Looking Past the Wall
The first time I went to Berlin, all I could think about was what if one night while I was at university someone had put up a Wall straight down Lane Avenue, right outside my dormitory window, clear through Upper Arlington, leaving my parents on the other side. For 30 years. It would still be there. My mother would have died before I saw her again. The strain might have done for my father as well. Everything would have been different. The Berlin Wall happened so fast. Would I have known what the barbed wire in the morning meant and thrown myself over it? Probably not.
But the Wall came down! Glorious day ~ the world celebrated ~ Germany reunited. That horrible time was over. The privation of life behind the Iron Curtain would soon be a thing of the past. Those poor souls in the East could step back into the sunlight of freedom.
Last month, I spent time with two real live East Germans! Christian and Kati are young, were still children when the Wall came down, but children are more aware of their surroundings than I give them credit for. They also listen to the voices passing overhead. These two remember and are willing to share their stories and perspectives. It wasn’t what I expected.
After the War, the West began to put itself back together. Even after a period of distrust, restriction, and dismantlement, the need for Germany’s participation in the process was recognized. As stated in the Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive 1779, “An orderly and prosperous Europe requires the economic contributions of a stable and productive Germany.” Stable and productive, I love Germans. Italy, I’m looking at you. As the Marshall Plan was being hammered out, Russia was invited to the table. Stalin and his Foreign Minister Molotov (yes, that Molotov) wanted no part of it. At the Soviet Szklarska Poręba Meeting, the Marshall Plan was described as “the American plan for the enslavement of Europe.” In the West, Marshall was offering aid, but asking Europe to develop their own plan for its use. So, West Germany would receive aid and East Germany would be, in fact, paying reparations to the Soviet Union, who were rapidly cannibalizing their best industrial facilities. The East would not be rebuilt. Big, gray concrete apartment blocks went up in the particularly depressing architectural style of Early Klingon Academy.
Then came the Brain Drain. Many of those who could, fled to the West, particularly the young and educated. East Germans began to see themselves as those who were left behind. West Germans began to think of them in the same way. Who is left after the smart ones have escaped? In 1961, the Wall went up. Overnight. Families were separated. Individuals were cut off from their jobs. They carried on, aware through radio broadcasts of the growing disparity of their lives from those on the other side. The West was a land of milk and honey compared to life under Soviet occupation. It was not a friendly situation.
Christian tells the story of his elementary school, down the street from the Russian elementary school. The children did not play together. Once a year, each group would go to the school of the other and sing cultural songs for them. In a language the others did not know. Even at that age, he understood that this was some sort of fake show for the adults. It was just awkward.
Someone in West Berlin built a tower near the Wall so loved ones on either side could see one another, blow kisses and tears. It struck me as a tender gesture, better than the nothing available without it. But it was always the same people on the tower, waving down at the same people below. They grew accustomed to that relationship, the looking down. Those in the East became resentful at the apparent superiority complex of those up on the tower, the West. I can’t know if the Westerners truly felt that way, but the Easterners believed it. It wouldn’t be out of character for humanity.
But eventually the Wall came down and it was all beer and skittles for everyone, right? The mindsets, prejudices, and sensitivities cultivated by thirty years of separation and inequality remained, but there was no longer a wall between them. Christian’s first memory of his foray into the land of plenty was seeing a homeless man on the street. Not what he expected. He’d never seen one. Everyone in East Germany had a home; the water pressure and heat might have been sketchy, but it was a roof. And jobs, everyone had a job. With reunification, hundreds of thousands lost those jobs. Money was devalued. Pensions “recalculated” to the pensioners’ detriment. Publicly owned enterprises, to be transferred to the citizens who had built them, were sold to outside interests, then frequently closed. More job loss. Those homes? People who had fled to the West returned, claiming the homes they’d abandoned, which had been sold to those who stayed. None of this engendered warm feelings of reconciliation between the two Germanys. Neither did the overarching belief that if it came from the East, it was inferior to anything from the West, people included.
Money poured in, but people poured out. The decentralization of industry, which rebuilt western Europe after the War, was no longer a viable strategy. The world had changed. Former East Germany felt cheated again, first by the bad luck of being “given” to the Soviets rather than to anyone else, then to be stigmatized for it and for having found any good in it, then finally to be patronized with aid which no longer worked as well as it had for West Germany a half century before. Properties were bought, then renovated or not, and left standing empty when there was no local economy to fill them. The Brain Drain continued as opportunities abroad opened up for the young, educated go-getters. The quaint, but empty villages are sad, but not unique to the former eastern bloc. Little villages all over Europe are dying as the young move away to the cities.
Now I will confess my own prejudice. I expected to be able to identify the former sides of Berlin by the decrepit abandonment in the East. Yes, there are still places where the bullet holes are evident and the buildings need love, but it’s not a reliable diagnostic, there nor anywhere in Europe. On our first day in the city, Christian and Kati took us on a Berlin Wall exploratory tour. That misconception was put to rest. Even if the villages aren’t filling up, the cities are bustling and new, unlike cities in the West which were, to their aesthetic misfortune, rebuilt in the ’60s and ’70s. It is mind-boggling what has been accomplished in the last 25 years.
From the ladies who went out soon after their places were flattened and began the tedious work of cleaning the stones and bricks to be reused (yes, try reusing what we build with today if it gets knocked down) to the architects who found original schematics and did their best to truly rebuild the historical ~you forget that these buildings you see aren’t old, that they’ve been painstakingly reconstructed to resemble their past glory~ to the forward thinking engineers designing the future, the former East cities, particularly Berlin, are new, growing, exciting, and hopeful. (Yes, that’s all one sentence. I meant it that way. Don’t try this at home. I’m a professional. Now breathe.)
There is so much to take away from this experience, the personal stories, this view from ‘the other side.’ 1st: Don’t be so quick to judge; if it happened to them, it could happen to you. Be aware so that it doesn’t happen to anyone else. 2nd: Accept that there can be good in bad situations. Embrace good wherever you find it. 3rd: Understand that there can be bad in good situations. Don’t discount others’ experience.
Christian, Kati ~ thank you for opening your hearts, week after week, to people who are statistically set in their ways and beliefs, for doing your best to educate and enlighten, and for keeping your senses of humor through it all. I mean that, really. At least you’ll never forget us. Maybe you’ll even remember just how entertaining some of us were. God bless you.