Friday, September 26, 2014

Berlin Bleibt Mein Berlin

This post's title - Berlin Bleibt Mein Berlin - is a German song and sentiment from the 1930s, when the Nazis transformed the city. It means "Berlin will always be my Berlin". It regained popularity after the city's destruction in 1945, and in West Berlin after the division. It was meant to emphasize that the spirit of Berliners can never be broken, no matter what their circumstances, no matter what happened.

It was a way to cope with a nightmarish reality. This was Berlin, from 1945 to 1989: The Allied Sectors - French, British and U.S. - making up West Berlin, while the Soviet Sector became East Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie was in the American Sector, and connected to a single subway station in the Soviet Sector near the Reichstag. 

The thick black line through the city marks the location of The Wall. Surrounding the entire city of Berlin was East German territory. To get to East Berlin, West Germans had to traverse East German territory into West Berlin, and could go into East Berlin for the day, if they were willing to follow the rules and weren't spooked by an intimidating display of military firepower. All the borders to West Berlin and West Germany were closed to East Germans. Those who tried to cross were shot on sight and faced a mile-wide mine field. And still, East Germans tried, especially since West Germany automatically gave citizenship to any East German who managed to escape. This became a bit of a problem when the flood gates opened. More about that in a future post.

The Wall was built in August of 1961 - four months before I was born - to stem the tide of East Berliners and East Germans crossing into West Berlin for good. The Soviet sector was literally starting to look deserted, with thousands per day leaving and not coming back by the early 1960s. As the Iron Curtain slammed down with concrete, guns, razor wire and tanks, this is what it looked like in Berlin:

Soviet tanks rolling into Berlin in 1961 to enforce the division of the city 
and create space for the erection of the Wall.

Families scrambling out of windows of Berlin residences bisected by The Wall, 
desperate to reach the West.

An East German soldier deserting from the Soviet Sector into 
the French Sector, while he still could.

After The Wall went up and the entire East/West German border was fortified with lethal military hardware and trained snipers, East Berliners and East Germans were effectively imprisoned. Most West Germans never saw or dealt with an East German personally before Mauerfall. There would be hand-wringing, memorial services and Soviet-bashing whenever an East German escapee was murdered. Then it was back to Ignoring The Wall.

There was the infamous balloon escape in the 70s, where an East German family was able to hoard enough sheets and fabrics to fashion a hot air balloon and float out in the middle of the night without being shot down. Not everyone was that lucky. The Western side of the Berlin Wall was dotted with crosses that each marked a failed escape attempt and a tragic death. East Germans trying to escape were gunned down, mere feet from freedom. West Germans on the other side could do nothing to help. 

This is why I don't accept that the forcible divisions of Germany and of Berlin were necessary or justifiable. They were neither. They were barbaric.

I'll probably catch some flak for saying this but JFK's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech never impressed me much. It was a facetious and cynical claim to make, given the reality of life in East Berlin and East Germany.

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