Its the 9th of November. Twenty five years ago, on this day, impassioned Berliners were tearing down the Berlin Wall, a unique monument that is testimony to the fears and political struggles of the 20th century. A monument built to avoid war at all costs at a point when major Western powers had been bled dry by consequent World Wars (Read if you are curious about why it was built).
With the fall of the wall that “made the Cold War concrete”, it seemed that socialism had been defeated too. To the world at large, the fall of the Wall has been presented as a celebratory event, one that brought together Germans. A victory for democracy that some perhaps erroneously painted as a thumbs up for capitalism as well. For others though, it was an event that happened far too late as they mourned those who had fallen in the struggle.
We tried to imagine what all of this felt like for Berliners earlier this year when we spent a week of a near perfect summer tramping around the fascinating city. Our visit to the Berlin Wall, in particular, was poignant and despite our silly tourist grins, we were contemplative for the rest of the day.
Reliving in my head that wonderful day and the crazy discussions we had. Try condensing the history of the WWII into a story for a 6 year old!
Unmoved by Checkpoint Charlie, Udai marched off in the direction he had been told to, looking for tangible remains of the Berlin Wall. We found this spectacular piece of history just round the corner and along with it, an exhaustive exhibition about Berlin’s history starting from the early 1900s until after the World War II. I’m glad we came here that first day in Berlin as it helped set the tone for our experiences of the city.
To me fell the task of explaining the entire exhibit to Aadyaa. She can’t yet read, but she won’t be left out either! She patiently waited for me to read each panel and then listened to my translation. The exhibition (strategically set up amid the ruined foundations of one of the Gestapo’s important buildings and right alongside the Berlin Wall) affected all of us profoundly as it chronicled the peculiar circumstances behind the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Against the backdrop of an economic slowdown, it seemed to be that the German people did not quite grasp the danger that was to come when they fell under the spell of Nazi thinking. The stark and totalitarian methods that Nazis used and the impacts of their fascism are hard hitting. It wasn’t the systematic extermination of the Jews that hit me so much because the Holocaust has been a significant part of fiction and non-fiction reading over the years. What really hit me is that the Nazis classified a whole bunch of people as out of the bounds of normal and these included the gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals and even the elderly and those with mental disorders. In their definition, a German had to not just be the correct race but also needed to be able-bodied citizens that contributed to their economy and power. One couldn’t help but see some parallels with some of the right wing talk around the world, not just in India where we have recently emerged battle-scarred after an emotionally exhausting election process (no, I’m not convinced about the ‘achhe din’ tag just yet!). The children’s reactions to this harsh narrative was notable. Udai was silent and thoughtful. Aadyaa’s interest and her clear identification of Hitler as the ‘bad guy’ both impressed and amused us.
We climbed up from the exhibition to finally walk alongside a section of the Berlin Wall. As an architect, I was taken aback by its thinness (it is built in concrete, hence the title of the post!). It appeared almost flimsy to me and yet must have been so formidably strong in the eyes of Berliners during the Cold War. The symbolism of the Wall makes visitors to it walk real slow. At intervals, you see holes in it, and its easy to imagine the crowds on either side tearing it down on the fateful November 9, 1989. It is an event I remember from my childhood, seeing the images on television and not quite grasping its full import. But now, seeing it in flesh and with the sun having come out and shining bright, I could appreciate a lot more. Most of all, the day’s experiences helped me admire the resilience of this amazing city and respect Berlin’s embrace of multiculturalism that I now understand as a way to counter its sordid, violent and divisive past.
More pics of The Wall ahead…
Nearly everyone who’s been to Berlin, every travel website and brochure, puts Checkpoint Charlie at the top of its list. And so, after a look at the insides of Nikolaikirch, we set out to tick the infamous CC off our list.
Historical info: Checkpoint Charlie was the crossing point between East and West Germany, manned by the US. It is perhaps the most poignant physical symbol of the Cold War along with the Berlin Wall itself (post coming soon), which was built to prevent East Germans from crossing over to the other side.
As luck would have it, we were rained out before we got there and it was a bit of an anti climax to see the poor guards positioned there (for touristic value only, I presume) scurrying around for umbrellas, not looking one bit stern but rather, hassled and helpless. The sad stack of cement bags was something we folks from Delhi see at every Metro station and for some reason, despite knowing the enormous historic significance of this point on the earth’s surface, I wasn’t really impressed! The lines to get into the Checkpoint Charlie Museum were long and forbidding and we did not even try. Plus, the place was way too touristy, advertising itself blatantly to American visitors complete with morabilia stores and even a giant Mc Donald’s that looks straight onto CC!
We detoured into Mc D’s for a pit stop (a mandatory visit thanks to Aadyaa who is something of a loo-tourist!) and ate a sausage or two off a streetside stall. Udai then had the bright idea of asking someone where The Wall is (he was obsessed with the task of finding the remains of the Berlin Wall) and off we marched to explore some more…
Every generation must think it lives in revolutionary times. I certainly think I do. One indicator is the many subtle and not so subtle changes in the world map. When we were kids, the Cold War dominated the world’s consciousness. Very much in the shadow of the Western powers, India and the Indian media steadfastly followed the rivalry between the US and the USSR. While our political status was non aligned and Russian fairy tales entertained us no end (remember Baba Yaga and the numerous Ivan’s!), American culture showed us glimpses of a life full of the freedom to aspire.
The splitting of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall have been momentous changes indeed. But we have also parallely been witness to dramatically different political systems. Communism Russian style gave way to the Chinese model. In our childhood, we debated the benefits of Soviet style communism versus democracy, now we wonder what the Chinese are doing better than us. It is hard for us to reconcile China’s tremendously capitalistic behaviour with its state controlled model. Now China is looking to re-engineer society and reduce their income disparity in order to continue to grow as an economy. Another innovative experiment to watch out for in our lifetime.
Back home too, the flavour of democracy is changing subtly and continuously. In the midst of chaos is hope that citizen awareness will grow and pressurise the system to evolve towards transparency and efficiency. It is a dream indeed, but who knows… In this wonderful lifetime miracles might yet happen!