Thursday, September 25, 2014

In Which I Predict The Fall of The Wall In My Lifetime

In 1982, I was 20 years old when I moved to the U.S. from my native West Germany. I went to college and grad school. In 1984, I traveled to West Germany with an American friend who wanted to see communist East Berlin. I had never visited, nor did anyone in my family ever suggest it.

My mom joined us on the trip. We did the whole "day visa" jumping-through-hoops bureaucratic rigamarole. We could drive only a single pre-determined route through the part of East Germany that led to a divided Berlin, the so-called "Transit Highway". It was used by West Germans only to travel to West Berlin and back. Rest stops along the 100-mile stretch of East Germany were sparse, and located in the median of the highway. Stops elsewhere were illegal. Contact with East Germans was aggressively minimized.

We arrived at Checkpoint Charlie in West Berlin, where the real fun begun. Our visas and papers were processed, we had to leave all Western currency behind and were forced to buy about $100 in worthless East German "aluminum money", none of which we were allowed to bring back. Seriously, East German coins were made from aluminum. We were only allowed one small carry-on bag each. I had stealthily taken along some tokens of Western pop culture, such as baseball cards, small candy bars and a comic book. I got them in. I planned on "accidentally forgetting" them at various locations throughout East Berlin in the spirit of "Greetings from the West!"

We boarded an ancient-looking subway train that took us past crumbling, dilapidated platforms unused since WWII to the one subway station that remained operational in East Berlin, also used exclusively by Westerners traveling in and out. We found ourselves right near the historic Reichstag, even though that was not immediately evident. My mother recognized it. It was a broken, bombed-out shell of a building, had clearly burned at one point and been left to rot. Getting closer, the signs of neglect became even more evident, along with the reek of urine.

We moved on… and entered a colorless, decaying, utterly depressing cityscape. The absence of color was so complete it was jarring. No ads, no displays, no signage, no storefront displays, no signs at all of anything resembling commerce. No greenery. Blocky East German architecture clashed with once magnificent pre-WWII buildings now blackened with soot and not one repair made on their exteriors. 

This absence of color and vitality extended to the people we encountered, all dressed in grey, drab, utilitarian clothes. I looked at the few girls I saw and wondered what they would make of a colored hair tie. We did manage to spend some of our money at places that were simply named "Café" and "Restaurant", all of it clearly geared towards Westerners. Even after that, we were still flush with "East Mark" currency and had no place to spend any of it. Someone got a huge tip that day. Where they were going to spend it, I had no idea.

My plan to distribute my little tokens of Western culture didn’t go as smoothly as I expected. Thinking I’d get into the spirit of the thing that morning, I wore a bright red top. Wherever I went, that top was the most conspicuous thing around. People didn’t really look, though, like Westerners do when something appears out of place, so I proceeded with my plan.

None of us wanted to stay as long as we’d planned. Back on the subway we went, emerging at Checkpoint Charlie, where we were prepared to be "processed out". The most memorable part of the trip was still ahead of me. 

We entered passport control (one at a time), which put me alone in the same room with an armed-to-the-teeth East German border guard and a locked door between me and freedom. He was behind a huge wood and glass partition. I could only see him from the chest up, uniform, machine gun barrel and all. He was all of 19, if he was a day. I gave him my passport. He took it and placed it behind the partition where I couldn’t see what he was doing. I heard him flicking through it more than once. I had about 25 visa stamps in my passport at the time. He didn’t say anything for what seemed like an eternity. I just stood there and the silence went on long enough that I was starting to sweat bullets. All kinds of stuff went through my head. I worked myself up to near panic, thinking "Shit. Maybe they saw me leaving that stuff around East Berlin. Maybe they know I broke the rules. Shit. Maybe I was followed. Maybe they follow all visitors. Shit. Shit. Shit. What was I thinking?? They’re going to take me to an interrogation room never to be seen again!" I was on the verge of tears. Or fainting. Or a heart attack, or all of the above. I considered yelling for my mom. But what was she going to do? It was pure torture. In reality, the border guard probably looked at my passport for all of two minutes. 
He finally looked up at me, with not quite a smile, but interested. I didn’t want him to be interested! I wanted out of there!!

He asked: "Do you really live in America?" This blind-sided me so completely, I almost denied it. Finally, I managed to croak out: "Umh… Yes." "Do you like it?" he asked. Again, I was totally unprepared for the question and barely managed to answer a second time "Umh… Yes." Now I was confused as well as terrified and I considered faking a medical emergency. He had that not-quite smile again and handed me my passport back. "Thank you", he said and buzzed the door open. I fled. 

I still have the passport, now a historic relic, invalid, expired and issued by a country that no longer exists. Above is an example of the type of J-1 class U.S. student visa that probably got the border guard's attention. The visas took up two whole pages. Each year, I had to return to the U.S. Embassy in Bonn (then capital of West Germany), prove continued enrollment at a U.S. university and obtain the stamp that allowed me to live legally in the U.S. for a year. These days, I'm a legal U.S. resident by marriage to a U.S. citizen and my passport is a lot less colorful.

Once back safely on Western soil, my fear, terror and panic fell away and quickly, very quickly morphed into anger, then rage. 

Ok, so maybe the border guard delighted in making West German tourists sweat bullets; I could see how that would hold a certain appeal. But why ask about my adopted home country? There were a 1,000 other things more effective he could have mentioned, if he had just wanted to mess with me. No, I decided upon reflection. He was just curious, plain and simple. I mean, he was a teenager. Like me, he had never known anything but a divided Germany. Unlike me, he had never seen anything outside of Germany, and East Germany at that. He was asking me for first-hand info about a place he had only heard about. 

I have thought about this encounter a lot. The reason I got SO angry then was because I realized that all my fear, panic, terror - all of it was generated internally by ME based on what I had been conditioned to believe all East Germans with guns are like: Brutal, murderous, merciless. The actual moment of contact I had with the border guard was so far removed from all that it was ridiculous. Suddenly, in a very visceral way, I understood the nefarious power of propaganda. I almost ran back inside to tell the guard all he wanted to hear about America. However, by then my mom came out of the building. I took it out on her. 

"How could you let THIS happen?" I yelled. "What?" my mom, asked, bewildered. "THIS!" gesturing at the Berlin Wall behind her, "ALL of THIS!" Several others tourists were nearby and took note. "It’s wrong! It’s perverse! How could your generation put your children through THIS??" I was on a roll. "You know what? This will NOT stand! We will not put up with this! Not here, not in East Germany. My generation will make this RIGHT! This monstrosity – gesturing again at the Berlin Wall – we will demolish it! IN MY LIFETIME!"

During my tirade, my American friend had emerged from passport control, completely at a loss. She didn’t speak a word of German.

I wasn’t done, oh no. I gestured at the East German watch towers, each one holding a heavily armed East German soldier. "And YOU! Up there in your little towers with your big guns! Is THIS the life you want for yourself? For your kids? Guarding a rotting, decaying country! Yes, I KNOW! I was just THERE!"

Now my mom physically dragged me to the car and told me to shut the hell up, that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and do I want to get shot? But I was 22 by then, with almost a college degree and it wasn’t as simple as all that, not after what I had just experienced with the teenage border guard.

The ride back was tense. My mom kept insisting that if I knew what the Russians are capable of, I’d stop this foolishness. I, in turn, used the phrase "being fused into a sheet of radioactive glass" a lot. I knew very well what the Red Army was capable of. But I did not believe for a second that my peers on the other side of the Iron Curtain wanted to be fused into a sheet of radioactive glass any more than I did. "What do you think is going to happen if both Germanies decide to tear down that cursed Wall? The Russians are going to nuke us?!" "Yes!" my mom replied, with conviction.

At the first rest stop through East German territory, I seriously considered bolting in rebellion, against my mom, against the Berlin Wall, against the whole damn Cold War. Streak across the highway, disappear into the forest, find a small town, blend in for a while, maybe form a posse of like-minded people, spread the word, let freedom ring! I envisioned myself leading groups of people, challenging armed Stasi agents: "What are you going to do, huh? SHOOT me? Shoot ALL of us, right here? We are the SAME, you fool! Same culture, same language, same history, same ancestors! We are not mortal enemies, regardless of what our governments want us to think!"

This plan presented a number of practical obstacles as I pondered it, not the least of which being the conspicuous red top, the only one I had with me. I abandoned my crazy plan with a sigh, telling myself I didn’t really want to die that day, anyway. With all the nukes pointed at both Germanies 24/7, I wasn’t in too much of a hurry.

I returned to the U.S. and dealt with all things German as little as possible. Within the year I moved to Berkeley, CA, a self-proclaimed "nuclear-free zone", which felt at least a little like a symbolic victory, the best I could hope for at the time.

Ten years later, well after Mauerfall, I had personally spoken to enough former East Germans to realize a startling truth: My "crazy plan" may not have succeeded, but it likely wouldn’t have gotten me killed. As far as kindred spirits were concerned, I would have found many. By that time, many, many East Germans had long ago arrived at that same point where I found myself one fine day in 1984: They would rather face a totalitarian police state, stare down the guns and risk death than live for another second in fear with this twisted, perverted continuation of WWII that the career Cold Warriors just couldn’t let go.

In 1984 the time wasn’t quite right yet. Five years later, it all came together in a set of circumstances that saw East Germans determined to change their fate walking up to border guards, saying: "So, you’re gonna shoot us, or what? Because we’re LEAVING." A set of events that opened the flood gates and brought down the Berlin Wall, without bloodshed, much sooner than I expected in 1984.

Around 1990, in my hometown Bad Oeynhausen, soon after West Germany made the unprecedented decision to exchange worthless Eastern currency 1-to-1 for hard currency Deutschmarks, I ran into a woman, 40ish, in a supermarket, who was clearly from the East, based on her clothing. I decided to be a good Western ambassador and introduced myself. She regarded me with the kind of suspicion born from a lifetime of living in fear, but then opened up a little. She told me this was her first trip to the West. That she’d come across the border from her small town in the East by train to shop in the Western markets she’d heard about. She’d been told my hometown was a small, safe place with plenty of shops far enough away from the former East/West border that they weren’t continually picked clean. We were right next to the train station. I realized this woman was likely experiencing her first exposure to what food shopping in the West is like, what I took for granted my entire life. She looked at the large display of meats and sausages in front of us and frowned. She asked me "What do I get?" "Anything you want!", I answered, with a smile that was supposed to convey "Isn’t it GREAT?" She kept frowning and said "But who tells me what it is that I want?"

 Image credit: SZ Photo/Forum

At that moment I flashed back to my little "We are the SAME!" speech I had composed in my mind years earlier. I realized that I had vastly oversimplified the situation. That re-unification, if it was about to happen, would be for more difficult than the happy, ecstatic celebrations a few months before.

Also in 1990, West German scientists determined that all bodies of fresh water in East Germany – all of them – were so polluted that they were biologically dead. A team of Western European inspectors was sent to East Germany that same year to assess the state of East Germany’s numerous nuclear power plants, many of them with Chernobyl-class reactors. Stories circulated that, upon their return, every single one of the inspectors packed up their families and moved far, far away. This hastened the influx of East Germans into the West for reasons entirely different from shopping opportunities.

Three years later, many former West Germans began to clamor for the Wall to be put back in place. Cultural differences and animosity between the two sides hardened to the point that new labels emerged: "Wessies" and "Ossies", creating a different socio-cultural division that persists to this day. My dad, with his characteristic wry humor, began to refer to the new all-German national holiday, October 3, "Tag der deutschen Einheit" (Day of German Unity), as "Tag der deutschen Zwietracht" (Day of German Discord). 

It is up to my generation and the next ones to heal the lingering wounds created by a division that many Germans at the time on both sides tacitly accepted as punishment for German atrocities committed during WWII. It is not a coincidence that I was born into a divided Germany the year The Wall made the Iron Curtain real: 1961. Unlike most West Germans, I never mastered the art of ignoring The Wall and what it symbolized. East Germans never even had that option.

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