Germany from the West symbolized restrictions on human rights from the 1960s to the 1980s. When it was demolished, pieces of the wall became tokens of freedom. I recently sat down with Museum President and CEO Dr. John Young, a scholar on Eastern Europe, to talk about his experience living in West Berlin at the height of the Cold War and his perspectives on the Berlin Wall. Three fragments of the Berlin Wall are on display in the What are Human Rights? gallery on Level 1 until Sept. 18, 2016.


You lived in West Berlin during the Cold War. What was that experience like for you? 

Well, as a 19-year-old young man from Calgary, it was my first trip abroad. I woke up in September 1980, looked out the window and saw the Berlin Wall. I’d read about it, heard about it, seen it in the newspapers and on the television, but the starkness and the suddenness of that transformation and culture shock had a pretty powerful impact on my life.


Did you get to visit East Berlin, and if so, how did it contrast with your experience in the West? 

I visited East Berlin four times. The very first time, I crossed Checkpoint Charlie and I was just very curious about what life was like on the other side of the wall. I remember very clearly expecting to walk into black and white television. You know, that’s the only way I can describe it because as a child of the Cold War, you had a certain image or a certain expectation of what life in the Communist Bloc was supposed to be like. I spent from early morning until almost past midnight on the other side of the wall. The border closed at midnight and we didn’t have a visa longer than the day. I remember running full speed to the border before Checkpoint Charlie closed. We lost track of time because of the people we met. We ended up having dinner together and spent a lot of time talking with these residents of East Germany, realizing that, you know, they have a life too. That triggered the whole fascination that I had for life in the Soviet Bloc and later, after I returned from Germany, I ended up spending most of my undergraduate studies studying life in East Germany, Poland and elsewhere and becoming a student of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It was a fascinating series of experiences.


What effect did the division of the city have on long-time residents?

West Berlin was a fascinating community. During the Cold War it was hemmed in by a wall – not just separating West Berlin and East Berlin, but separating West Berlin from the rest of East Germany as well. The city had a kind of a claustrophobic feel. I lived in Kreutzberg, and it had its own dynamic. It was full of what they called Hausbesitzungen, these occupied tenements of people just moving in and not paying rent, with lots of demonstrations. This was 1980, with peace and anti-nuclear rallies and many residents, either students or Turkish Gastarbeiter, migrant workers, who didn’t have all the rights of citizenship at the time, so it had its own neighbourhood dynamic. I recall the city having a certain kind of intoxicant in the air. I should add my oldest daughter’s middle name is Berlin, because I have such a love for the city!


The west side of the Berlin Wall was covered in graffiti. What struck you about the graffiti art that you might have seen there? 

It was different than any kind of graffiti I’d ever seen before. I spent a lot of time taking different pictures of the wall. The wall was not just a blackboard of sayings: it was artistic expression, it was creative designs. That's where I first saw real graffiti – that's how I would describe it. Original. Powerful. Before, I'd always seen graffiti as a nuisance, something that should be erased because it violated the aesthetics. But the wall became a canvas, and some of the art on the wall was both provocative and beautiful in its own way.  

The wall itself is very thought-provoking. On the West Berlin side, they had a series of observation stations. One could climb so one could stand and look over the wall, and I realized then that there were three things in my life that caused me to lose track of time: watching a campfire, sitting on a beach watching the waves roll in, and sitting on one of those stations just observing the wall. I could lose time and be there for an hour, just thinking about all that the wall represented. There were places where you could look into East Berlin. There was unoccupied land, referred to as “no man’s land,” between the two walls. Occasionally, the wall cut through buildings or people’s balconies. You would see someone on their balcony barbequing, or hanging laundry, and their view was of barbed wire and anti-tank barriers… it was very strange. What a symbol; an edifice of man’s inhumanity to man. That’s what the Berlin Wall was.


How has the tearing down of the Berlin Wall influenced your understanding of human rights? 

Growing up in the Cold War, you imagine that at one future point the wall would not be there, but you never really thought it would happen anytime soon. So I remember being in Toronto in 1989 – I was doing my doctorate at the University of Toronto and watching the wall come down on television and bawling my eyes out with joy, wishing I were there, but also completely gobsmacked that this was happening. It turned the world upside down. You realize in moments like that, wow, the world changes. Maps change, borders are removed, what was no longer is. Through it all, the hope and aspirations for the rights that people should enjoy emerge, and it was just pure elation that it was happening. Because no one on either side of the wall thought the wall should actually be there. But you kind of surrender to the reality of it and it becomes an everyday object. And then suddenly it's gone, and you rejoice, but you're surprised that it happened in such a way. It didn't require a war – people just said: “Enough. Time for change.”