Kutztown University students who had not been born when the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago got a first-hand account of what it was like to grow up during the Cold War.
David Gill, German consul general in New York City, recounted a youth spent in East Germany, which was separated from West Germany by the infamous wall.
As the son of a Moravian church pastor, considered an enemy of the Communist government, young Gill was denied access to education and the ability to travel outside East Germany.
"Growing up, we had no freedom, no rule of law and no human rights," said Gill, who was steered into a career as a plumber by the state-controlled education system.
"I was 23 years old when the wall came down in 1989," he said. "At that moment, my life changed."
Part of the so-called Peaceful Revolution that brought down the wall, a symbol of repression, Gill would study law in Berlin and Philadelphia. He has been Germany's representative in New York since 2017.
In the aftermath of World War II, Germany was divided into four sectors. The sector controlled by the Allies — U.S., England and France — became West Germany. The Russian sector became East Germany, part of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe.
On Aug. 13, 1961, the Communist government of East Germany erected a wall dividing east from west Berlin. On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall crumbled and thousands fled East Germany to West Germany.
The decision to take down the wall followed an appeal by then President Ronald Regan, who urged the Soviet Union's General Secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall" during a speech at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987. The decision to take it down was seen as a softening of relations between the U.S. and USSR and symbolized the end of the Cold War.
Gill's visit on Nov. 13 to Kutztown was the second this year. He had attended the Kutztown Folk Festival in July.
In the morning, he toured two Kutztown businesses. In the afternoon, he had a casual conversation in German with students studying the language, and spoke to students in Kutztown's honors program.
After a reception at the home of Dr. Kenneth S. Hawkinson, Kutztown's president, Gill gave an evening lecture in Schaeffer Auditorium.
Gill answered questions about Germany's economy, politics and the state of reunification.
Kierra MacLeod, a senior anthropology student from Pottstown, asked Gill if the reunification of East and West Germany went smoothly.
Rebuilding a society after 40 years of Communism, and Nazi Party control before that has not been easy, Gill said. The Soviet-style industries collapsed after reunification, he said, but many towns and infrastructure have been revitalized.
Kha Nguyen, a senior anthropology student from Reading, asked about the emergence of right wing parties in Germany.
Gill acknowledged the growth of populist parties focusing on issues like immigration, but said they represent maybe 25 percent of the population. They're stronger in the former East Germany, he said, than in the West.
Though the roots of the Peaceful Revolution were planted long before the wall came down, Gill said it came as somewhat of a surprise.
"I remember the hopefulness and optimism on the day the wall came down," he said. "I remember wondering is it true the Cold War is really over."