History is Now: Dr. Yaniga Remembers the Day the Berlin Wall Came Down
Written by Breana Noble
When professor of German Dr. Fred Yaniga sees the photos taken of the Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, his eyes fill with tears. Long lines of people, carrying all they now own in packs on their backs, hop off trains and walk in hopes of finding peace and freedom. These are emotional scenes for anyone, but for Dr. Yaniga the images hark back to a broken Germany, a time when he found himself in the middle of history.
Hillsdale’s chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom annually celebrates the tearing down of the Berlin Wall with a spray-painted drywall partition, which students and professors wreck with a sledgehammer. The experience is no doubt meaningful, but it’s hardly novel to Dr. Yaniga, who was actually in Berlin and helped tear down the real wall.
In 1989, Dr. Yaniga was twenty years old and studying abroad in Heidelburg, Germany. He was passing time at a discotech on Nov. 9, when a woman yelled to him in German over the loud music, cuffing her hands to his ear, “The wall is open in Berlin!”
Dr. Yaniga looked at her and said, “You’ve been drinking too much.” The idea of a united Germany seemed impossible in the midst of the Cold War, and Dr. Yaniga believed at the time that the country would remain separated forever.
Upon returning to his dorm, however, he found the rooms “eerily silent” and empty. He descended to the basement where he saw the glow of the TV screen and a pack of people huddled together around the box. He and his dorm-mates watched the scenes unfold in Berlin.
The next morning, Dr. Yaniga and five men from his dorm crammed into a compact car and drove to Berlin, a fifteen-hour drive that normally took four or five hours. “All of Europe was on its way to Berlin,” Dr. Yaniga said. When they finally arrived, they celebrated for three days.
“I’ve never hugged and kissed so many total strangers. I drank champagne with people from Poland; I celebrated with East Germans; I danced with Italians.”
Dr. Yaniga and his friends cut through the wall and made a hole big enough to poke their heads through. They shared cigarettes through the opening with an East German soldier, an act that would have gotten them shot days before. It reminded him of the tension that remained—the fact that the USSR could still send tanks into the area and shut the crossings again. One order, and another war could have broken out.
At the time, Dr. Yaniga didn’t know what the future would hold for the newly united country, but he knew Germany would never be the same.
During the year before that night, many sought to escape the confines of the communist, militaristic East. While Mikhail Gorbachev, the prime minister of the USSR, was making changes to the Soviet Union, East Germans found their chance to escape to Hungary, which had loosened its border controls. From there, they fled to Austria and Czechoslovakia in hopes of returning to Germany—this time, however, to its west side.
“What’s happening with immigration through Europe again today, twenty-six years later, is very reminiscent of that,” Dr. Yaniga said, adding that the situations differ historically and politically. “The memories, for me, are quite emotional right now. The images are so powerful, so similar in many ways.”
With regard to the events of today, Dr. Yaniga tells students to pay attention, because what is happening now will be written as tomorrow’s past.
“By chance, by circumstance, I happened to be thrust in the middle of history,” he said. “All of us live in moments of history every day. We have to walk around this world with our eyes wide open. This is an event that will change the world. We have to educate ourselves about it; we have to remain open to the possibilities, because it would’ve taken a heartbeat of cynicism to shut Germany’s borders down again.”
Breana Noble, ’18, is a student from Michigan studying American studies and journalism. She is a member of the Dow Journalism Program; is an assistant news editor for Hillsdale’s school newspaper, the Collegian, and has interned at Newsmax Media in Washington, D.C. through the National Journalism Center.