Monday, November 09, 2009

The Wall

Where were you on 11/9? I'm not sure. I was living in London, Ontario when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but I don't remember November 9th in particular. That whole year was full of momentous events - glasnost, perestroika, Solidarity, Tienanmen, Timosoara.
Today I remember 1986, three years before the Wall's fall, when a friend and I were in Berlin for a few days. That's me above, writing rude things about East German President Erich Honecker on the Berlin Wall (or more likely, "I wuz here").

Being at the Wall was an odd experience. Despite having grown up during the Cold War, having studied Soviet history in university, it was still felt strange to actually touch geopolitical reality. It was actually true, a country imprisoning its own people. A city literally divided by a giant wall. How could this really be?

From a tower near Potsdamer Platz I looked down at the Wall and saw that "the Wall" was actually a system of walls, fences and a barren no-man's land (see 1986 photo above). Talk among the tourists was that a mound of dirt in the middle of no-man's land was where Hitler's bunker was. The Platz was the site of the worst violence during the 1953 East German uprising. And the Wall was first breached at the Platz in 1989.

Today the Wall is long gone and Potsdamer Platz is full of glitzy corporate buildings (below in 2007). In her review of Frederick Taylor's book about the wall, Anne Applebaum wrote:
To anyone who remembers the surreal presence of the Berlin Wall, its absence now seems little short of miraculous. Walk from the Tiergarten, once in the West, across Pariser Platz, once a wasteland, and have a beer on the Unter den Linden, once in the East. Now it takes a few minutes; before November 1989, it wouldn't have been possible at all. Or drive through Berlin's western suburbs: Although there are neighborhoods where the streets form odd patterns, it is no longer possible to say which house was on which side of the border back then, so thorough has been the renovation and regeneration of the landscape. And yet at the time, the concrete structure of the Wall seemed so permanent, so indestructible.
Some folks aren't all happy with the shiny new Berlin and Germany. There's even a name for this nostalgia for the old days: ostalgie. (ost=east) Eleanor Wachtel interviewed prominent German writer Ingo Schulze yesterday on CBC's Writers and Company (replayed Wednesday or podcast). He grew up in the DDR (East Germany) and was happy the wall fell as he had the freedom to write. But he worries that in the new Germany "everything is commodified". He said in Deutsche Welle:
... public space is disappearing and being replaced by commercial space. Take Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. Only tourists go there. Locals never do. It's not a proper public space -- it's a space that has been rented out to businesses. Democracy is about having public spaces. In the DDR, public space could only be used for official events. And now the public space that we have access to and should be using has been hijacked by commercialism. People are reduced to mere consumers.
Or people say, "Well, at least we had jobs under Communism". Sure, and prisoners have jobs too! The Globe & Mail's Doug Saunders, in one of his excellent pieces about the Berlin Wall anniversary, points to Archie Brown's new book The Rise and Fall of Communism. Brown notes that a key cause of the collapse of communism in Europe was the giant loans these governments owed to western banks. The loans were used to try and approximate a Western standard of living. By 1989 the western debt was unsustainable. Other good books on the ills of Communism:
  • Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (2001) - A short overview from the Harvard professor and Reagan adviser: "Communism was not a good idea that went wrong; it was a bad idea"
  • Robert Service, Comrades! A History of World Communism (2007) - A scathing overview, with pithy lines such as calling Communist "fellow travelers" "Stalin's admiring slugs."
  • The Black Book of Communism (1999) - The groundbreaking catalogue of Communism's crimes which argued that Communism was morally no better than Nazism.
For a focused look at the history of the Wall here are two recent books:
A new book by Russian historian Constantine Pleshakov, There Is No Freedom Without Bread! : 1989 and the Civil War That Brought Down Communism notes that for the Soviet Bloc "making a living came first and was for many years almost enough to make the socialist experiment seem gratifying". But the command economy couldn't keep up its end of the social contract and the payment crisis accelerated discontent.

The human cost of living within the "socialist experiment", indeed the true nastiness of, in this case the DDR, is shown well in the 2006 German film, The Lives of Others. Even though it portrays a secret police officer ("Stasi") as having some sense of human decency, the overall picture gets the message across of a state that was a dark, Orwellian nightmare. It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.

For younger readers there is the graphic novel by Peter Sis, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Sis grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia before defecting in Los Angeles in 1982. In this book he tells his kids about his childhood, about learning at school to think and draw what he was told, and then his gradual rejection of Communism, thanks to things like rock and roll.

Next post - some Berlin fiction of note.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your blog! You didn’t mention the movie “Good Bye Lenin” – a lighter take on the fall of the wall. It’s worth a look (SAPL has a copy). Here’s the summary:
Alex's proud, socialist mother falls into a coma for eight months. When she wakes, her heart is weak, so Alex has to keep the secret that the Berlin Wall has fallen and capitalism has triumphed. What begins as a little white lie turns into a major scam. - Luise

10:54 a.m.  

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