West Berlin May 1989
A convoy drives up Strasse der 17 Juni, and stops a few hundred feet from the Brandenburger Tor. The men begin unloading a bronze statue which they carefully place on a stone pedestal in the middle of the avenue. The statue is that of a young man with shoulder length hair, wearing a frock. Forlorn, his hands cupped around an open cavernous mouth, calling out across the wall, through the Brandenburger Tor. For all the oppressed around the world he cries out: “Freiheit, Freiheit, Freiheit.” On it’s base a simple plaque reads: “Der Rufer,” (the Crier).
In the past
Walking down the majestic Unter den Linden, I contemplate the sole relatively intact section of imperial Berlin where the few remaining grand structures stand in a more or less congruous style. In it’s heyday it was the Champs Elysées of Berlin, the stylish center of pre-war Germany’s capital. Now it is East Berlin, or simply Berlin capital of the “New Germany.” Frozen in time, like most East Block cities, with large invisible populations. An omnipresent and potent smell of coal hangs in the nippy winter air as one walks down a major thoroughfare unperturbed, like a boulevardier of bygone times. On the hour one gawks at the goose-stepping soldiers coming down the sidewalk for the changing of the guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A brief reminder that someone is still, somewhat, firmly in control. The sun sets early, four thirty, five o’clock. The streets are faintly lit. There is little activity, except for an occasional lone, East German, Trabant auto spewing out obnoxious fumes from it’s two stroke engine, zipping by on the eight lane boulevard.
The subdued activity and quiet atmosphere is relaxing for an outsider, because it’s a novelty one doesn’t have to endure. I continue my walk down, enjoying the cold air and the serene atmosphere.
I perceive the Brandenburg gate and the wall immediately beyond it. Yet I can’t approach them because barricades precede them by approximately a hundred meters. The gate is therefore inaccessible to both East and West Berliners, except of course for communist officials, and other like “progressives.” My mind wanders over the wall where the whole sky is illuminated by city lights. A powerful hum and a cacophony of sounds and modern musical beat rise from the forbidden city beyond.
My curiosity is aroused for like many East Germans, I have never been to West Berlin. On subsequent visits to East Berlin, I always entered through a neighboring Communist country. Therefore, my sense of comparison was dulled, for I had time to adapt to the radically different way of life so reminiscent of a time warp, and could not feel the impact of gloom and grayness which most Western visitors described upon entering East Berlin directly from neighboring West Berlin. It was difficult to imagine the radical contrast between the quiet city where I stood and the noisy forbidden city beyond the concrete wall. A surreal contrast within such a small area made only possible by the omnipresent threat of the nuclear age.
When the first segments of the wall came tumbling down on November 9th, 1989-twenty eight years since it’s construction in the early hours of August 13, 1961-I thought this would be my last opportunity to compare the two sectors of the divided city. The dam was leaking and there was nothing to stop it, short of Soviet backing.
It was also the last opportunity for my wife, who had been barred from travelling to the Communist Block, to catch a last glimpse of forty four years of darkness which were now ending at an alarmingly accelerated pace, to witness the dusk of the Cold War, and the final conclusion of World War II.
Visiting Berlin is the most efficient method of comparing two radically different political worlds in an accessible area of space. A divided city, the likes of which the world has never seen. An anomaly made possible by the omnipresent nuclear Sword of Damocles. West Berlin, literally an island in the midst of a hostile political ocean, encapsulated by communist East Germany could not have survived under any other circumstance.
West Berliners are like islanders, at times feeling trapped and claustrophobic, but without the sense of security provided by a body of water. A feeling especially prevalent among the younger generations, stifled by a lack of space and increasingly diminishing population and expectations, from an exodus, resulting from these frustrations. Many outsiders, and West Germans often uneasy about venturing in this strange territory, surrounded by hostile forces and international tension.
We took a sleeper on train 243, Paris-Berlin-Warsaw, from Paris-Gare du Nord which would take us all the way to Hanover where we would switch carriages on the same train to a sitting compartment, because the direct sleeping car was full. Due to the unusual political circumstances all modes of transportation into Berlin were booked.
We elected to take the train, as a palpable alternative to hectic air travel, and to observe how the borders between East and West Germany had been affected during the last month’s changes.
The sleeping trip was pleasant and somewhat reminiscent of bygone days; although slightly. The conductor was probably the only true reminder of a time when it was a true joy to travel by train. Impeccably groomed with white hair, a full beard, and conductors uniform. He had the combined authority and deference held by many old school professionals.
We arrived in Hanover, changed cars, and made ourselves comfortable. Soon after we arrived in Braunschweig, the last major city in the Federal Republic, where many East German shoppers embarked to return to the Democratic Republic. The huge crowds had somewhat subsided since the euphoria that began with the opening of the wall, a few weeks back. It was already commonplace.
The West German border guards went through the train checking the passports and disappeared. We arrived at the West German border station of Helmstedt where the locomotive was changed from an electric to a diesel- since there are few electric powered trains in communist countries- and then nothing. I told my wife to look out for stringent control by the “Grenzpolizei der DDR” – dogs, soldiers checking the roof and toilets for stowaways, taking apart bedbunks, using mirrors to check all hidden recesses- and then to look for the watchtowers and huge trenches dividing East and West Germany in the countryside; the only other man made division which can be seen from space with the Great Wall of China.
Nothing happened. The train kept going and the entire countryside became white with frost, and a thick layer of mist and fog. The sun was but a dim circle. This melancholic scenery was the only indication that we had entered the dreaded East German State. The frozen countryside was interminable. It felt like we were in Siberia. Above all there were no people, and very few homes to be seen, purposefully, except in the immediate vicinity of the few train stations we hastily passed by.
An East German border guard finally came by, looked at our passports, took a transit visa which was on a separate piece of paper, from the portable mini briefcase hanging around his neck, which once opened doubles into a convenient mini desk ready with stamps, visas, and all bureaucratic paraphernalia required for customs purposes. This will undoubtedly remain as one of the most practical vestiges of communism. He stamped the visa, courteously handed us the whole thing back, and left. My wife looked at me as if all I had told her in the past about rigid border controls had been a product of my innermost fantasies. The trip was without incidence. So much that I decided to take photos of isolated wood fences along the landscape to pretend they were part of the wall, so as not to disappoint anyone expecting a modicum of excitement for future slide presentations. The waiter came by to ask us to go to the restaurant car. When we declined, because we had too many suitcases which we couldn’t leave behind, he even offered to bring us two gristly Wienerschnizels, which we gladly accepted.
The train entered West Berlin at the border station of Berlin Wannsee, to go on to our final destination of Berlin Zoo station, the central station in West Berlin, aptly named for it’s location next to one of the world’s largest, and most diverse zoos.
My wife suggested that we bring our suitcases to the entrance door, so that we could quickly get off the train once we arrived. I declined, saying that there had been few people on the train so far, and that it probably wouldn’t be a problem getting off. My mistake.
The train pulled into the station, and was continuing on to Warsaw. As soon as it stopped, the doors flung open and a human tidal wave came into the car, pushing and shoving. They came on with huge television sets, suitcases, boxes. Just foraging their way forward. I quickly took one of the suitcases and fought my way through the narrow hallway, as I asked them to let us get off. They were totally expressionless, like greedy automatons. They mindlessly pushed ahead like a herd of cattle. They were Poles eager to get on the train to Warsaw like there was no tomorrow. After five minutes, I finally got to the entrance area where I dropped the one suitcase and painfully struggled back to the compartment to get the other suitcase and the three smaller pieces of hand luggage. It was a nightmare, the flood of Poles was increasing by the second. Women were being pushed against the walls of the hallway. People were pushing forward with their huge boxes. I am usually not one to panic, but I was totally powerless and afraid the train was going to leave any minute. I kept screaming that we must get off, but all in vain. I told my wife to start throwing the luggage out of the window, and that we should jump after them. I was also concerned for the suitcase I had left at the end of the car. Could I ever get back there to retrieve it. I freaked out when I realized that I couldn’t even throw the luggage, or my wife out because people had started crawling in through the windows. There seemed to be no escape. It was like an invasion of locusts. As my frustration increased, I began to aggressively push my way against this human tide as if my life depended on it. We finally made it out of the train with all our luggage after an interminable fifteen minutes. We both sat on a luggage cart shaking and totally drained of any strength we had left. We hadn’t experienced this even on our second class travels through India, whose trains have a reputation for being full to capacity.
As we sat on a luggage cart, a tall, well groomed, impeccably dressed man, erect as a lamppost, came and asked me in German: “Is this the train to Warsaw?”
“Yes, you’d better get on.” I replied in the same tongue.
“It seems full.” He replied with a shy smile, and dazed abandon. Then just turned around and walked away, strait as an arrow. We began to laugh hysterically, as the crowds on the train gawked at us, some embarrassed, some oblivious.
This type of situation was to be seen throughout the West Berlin subway stations and other means of public transportation, although it slowly subsided as the novelty of new found freedoms wore off. The Poles were the primary black marketeers. Buying cheap goods in East Berlin and selling them in the West. Buying goods in the West and taking them up to Poland. Poles were considered the Americans of the East Block, because they were allowed to have Dollar bearing interest accounts from money they acquired working abroad. A legal and common practice in Poland for years often yielding higher interest rates than Western markets as an additional incentive. They would then go to other East Block countries, especially Hungary, to purchase goods they could not get in Poland. This was one of the many ironies of East Block nations: Poles have ample cash and few consumer goods, Hungarians have plenty of consumer goods and little cash, East Germany has the highest standard of living in the East Block, but total travel restrictions; until November 9th.
The next day, our friend Carmen, from Frohnau, a Northern West Berlin suburb, located in the French sector, wanted to show us the sights. I made it clear to her that during this trip, my only concern was to get a perspective of the divided city, and not the usual historical sights. I could always visit the few remaining historical sights anytime in the future. At this particular time in history, the particular human events were of interest. Just a few weeks earlier, the wall had opened up. Something that no one thought would occur within their lifetime; not even spy novelist John Le Carré as he stated on French television. Having visited East Berlin on several occasions, but never West Berlin, I needed to compare this unique historical situation, before it changed forever.
Carmen wanted to take us to the KaDeWe. The largest and most unique department store on the continent. The Harrods of Berlin. Who cares, I thought. She insisted that it was worth the time and that she only wanted us to see the food section on the top floor. Besides it wasn’t too far from the hotel, on the Kurfürstendamm or “Ku’damm,” the main shopping hub, and central artery of West Berlin.
The weather was cold -5C (23F), and there were constant smoke alerts. All evils came from the Eastern sector of the city, so why no all pollutants, like coal smoke, and the added pollution from the two-stroke “Trabi” cars belonging to newly freed adventurous East Germans. The East German invasion of shoppers had somewhat subsided since the last few weeks when the wall came down, but was still in vigor. There were regular smoke alerts, and my wife had severe itching of the eyes as a result of the pollution. I was relieved to discover that you don’t only see the air you breathe in Los Angeles.
We entered the KaDeWe and began another struggle to get to the food market on the top floor. Between the throngs of Christmas and East German shoppers it wasn’t as frustrating as the Polish invasion on the Warsaw train, or the subways, but crowded nonetheless.
The elevator finally arrived to the top floor after an omnibus ride that stopped on every floor, as hordes rushed in bearing gifts like the Three Wise Men.
I travelled extensively, and I have seen all types of food markets. From the most extravagant to the most rudimentary. However, what we discovered was impressive. There was the whole floor of a department store with the best quality foods from all over the world, displayed with German precision and cleanliness. Each section had an area where customers could sample that section’s delicacies. Many would just sit on stools around the bar, or at tables, depending on the arrangement, and socialize. So much for the American fifteen minute lunch break.
I do not mention this episode for purely gastronomical reasons, but to show the disillusionment felt by those who came from the other side of the wall. I lived in the West and I was impressed. East Germans were at first astonished and happy, but once the euphoria subsided, it was quickly replaced with anger. The feeling of having been cheated and betrayed for thirty years. Why couldn’t they have shared in this wealth. Why had they been locked in for so long.
The last remaining justifications for these questions vanished when there were increasing rumors of corruption and unsocialist behavior, like the lavish lifestyles of the top communist party leadership in the Northern East Berlin suburb of Wandlitz, where they retained opulent residences with modern Western appliances, servants, private boat docks, et cetera. There was increasing evidence that top cronies of former leader Erich Honecker, like former economic minister Gunter Mittag and cohort, Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski had embezzled millions -over 100 million- of dollars in hard currency. This further disgusted the population and few remaining party loyalists who had certain beliefs in the system and in government austerity measures for socialist development. This led to the complete communist leadership collapse the next day, December 3rd, whereby Mr. Egon Krenz, who ousted Mr. Honecker, and the Politburo resigned en masse.
We proceeded to the Strasse des 17 Juni, which leads to the Brandenburg Gate. As I mentioned, no one has access to the gate itself except for Warsaw Pact military personnel, and Communist party officials. The wall is directly before it on the Western sector, and there is a no-man’s land on the Eastern sector, whereby the access is barricaded approximately one hundred meters before the gate.
All along this Western section of the wall, there is a narrow path bordering the wall. There, people were strolling and watching the scattered entrepreneurs, hammering away at the wall to get a piece of the rock. The whole area sounded like a quarry. No matter what the size of the hammer and the chisel, the wall still broke off into small, thin pieces.
The same scene was prevalent next to the wall at Checkpoint Charlie, around Friedrichstrasse. There, the Americans were, of course, the best equipped. With professional tools: large, sturdy hammers, giant chisels, goggles, gloves, the works. “Where’s the jackhammer?” I asked.
As we continued walking alongside the wall, we noticed this awkward looking youth holding a torn piece of aluminum piping and walking with great determination and anger. He then stopped, looked up at the wall and began whacking it with the thin pipe like a madman. I could either conclude that he was either trying to dislodge a loose piece or that he was punishing the wall. In any case, he didn’t have an easy task ahead of him.
Surprisingly, West German border guards would stroll by the wall in duos and aggressively confiscate the weekend miner’s hammers. Maybe they thought that they would soon be out of a job. A few minutes later, the East Germans would come by in pairs, relaxed, hands behind their backs, as if on a weekend stroll, amiably smiling at everyone. As if to say: “You see, we are not the bad guys after all.” There was a trio of East German guards hunched over the wall, peering down, completely at ease, enjoying the activity below. They couldn’t have been over twenty one years old.
A nine year old girl peered through one of the recent slits between the concrete block sections which make up the wall. What she saw was no longer really forbidden but would soon be accessible to her. Maybe she even was from the other side. It was no longer an issue.
My friend Carmen, always the philosopher, was outraged at anything to do with this wall. She didn’t want to come and see it. She disliked the foreigners who came to collect pieces of it, often for profit, rightly saying that it was just a passing fad and not a reality for them. She even refused to have her picture taken in front of it. For Carmen, and many Germans, it is a symbol of oppression, a wall of shame, which they do not want to be a part of in any way, and certainly don’t appreciate all the media hype. However toward the end of the day, after witnessing all the excitement and confusion, she grabbed my arm, and shyly said in a soft voice. “Please take a photo. For when I have children.” I took a snapshot of her in front of a side view of the Brandenburg behind the wall and the old Reichstag beyond, on the Westside, with a trio of border guards standing atop the wall, thumbs confidently tucked in their belts, peering down, smiling. It was a majestic site, with the warm winter light hitting the sides of the imperial buildings, giving them a rich golden appearance of contrast.
At the end of Strasse des 17.Juni, facing the Brandenburger Tor, there were large demonstrations, from the Polish Solidarity to anti fascists, to neo Nazi’s, and best of all a group of leftists chanting the communist Internationale to amused East German guards lying down atop the gate. “Le monde a l’envers,” as the French saying goes.
Another presence stood behind the crowds in front of the wall. Crying out for all the oppressed around the world: “Freiheit! Freiheit! Freiheit!” His plight and those for whom he cried out, was finally being heard through the cracks all across the East, to the Pacific, after forty four years of silence. German sculptor, Gerhard Marcks’ “Der Rufer,” (the Crier) placed there eight years after his death and six months before the collapse of oppression throughout Europe, could not have been present at a more auspicious time. The call of this forlorn man, cupping his hands around his mouth, was not only being heard but being answered at a phenomenal pace.
On the other side of the Brandenburg, the wall was immaculate, totally graffiti free, obviously because of it’s inaccessibility. Although right after the opening, a French company sent gallons of paint for East German artists to start painting that side of the wall. The government agreed to certain sections, and the artists needed little convincing.
Throughout the years, this wall has stimulated remarkable creativity and humor among artists from the world over, which will hopefully be preserved for historical and artistic purposes, and not for profit.
We were told on the East side that due to the extreme thickness of the wall, approximately nine meters, in front of the Brandenburg, it will not be torn down but that two gaps will be made on each side of it. Which is exactly what the two German governments ended up doing right before Christmas, on December 22, 1989.
As we walked down Unter den Linden, it was as I remembered it. Quite, serene, and chilly. I always seem to choose to go on those trips during the coldest season. It must be a subconscious masochistic effort on my part. Every Time I go to the East Block, winter seems to be there.
My wife expressed the same feelings I often conveyed to her. Like walking down an old European boulevard, during our childhood. Clean, quite, with few people, few crowds. Not the push and shove of the other side. Frozen in time with the smell of coal of yesteryear. Never tell an East Blocker that you enjoy their cities because they remind you of how Europe must have felt like some thirty odd years ago. I did that once in Poland, and the reaction was definitely not one of appreciation. “That was not intended,” I was bluntly told, with a menacing finger pointing at me.
We walked by the Bebel Platz, formerly Opernplatz, where suddenly out of the cold and the serenity, echoes could be heard from the past. On that spot in 1934 Dr. Goebbels organized the largest book burning ceremony to weed out undesirable authors from good German thinking. It was the period where everyone screamed. The ones in power screamed the loudest, as their victims screamed. Some screamed of arrogance, some from frustration, some of elation, most eventually from despair, as they all collectively fell into the darkness, deprived of any remaining rights of human decency.
The wall surrounding the Brandenburg gate, and the rest of West Berlin, is the reminder of that darkness to a country who plunged Europe into despair. A reminder by an equally ruthless Stalinist regime who’s people suffered the largest number of casualties from the madness, and imposed an era of deprivation and shame on a conquered continent. The Soviet Union having lost twenty seven million.
The Brandenburger Tor, the symbol of Imperial Berlin was built in 1788-89 by the neo-classicist architect Carl Gotthard Langhans. It has since been the symbol of Germany. A symbol of victory for victorious Prussian armies who marched triumphantly beneath it. A symbol of humiliation by Napoleon’s armies who entered Berlin through it. A symbol of rebirth and decline as lauty storm troopers and SS men organized massive torch parades under it’s columns. Various German army divisions proudly celebrated as Europe was being conquered, until one of the last oddities of the Third Reich, as General Jukow’s bomb’s rained all over Berlin, a last small contingent of troops was dispatched with marching band, amidst the ruins, to parade in full uniform, under the gate, in honor of Hitler’s 56th birthday, on April 20th, ten days before his suicide. Ever since it has stood as a symbol of a punished and divided nation, aptly demarcating two different worlds. One, communist, stretching Eastward through Siberia and ending at Vladivostok. The other, capitalist, spreading Westward through the Atlantic and across the American plains.
From this devastated city, little that was remains. Only isolated buildings and mementos. Otherwise, everything is postwar. Most people are shocked by how little remains. The famed Alexanderplatz, the eclectic and shady quarter of pre-war Berlin, with its cobblestones and old buildings, dramatized by Alfred Döblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” are no longer to be found. Instead, there is a huge modern mall area with massive East Block style hotels, and the pride of East Berlin, “Fernsehturm” the TV tower, affectionately nicknamed “Telespargel” (tele-asparagus), majestically rising above a red neon sign, “Neues Deutschland,” the New Germany.
It reminded me of the last time I was in East Germany, when the signs of change were nowhere to be found, I liked to tease people about the nostalgic titles still being used in the New Germany such as the daily “Neues Deutschland,” or “Deutsche Reichsbahn,” the national railway which kept its old name according to a postwar agreement. They would look at me with pride and disdain, saying, “aren’t they great names?” I would counter by saying that they were used during the Nazi era and did not have a very positive connotation to outsiders. They would simply reply, that it could not have any bearing because all the fascists were in West Germany and that the New Germany had never been polluted by such ilk. I often heard these shameless, ethnocentric, types of arguments throughout the East Block. It always fascinated me, how shamelessly they would endlessly propagate these arguments. Contrary to common perceptions, I never had problems approaching people in communist nations, but I often had these type of foolish arguments. I guess Lenin had a point when he thought the Germans would make good communists.
During part of the trip to East Berlin, or Berlin, as it’s simply known in the New Germany, we travelled with an Englishman named Michael, whom we met at checkpoint Charlie, where “Charlie’s retired, November 10, 1989,” as the clever graffiti reads, on the section of the wall before the checkpoint.
As we waited in line to have our passports checked, this rather distinguished white haired man, fully equipped with ski jacket, camera, and small backpack, approached me with what seemed to be authoritative German, and even rumbling his R’s, which I guess is the only way to authoritatively exercise one’s knowledge of that language. He asked me if he was waiting in the correct line. I replied in equally authoritative German that it was, but that this particular checkpoint was for foreigners, and that Germans had their own checkpoints. For some reason, I managed to pull it off, and he mistook me for a German. He therefore asked me what I was doing waiting at the wrong checkpoint. I didn’t know whether to feel flattered. Too bad the cold war was over, I might have become a good spook. I told him that I was American and he then admitted to being English. I asked him that with my complexion, brown eyes and black hair, he must have therefore assumed I was Bavarian. He didn’t have much to say to that, and even believed me. As we waited in line we talked of different matters concerning our two respective nations. When it came to the issue of drugs in England, he didn’t believe it to be a major problem beyond “the traditional sniffing of glue, and such like substances.”
Anyhow, on a quiet stroll back at afternoon’s end on Sunday, December 3rd, with Michael, we desperately tried to find a table for coffee and pastries. It was -5C, and we were tired and hungry. The tea rooms were pleasant but packed, although there seemed to be plenty of them. Typically of communist countries, there are not that many facilities for the number of people. When you consider East Berlin has 1.236 million (156sq mi) versus 1.879 million (185sq mi) people in the West, you realize the scarcity of facilities and the general absence of crowds in the streets.
In the tea room, we were all questioning the poor waitress as to what one could get for the minimal amount of allocated East German Marks we had left. Most foreigners become increasingly conscientious of what they spend in these countries because they have to change a certain amount of hard currency to enter, and are not allowed to take any out. The authorities usually don’t check but most people are fearful anyway. Besides it cannot be traded in external markets, so except for collecting purposes it is useless. I must add, from experience, that most Westerner’s fears in communist countries seems to be instilled by their own peer group and group organizers who in order to avoid any potential problems instill the fear of God and Lenin into their compatriots. I have rarely had any confrontations with the locals or the authorities, and have always found them to be quite receptive, as long as one doesn’t infringe on their taboos, like in any society.
I always end up feeling ashamed because one would normally end up spending too much money in the West, while in the East, the most open handed become misers. Of course, I guess they are not to be blamed because there is little to buy that is up to Western standards. That’s the greatest dilemma of these countries and why they have to update or simply remove an antiquated system of centralized production. This is the central, and only real premise of Perestroika, not democracy but economic parity with the West. Motivation, through self determination, means economic prosperity. I think! After all, let’s not forget that Gorbachev is a communist in the true sense of the word.
I barely had enough for coffee, and since I was hungry, I decided to pay in Deutsche Marks and keep the remaining East German bill (DDR Mark) as a souvenir. I always valued keeping bills as souvenirs instead of buying outdated, colorized postcards.
When we were all satiated, warm, and rested, we proceeded to walk back towards the checkpoint. On our way we noticed masses of people huddled in front of SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) Socialist Unity Party headquarters, the ruling communist party of the New Germany. There, different politicians were making fiery speeches denouncing the party’s role and abuses during the last few decades. A few people I talked to, which included party members, said the whole politburo and Mr. Krenz had just resigned because of past criminal activities against the people, and that the party was reforming internally.
As I mentioned earlier, many were angered at the corruption from Honecker cronies which ran in the hundred million dollar figure. Even remaining party loyalists who truly believed that certain austerity measures of the last thirty years were in the name of positive socialist development became disillusioned and outraged at the scope of theft and hypocrisy of the men of Wandlitz, the glitzy party suburb, North of Berlin.
Some members threw down their party memberships and trampled them, exclaiming that a whole nation had been imprisoned for decades just to be plundered by bureaucrats. The culprits were indeed criminals, having deprived their own people of their freedoms and aspirations, for personal greed and self advancement.
One cannot but stop to wonder. Autocrats throughout the world never seem to realize that in the end, no accumulation of material wealth can replace the power they would one day lose. The Shah and Marcos learned this. Although their loot paid for their expenses in exile, they were persecuted, broken men. Men like Somoza and Ceaucescu never had the time to reap the interest, much less the capital of their booty. The most fortunate of twentieth century despots, and probably the most ruthless, was Stalin, who died on his deathbed, the most powerful leader in the world after having assembled the largest empire. Although his extreme paranoia left him discontented.
I remember asking a Jewish family in Moscow a question which always left me perplexed. “Who was worse in your opinion, Hitler or Stalin?” “Stalin. “They said after little hesitation. “Because with Stalin, no one ever knew where they stood, no matter what position they held. With Hitler, people had a better idea where they stood, depending on race or political affiliation.” The worst of two evils I guess. I always felt sorrow for the Russians who were relieved when they thought the Nazi hordes would deliver them from Stalinist slavery, to only find out that the former classified them as subhuman.
When officials finished telling us of their plans for reform, my wife briskly stuck out her hand, wishing them luck and congratulating them. It was such a sudden response that they were somewhat startled. They awkwardly removed their gloves to shake our hands, not quite knowing what to do. After they left, Michael somewhat perplexed, whispered to my wife, “Do you think we did the right thing? You know, after all, they are Communists!” My wife just eyeballed me as we departed.
The same Michael, had earlier shown remorse at how the RAF high command resorted to the bombing of Dresden on February 13 and 14, 1945, with 800 aircraft, which devastated the city, and killed upward of 35,000 people. He thought that they (General “Bomber” Harris) would have been tried as war criminals had Hitler won the war, “and rightly so,” he said. I proceeded to relieve him of his passing guilt by reminding him what it would have felt like living under the Nazi boot. He was quickly relieved, and we moved on.
By the way, I always found it ironic that Bavaria, the cradle of Naziism, was left relatively intact, while the other states German states were not so lucky.
Like most visitors of these parts during these historical times, I wanted to bring back a piece of the wall. A practice which many, more philosophical, Germans didn’t take kindly to as I mentioned earlier. The only problem was that no matter how hard, or how well equipped one was, only small chunks would chip off. Concrete takes upward of twenty years to cure completely, and once its cured, it’s definitely cured. A kid in his early teens was selling thin contorted small pieces sprawled on old computer printouts. It was inconceivable for me to buy a piece. It wouldn’t mean a thing.
My wife had collected tiny morsels from my isolated mining endeavors, whenever I found someone kind enough to let me borrow their tools for a few minutes. But I wanted something more substantial, to serve a purpose; artistic or otherwise. I had studied this period of history so extensively, it was important to me.
Carmen, on the other hand was shocked at this grotesque quest for souvenirs by everyone, but she half heartedly agreed that it would not be beneath me to have a piece.
We were to meet Carmen at the hotel on our return from the New Germany to West Berlin.
After we washed up, a knock came on the door and there she was with a funny mischievous expression, half embarrassed, carrying a heavy black canvas bag. Out came a large incongruous chunk of wall, of about one cubic foot, with metal reinforcement rods and barbed wire still attached to it. She had gone to dislodge it while out walking the dog, with her mother, near her home in the French sector in the Northern suburb of Frohnau. There was this loose piece of wall where someone had been shot trying to escape a few months earlier.
We were to leave island Berlin by plane. I wanted to take the train, but the irony is that it’s often cheaper to go by plane. For some unknown reason, there always seems to be some special discount rate creeping up on me. Although one saves time, I find short airplane rides to be quite exhausting.
A postwar agreement only permits allied aircraft, flown by allied pilots to fly in or out of West Berlin, in three assigned corridors, as is the case for trains, and automobiles. Only since early 1990 is Lufthansa allowed to fly in. Whenever the West German Chancellor would fly in to West Berlin, he would have to disembark his plane in West Germany, and board an allied aircraft for the remainder of the journey.
This also illustrates the inevitable fact that Berlin is still under military occupation, and that it is not part of the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany, but has its own imposed rules, and local government. The Four Power Status-United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union-is still a fact of daily life.
The Allied armies hold parades throughout the year as the Russians do in their sector in East Berlin. A constant reminder of the status quo, and the fact that Germany never signed a peace treaty, at the end of World War II.
These factors coupled with the fact that Berlin was the capital and cultural hub of Germany create an atmosphere and way of life that is different from the rest of the country. Since the war, it’s peculiar isolation as a political island in the middle of East Germany, and it’s Four Power Status, have magnified these differences.
The people are definitely more cosmopolitan and liberal than in the rest of Germany, because of these factors. Many Berliners I talked to said they would have difficulties living in any other part of Germany.
The attitudes towards the Allies are mixed. The younger, postwar, generation seems to have a greater affinity for the French, and unlike the rest of the nation, many speak fluent French as well as English. This affinity for the French is in part cultural and also a force majeure.
The United States is widely viewed as imperialistic, regarding it’s policies throughout the world, and especially Latin America. In a culturally free spirited, and politically liberal minded city like Berlin these issues are taken seriously. Good thing we left right before the U.S. invasion of Panama.
The English, as usual, don’t really mingle too much with the natives, and are mostly isolated and aloof. This was their strength during colonial times, but in today’s world it just seems to create resentment.
This leaves the French as a more palpable alternative, closer in Continental thinking, and more willing to mix with the locals. Besides, the French contingent is mostly made up of younger troops. Most of them draftees, in their early twenties.
I wrapped my large chunk of wall inside the canvas bag Carmen gave me, checked in the luggage and took the wall as carry on. When I got to the security check, this large Germanic woman, reminiscent of Hitler’s Maidens, forbade me to take it on and said that it must be checked with the rest of the luggage.
I went back to complain to the young fair haired girl at the check in counter, who was surprised, and mentioned that security people can often be a nuisance. I guess the whole concept of security connotes being a pest to some in order to protect others. She went to discuss the matter, but to no avail, since the Germanic Cerberus had the final authority when it concerned matters of security. She simply said that it might fall on someone’s head, and that was the end of that.
I asked the ticket girl to make sure that it was safe and asked her to stick a fragile sticker on the bag. She laughed. “OK, but it’s lasted thirty years. I am sure that it will make this trip.”
Once the euphoria at the opening of the wall subsided, people became less emotional and more realistic. The harsh reality is not really an issue of brotherly love but boils down to pure economic interests. The governments on the other hand are intent on unification for the long term. With the option gone of East Germany as a socialist alternative to West Germany, it is difficult to substantiate this separation any longer for most Germans, or logically for most. Many Germans are afraid of the East’s integration and would prefer a nebulous East Germany, although as a question of pride and facility, the majority favor unification. West Germans are afraid of the drain that it will create on their economy especially if the West German Deutsche mark replaces the East German Ostmark-DDR mark-which could have strong inflationary consequences, and wipe out most East German’s savings. On the other hand the new cheap manpower and rebuilding of obsolete industries in the East are a great asset for West German businesses.
East Germans are terrified at the thought of their savings becoming worthless, their becoming second class citizens, and their country and it’s social benefits being overrun by a system they are not familiar with. The capitalist system can indeed be quite ruthless when a nation and a people have been subsidized for so many years. The thought of their new freedoms being overrun by their rich West German neighbors without their having a chance to enjoy the benefits, in their own way frightens them. It is however a solution of facility for most East Germans because unlike other East Block countries they can hasten their recovery by just being saved by the Bonn Government. There are certain advantages to this, which often means sacrificing your own values and way of life.
Basically, it would be easier for everyone to keep both Germanys separate, including for the Germans, but as the lure of unification as a gut reaction of nationalistic pride approaches it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the prize away any longer. A prize which scares many. The best example, was Poland’s recent request to keep Russian troops in for protection while not too long ago, they wanted them out.
When I asked people where they thought the capital would be in the event of reunification, many would humbly reply that it must remain in Bonn. I knew that Berlin would be a controversial choice, bringing back un-democratic memories, but nonetheless a symbolic one. The Reichstag has not been in use since it was burnt -by the Nazis- in 1933. This action generated the end of German democracy, and it has not been used since, although it has been almost entirely rebuilt and used for certain state functions. The re-opening of the Reichstag would signify the end of the partition, the return to democracy, and the real end of World War II.
If this is to be, one can only hope that the long and painful lessons which all have suffered will not be forgotten in the ensuing euphoria and the normalization between the two cities and two nations. The German’s always had the potential to excel, no matter what extreme they chose. Let’s hope that in their unity they will not aspire to the arrogance and nationalism of the past, and will fully integrate in the European continent.
Furthermore, it will be to everyone’s advantage to have a united Germany in the European Community. Not only because Germany is crucial to the EC concept-Germany and France being the driving force-, but because all nations will then be interlinked, which will create more check and balances, and will limit radical actions by individual nations. Also, with the diminishing influence of the two superpowers it will be to their advantage to leave matters of security to a unified European continent, and avoid at all cost the creation of vacuums and non defined spheres of influence, which was the case between the wars. The superpowers should not be hasty, and fully participate in these negotiations until all parties feel secure.
Only then will the “Crier’s” call be truly heard.
Since those cold historical days in 1989 many changes have taken place. Some positive for some, some negative for others, and definitely too rapid a change for most in both Germanys. West Germans have felt abused and taken advantage of in other ways feeling they have to work and unfairly allocate monies to subsidize their “less qualified” Eastern brothers. The East Germans on the other hand feel they haven’t had the chance after twenty four years to naturally emerge and adapt themselves to their new found freedom but have instead been thrown into a radically different system and have felt humiliated by it. These changes should have been more gradual as I mentioned earlier so that everyone could adapt and retain their integrity, but the politicians seized the day and wanted to get things moving and irreversibly on the way. There is also something to be said for this kind of shock treatment which could only have worked within the two Germanys.
As for Carmen and many other native Berliners who had such high hopes of these changes bringing “Island Berlin” out of it’s stifling isolation, they have moved elsewhere because this is exactly what happened. Berlin has been thrown at the center of the world stage and this expansion, change, massive international influx and the problems these bring have proven too harsh for many natives to enjoy.
So is the price of a quick fix. One that will no doubt pay off. And nothing worthwhile ever pays off without a sacrifice.
The Crier’s plea for freedom has been heard but should stand as a reminder to the Germans and all nations that the price of oppression, suffering caused to one’s own people and others, and the adaptation and re-adaptation of the past decades should never be forgotten.
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