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November 9, 2009 12:36 am


Rotter lo1109wall1.jpg

When the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, Rotter was a 25-year-old soldier in the East German army.


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.

But Rotter had no immediate desire to leave East Germany, where he was born in the town of Gotha. His family lived for 14 years in an apartment with no shower or bathtub.

"I was determined to stay in Germany," he said. "Even though the wall was open, I did not have plans to move to the West."

In a recent speech at the University of Virginia, Rotter said a "politically engaged priest" he knew as a child acquainted him with subjects banned from schools, such as writers and underground art. In fact, the secret police--the Stasi--had the priest under surveillance.

Years later, the Stasi asked Rotter to act as an informant on his friends, but he declined, he told his U.Va. audience. In Rotter's Stasi files, police wrote in 1989 that "intervention" would be necessary because of his refusal.

Fortunately, the German reunification prevented such measures.

Life was not all bad before the wall fell, Rotter said. He said he received adequate medical care and enough to eat.

He even performed in a six-member band.

"We were not running around all day thinking about how bad our lives were," he said. "We were living our life. It was not perfect--it was a life."

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

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