Saturday, August 13, 2011

Die Mauer - 50 years ago today

Fifty years ago today the DDR built Die Mauer - the Berlin Wall.   As an ethnic German that comes from a family that was ethnically cleansed by the Soviets in 1939, the wall has been a big part of my life growing up.  

I only saw the wall in person in 1979 when I travelled to Poland with my parents and aunt Sabine.   On our return to the west we stopped for a couple of days in Berlin.   I was only 13, but the wall was already present in my mind because of my family.   The reality of what the city was like with the wall was quite bizarre.   A city with no hinterland, with no place to easily travel to.  Navigating around the city meant we ran into the wall from time to time.

The wall was there through my youth as this reminder that east and west were split.   There was an iron curtain and it split Europe in two leaving my families homeland under military occupation.  For us the division of the cold war was a constant in our house.  

As late as the spring of 1989 I honestly thought this wall would never come down.   As someone born four years after the wall was built, by the late 1980s it seemed as if it was always there and would always be there.   The wall was symbol of all of the communist oppression in eastern Europe.   The distance between east and west, communist and democratic, was short enough that you could look over the wall and see the other side.

People in the east could listen to rock concerts in the west.  I can not imagine what it must have been like to have been sealed into East Germany knowing a world where you had choice, you could speak your mind, you had basic human rights, was just a short distance away.

As a youth I could not see it, but now as a middle aged man I can see that the very existence of the wall meant that the communist regimes of the east could not survive.  The wall has an act of desperation that could not endure for generations.   Fifty years ago the SED in the DDR made the biggest admission that there regime was unsustainable and non functional through the building of that wall.   The only way to keep people in the country was to make the DDR a prison.  For 28 years everyone in East Germany was a prisoner,this is longer than the longest sentence without parole in Canada.

That day when the wall opened was a moment in my life I will always remember where I was.   I was in our living room listening to a report on CBC radio.   It was one more "We interrupt this program to bring you this report".   This happened so many times in 1989.  The report of the wall opening came during Morningside.  My first desire was to catch a plane to Berlin.   I would have to wait another year before I could get to Berlin and see the liberated city.

As wonderful as it was to truly see the end of communism in Europe, the end of the wall also meant the end of West Berlin.   West Berlin was this crazy anarchist city full of artists.     It was an utterly unique place on earth.   That city disappeared just as completely as the former DDR.
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