Matthias Fekl: ‘We toppled the Berlin Wall with our little pickaxes’

[Francois Hollande/Flickr]

Mathias Fekl was living in Berlin when the wall came down. [Francois Hollande/Flickr]

The Franco-German French Secretary of State for Foreign Trade Matthias Fekl was 12-years-old when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. He recalls the incredible jubilation following the radio announcement by a “narrow-minded bureaucrat” that the Wall had fallen. euractiv.fr reports.

Matthias Fekl is French Secretary of State for Foreign Trade and France’s official representative for the commemoration ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which took place on Sunday, 9 November. He was interviewed by euractiv.fr.

You spent your youth in Berlin. What memories do you have of this town before the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989?

I arrived in Berlin when I was two-and-a-half years old and stayed until after my A-levels. I started at a German school, but moved to a French school when I was a teenager. I only have a child’s memories of Berlin before the fall of the Wall, but I remember a very free and tolerant city. After all, it was the last city before dictatorship and the Soviet world.

It was also a city torn apart by the war, whose marks were very visible in Berlin, but also by the wall, which divided the world.

I remember some striking images, even if I do not claim to have understood the geopolitical context of the time as a 12-year-old. I have some very happy memories and others that are more sinister.

We would go for walks on the West side. This area on the good side of the Wall was appropriated by Berliners, and we would sometimes go and play football there. Then there was the contrast of East Berlin. What struck me as a child were the platforms you could climb to look over the wall: we could see the East and West sides of the wall and the death strip in the middle, mined and dotted with towers from which people who tried to flee would be shot down. I particularly remember the front pages of the papers when people had been shot for trying to escape.

These platforms overlooking East Berlin are part of your visual memory of East Berlin. Did you ever have the chance to go to the East during this time?

We went there several times, but East and West remained separate worlds. It was quite a troubling experience, but all the visitors wanted to see this place that marked the end of the free world. Many people, including official delegations, came for that reason. At school we had a lot of trouble understanding that to the West, North and South, Berlin was surrounded by the East.

On 9 November you were still living in Berlin. How did you experience the fall of the Wall?

I was 12-years-old at the time. I remember the day very well. Firstly, the East-German authorities’ announcement that the Wall had fallen was a staggering moment. The person who announced the news on the radio made an extremely bureaucratic speech. This speech was played on a loop all day, and I remember my parents asking, “Did he really just say what he just said?” The end of the 20th century was announced by a small-minded little bureaucrat.

Then we went out in Berlin, that day and all the days that followed. I remember the following days being full of joy and incredible jubilation. We attacked the monument, I, like many young children, with my little pickaxe, but large parts of the wall were brought down by cranes, and those were extraordinary moments. We could really tell it was the end of a whole world.

In the days that followed, what were your first images of reunification?

The streets were full for several weeks; the whole of the world’s media had made the journey. But there were also some slightly strange moments, like some supermarket chains giving out fruit to the East Germans, who had suffered under rationing, arriving in the West. Similarly, the German government of the time decided to give a welcome gift of 100 marks to the East Germans, so they could do things like go for a coffee! The joy of joining the free world came alongside the entry into the “cheap” world of capitalism.

At the time there was also uncertainty over the effects of the German reunification, whether on Berlin or on Paris…

There were fears, particularly in the German press, that the reunification of the country may have led to the resurgence of German nationalism. I think the French feared that the reunification would change Europe and throw the French-German partnership off balance. Helmut Kohl played a very important role in this regard.

Today, the French-German partnership is suffering from an imbalance due to the dominance of the German economy. Does this not mean the fears of the time were partly justified?

The economic differences between our two countries are the main cause of the current imbalance in the French-German relationship. The German economy obviously gives the country a particular strength, but the imbalance is cyclical. 

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