It was icy. -21, if I remember correctly. January 1980. Berlin at the height of the Cold War was a very chilly and at times forbidding place to be. To the right a young Lizzy shivering at the bottom of the Russian War Memorial in Treptower Park, burial site of 15,000 soldiers who died during the liberation of Berlin at the end of World War II.
It seems incredible to those who grew up with the most tangible manifestation of the Iron Curtain that there are/will be generations for whom the Berlin Wall (13.8.1961 – 9.11.1989 ) is nothing other than a footnote in history. The Wall which divided Berlin, families and two world views, was built to stop the inhabitants of East Germany, DDR, defecting en masse to the West. In the words of Peter Schneider:
The ring around West Berlin is 102.5 miles in length. Of this, 65.8 miles consist of concrete slabs topped with pipe; another 34 miles is constructed of stamped metal fencing. Two hundred sixty watchtowers stand along the border ring, manned day and night by twice that many border guards. The towers are linked by a tarred military road, which runs within the border strip. To the right and left of the road, a carefully raked stretch of sand conceals trip wires; flares go off if anything touches them. Should this happen, jeeps stand ready for the border troops, and dogs are stationed at 267 dog runs along the way. Access to the strip from the East is further prevented by an inner wall which runs parallel to the outer Wall at an irregular distance. Nail-studded boards randomly scattered at the foot of the inner wall can literally nail a jumper to the ground, spiking him on their 5-inch prongs. It is true that long stretches of the inner wall still consist of the facades of houses situated along the border, but their doors and windows have been bricked up. Underground in the sewers the border is secured by electrified fences, which grant free passage only to the excretions of both parts of the city.
Fearful yet fascinating. While Schneider’s short 139-page novel contains much reportage, its prime concern is with the way the inhabitants of Berlin adapted to their unique circumstances. There are people born in West Germany who move to Berlin because it was a trendy place to be. There are East Germans who have defected to West Berlin in search of freedom and there are those who have chosen to stay in East Germany because they are convinced that the bounty of the West is just a mirage. The discussions between this wide mix of outlooks thought-provoking. Schneider’s focus isn’t outrage at the monstrosity of the wall which is a simple fact of life to his characters. He’s more interested in exploring the boundary between the state and the individual. Where does the state end and the self begin, he asks. How far are we conditioned by the place we are born in? He demonstrates this by citing varying examples of how the same news event was reported in the two Germanys. Or for example, this:
The Wall is hard to find on a city map in West Berlin. Only a dotted band, delicate pink, divides the city. On a city map in East Berlin, the world ends at the Wall. Beyond the black-bordered, finger-thick dividing line identified in the key as the state border, untenanted geography sets in. This is how the Brandenburg lowlands must have looked at the time of the barbarian invasions.
Schneider’s detachment from the outrage allows him to inject wit and humour, to indulge in the absurd, and incorporate many anecdotes of those who “jumped” the wall simply for the hell of it! It also allows him to show that we, humans, don’t need repressive governments to build boxes for us. We’re quite capable of doing that, on many levels, for ourselves. A theme, which reduces the Wall to a metaphoric allusion and, now that it is gone, ensures the continued relevancy of his novel.
20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I have to admire the prescience of the following:
It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.
Anyone who remembers the amazing events of November 1989 will know that it didn’t take all that long to destroy the physical wall and with it the DDR (German Democratic Republic). How long though did it take to reunify Berlin and Germany emotionally, psychologically and spiritually? Is that process complete or do Germans still differentiate between the “Westlers” (Westerners) and the “Ostlers” (the Easterners)? I look forward to finding out in Berlin next week. One thing’s for sure, 28 years after my previous visit, I’m going to find a very different city.
The Wall Jumper – Peter Schneider 1/2
Berlin – 1 day and counting.