The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall came down thirty years ago. It would not be original to say that it was the biggest geopolitical event of our lifetimes. What seems strange now, after the event, was the seeming permanence of the Cold War world. The Iron Curtain was a simple fact of life, a permanent arrangement of the world into two idealogical halves that would always be there. Indeed, in the 1980s, that difference seemed only to increase and harden. 

Looking back on it now, it does seem strange that we didn’t  think, despite the obvious economic failure, greyness and oppression, that this would ever  simply implode. The rockets seemed too big and the secret police too powerful. How do you overthrow a world of Orwell’s 1984 without an army doing so, as had happened in 1945? Gorbachev appeared as the great reformer but we all forgot de Toqueville’s dictum that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform itself.

Real cracks began to appear in 1989. People could get out through Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Neither of us had ever been to Berlin and we decided to do so urgently in order to see a city that was probably unique in human history. Why unique? I explained it to my children as like prison surrounded by free people - in reverse. The free people were inside a small city entirely surrounded by prisoners. That is a very strange concept.

We arrived on a hot June evening and West Berlin was at its best. It was tawdry - porn shops everywhere - and no beauty as all the fine imperial  buildings from the the 19th century are in the east and the modern in the west mostly built in the 1960s which was not an architectural vintage to savour. But it was throbbing with life out on the streets - noisy, edgy and filled with every variety of hair, tattoos and piercings around the K’damm - the main drag. No matter that we had been bought up with images of the wall surrounding the city, the reality of it cutting brutally across the Brandenburg Gate was still shocking. Two escapees had been shot in the no-mans land minefield earlier that year - even when it was becoming obvious that change was in the air. We had not appreciated what a green city Berlin is. We hired a car and spent a pleasant afternoon by one of the dozens of sylvan lakes. We took a wrong turning and suddenly found ourselves underneath a guard tower with two armed guards staring down on us. This was completely unexpected and shocking in such a rural context. 

The next day we visited the East. The way in was through Checkpoint Charlie which is just off the Freidrickstrasse, now the equivalent of Bond Street in modern Berlin. Guards used mirrors to inspect the underneath of the car before waving us through. The change was extraordinary. It was like turning off the colour function of a television. Everything was brown and grey and in stark contrast to the gaudy primary colours of the West - and empty except for a few Tabants that looked and sounded a crummy as they were. We drove down the Unter der Linden, the principal boulevard of the city, its magnificent architecture imposing - but dead. We found out why as we turned into a side street. Pretty well every building was a ruin behind the imposing facade. It was a Potemkin village - and a metaphor for the nasty, morally bankrupt regime that was the GDR. We drove through the sepia colours that dominated the East, past grim apartment blocks and shops that held only basic utilities. We parked and went for a walk in a park. Some old ladies were sitting by a lake feeding ducks. What tales did they have to tell, we wondered? All would almost certainly have been raped in the fall of the city to the Russians and many would have had to endure abortions as a result. They would have lived through the terrible years of the immediate post war with no men to help them - either killed or rotting in Russian labour camps. Most would have had to prostitute themselves to the occupying soldiery to feed their families. They would have had to endure opprobrium of the world, economic and physical ruin and then the long grim rule of the communist regime given physical form with the building of the wall in 1962 which would have separated them, probably for ever, from members of their families. What tales indeed. 

We drove back through Check Point Charlie that evening in thoughtful silence. The car was gone over with a fine tooth-comb by sullen border guards who eventually waved us through, back into the tawdry, colourful bedlam of the West where we breathed once again the air of freedom, deeply appreciative of the lucky lives that we were leading. 

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