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UMW professor lived in East Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall

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Date published: 11/9/2009


Marcel Rotter was drafted into the National People's Army of East Germany nine days before the Berlin Wall fell.

Rotter, now a professor of German language at the University of Mary Washington, remembers watching the TV news in his barracks on the island of Rügen.

He thought, "Finally." Others around him cheered.

"I was happy," said Rotter, who was 25 at the time. "I'm generally a little bit reserved. I'm not the type that jumps up and down."

Rotter said his army division, whose troops weren't issued weapons, was "the closest thing to an alternative service for people who did not want to shoot at fellow human beings."

After the Berlin barrier fell, he was assigned to a nursing home because of the shortage of nurses.

Today, he will give a speech titled "Life With(out) Walls: East Germany Before and After the Fall of the Berlin Wall" at 5 p.m. in UMW's Combs Hall. It will mark the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's demise on Nov. 9, 1989. The communist regime's barrier went up in 1961.

Rotter said he doesn't think there was any one reason for the historic event, but said economics had a lot to do with it.

"I think the biggest reason is probably that East Germany as a system, especially as an economic system, could not survive," he said. "The economy was so underground that it could not go on like that anymore."

A couple of days after the wall fell, Rotter said, he ventured to West Berlin alone and purchased some books.

"When I came to West Berlin, I thought, 'It's just like Hungary, except they speak German here,'" he said.

Hungary and West Berlin both had plenty of consumer products. East Germany routinely ran out of essentials such as toothbrushes or bedsheets, he said.

Still, Rotter said he wondered at the time whether people needed various brands of the same item.

"It's nice to have it, but is it really necessary?" he asked.

Rotter had family on the other side of the wall--in Hamburg--including a grandmother and an aunt. He visited them with his parents and sister on New Year's Eve in 1989.

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