25 Years without the Berlin Wall

Needless to say, the end of foreign imposed partition is an occasion of joy for any country. Here in Ireland, we look forward to the day when the British occupation will be lifted, and our land returned to native rule. Koreans also look forward to the day when Anglo-Saxon forces leave their land, and allow the Koreans to decide on their own future. But, unification is only good when the good guys win. In Germany’s case, the good guys lost.

Before we go any further, we should note that Joseph Stalin had never been in favour of a partitioned Germany. Despite all that the Soviet people had suffered, he wanted Germany to be united and neutral, as Austria was. We should remember that the Red Army liberated Austria, and then handed Austria over to the Austrians, under the proviso that they remain a neutral state. It was the British, French and North Americans who wanted to keep Germany under occupation after WWII. In the 1950s, Stalin again proposed a united and neutral Germany–an offer the US government rejected.

In many respects, the attitude of the Anglo-Saxons was to be expected. Britain in particular had been very afraid of German technological and cultural power since German unification in the 1870s. World War I was, in many respects, an effort on the part of the British to smash Germany’s growing power, and maintain the hegemony of the British Empire. Again, as the German economy grew in the 1930s, powerful forces in the British establishment looked for any opportunity to renew the assault. Nobody should be so naïve to imagine that Churchill gave a damn about Poland. Here was a man that allowed three million people to needlessly starve to death in Bengal in 1944, without the least sign of remorse. After WWII, the British Empire effectively became the US Empire. And, once again, there was reason to halt any independent German rise to world power. West Germany, like Japan, and later South Korea, was to function as a colony of US capital, and as a base for US troops. It was to be afforded no other role on the world stage.

In 1985, I took my first trip into the big bad world. I was a college student and had come under the spell of David Bowie and the decadent aura of Berlin. For me, West Berlin was everything that the poverty, sterility and introversion of Catholic Ireland in the 1980s was not. I couldn’t wait to get there, and in the Summer of ’85, along with three class mates, I did. We were not disappointed. Young prostitutes lined West Berlin’s main streets in their hundreds, drugs were cheap and plentiful, night clubs stayed open ‘til noon the next day, and there was always some kind of job to be had, even if it didn’t pay very much. Well, for young lads from Ireland, this certainly did look like freedom.

East Berlin was quite different. You certainly didn’t see any prostitutes on the streets, and I never saw any drugs there. Most of the nice buildings, i.e. the buildings not destroyed in WWII, are in the East, and we enjoyed visiting museums and restaurants–even eating in the famous TV Tower near Alexanderplatz, which was well within the budget of poor students. We could even invite two French girls to join us–what a life! But, for all that, we always took it for granted that East Berliners were oppressed by the Russians, and really wanted to be good little Capitalists like ourselves. It really never occurred to us to wonder why we thought that. Perhaps it was purely down to the fact that we could enter East Berlin more or less at will, but they couldn’t enter West Berlin without permission. More likely, it was just down to the incredible success of Western propaganda in annihilating the critical faculty of Western minds.

Next summer, we went back to Berlin. This time we took a trip to Poland. East Berlin, we never really regarded as being strange to us. Despite the dark, John Le Carré, image, and our own carrying of that image in our heads, East Berlin really was a bright and happy place–the restaurants and bars full of students and young couples, and laughter everywhere. I never felt anything but comfortable and happy there. But, for us, our trip to Poland was a very different matter. Now we were really going behind the dreaded Iron Curtain. What’s more, we didn’t speak a single word of Polish. The Solidarnosc movement was in full swing, and it had the support of our Polish Pope. Despite what I said above about wanting to get away from Catholic Ireland, it seemed quite logical to us that the majority of Polish people wanted to be ruled by the Catholic Church–just as Ireland was (and, to some extent, still is)–and not by Communists (who we regarded as being Russians). It was quite funny that some of the Polish people we met picked up on our ignorance, and gently joked us about it. An example of this was when we got on a train without a ticket, and the conductor saw that, we were starting to imagine that he was going to send us to a gulag. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but think of the outrageous nonsense our mainstream media gets us to believe today.

I’m not sure why, but the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t really impact on my consciousness when it happened. I was certainly surprised, but my mind was on other things. Like most others in the West, I imagined that the fall of Communism would inevitably allow the peoples of Eastern Europe and Russia to improve their lot in life. I could have looked around my own country of Ireland, and asked myself what had Capitalism ever done for me and my fellow citizens, but I didn’t. It seems I still believed that if the possibility of getting rich was there, no matter how remote and unlikely, and no matter how many people were crushed and exiled from social intercourse, and no matter how many were forced into actual exile in the form of emigration, then that was freedom.

Years later, I was romantically involved with a Romanian woman. Her father and mother married young. He a truck driver, and she a lab technician. On their marriage, the state immediately provided them with an apartment. We visited that apartment block–now a ruin, near the disused mineral water plant where her mother had been a lab technician. It was a spacious, two-roomed apartment, with a lovely view of the Carpathian forests. Something that a young couple today could scarcely imagine to enjoy. The village has two main industries, built up during the Communist era. One, some of the best mineral water in Europe, comes out of the ground already sparkling, due to the high iron content of the volcanic soil. And, two, Romania’s best cheese factory. After 1989, the usual trick was played on the workers. Everyone got vouchers saying they owned shares in the factory they worked in. But, there was no market, so the vouchers really had no exchange value. A certain foreigner came in, paid peanuts for the vouchers, and now the mineral water is owned by Coca Cola, and the cheese is owned by a Swiss millionaire. Few people still work in the factories, as they are now highly automated. While there, we visited a young couple with a baby. They had just one room. Tiny. And they could hardly pay the rent. Most of the young people had already left–to work in Western Europe. For them, the Wall is still there–but now it keeps them out.

Looking back, I now realise that our equation of Russians with Communists wasn’t really so wrong. Because the Cold War wasn’t really about the West hating Communists. It was about the West hating the idea that anyone at all in the East could have as much power and influence as they have. We see that clearly today in Ukraine. Russia is, once more, the villain. Not because Russia is Communist. It’s patently anything but Communist. But, simply because Russia has dared to start having its own thoughts again, and has stopped following the orders that the drunken Boris Yeltsin was so happy to take. NATO has actually complained that Russian troops are now too close to its troops. What should the Russian Army do? Move to China? That won’t work either, because the Chinese are also too close to US troops.

No doubt, the official Berlin Wall “celebrations” will be full of guff about “freedom,” etc. etc. But, freedom for whom? It’s clear that what happened in 1989 was not the people taking control, but simply one side of a war winning, and one side losing. And, in time-honoured fashion, the victors entered the territory of the vanquished and regarded all they saw before them as the spoils of war. The Western carpetbaggers destroyed what had taken 50 years to build, and sent Eastern Europe back into the Third World. The people were to be regarded as cheap labour for the West, and the land and resources likewise were to be reserved for the use and profit of the West. In essence, in 1989, the dream of Adolf Hitler came through. All of the Eastern European countries absorbed into the European Union and NATO are now in such profound debt slavery that it is difficult to imagine them ever disobeying the diktats of their Western masters again. Their populations have suffered such catastrophic collapse that we can well think of the East as being open Lebensraum for Western settlers.

In closing, I note that in a recent poll, one in nine Berliners said they would like the Wall back. Despite the fact that Berliners often used to complain of Mauer Angst (“Wall anxiety”), it was also recognised that the Wall made Berlin special. A kind of island away from the world. West Berliners used to speak contemptuously of the West Germans, i.e. those uncouth non-Berliners, and felt sure they could spot a West German on the streets just by their uncouth gait. Today, Berliners lovingly maintain icons of the DDR, such as the Trabant and Ampelmännchen–the DDR’s beloved traffic green man. One can take DDR tours, and even stay in a hotel that is fitted out to give a full 1980s DDR experience. Above all, people miss the feeling of living in a real community, where what they thought and said mattered–even if only to the Stasi. I’m being facetious here, but there is a certain comfort in believing that somebody cares–which is probably why so many people in the West today actually feel a certain relief when they hear that the NSA is recording their phone calls and tracing their movements.

Of all the experiences that have made me who I am, I would say that having seen and touched the DDR was one of the most important. I’m not sure why, but I know it was important to me. I think of Erich Honecker spending his last days, being hounded from country to country, accused of spurious charges. In effect, being punished simply for losing the war. Who could imagine that Erich Honecker deserved to be before a judge more than Henry Kissinger did? Or any US President or British Prime Minister?

Today, Germany is still a divided land. The rich are divided from the poor. The natives are divided from the Gastarbeiters, the East is still quite divided from the West. As in all Western countries, the old comradeship of the Working Class has given way to the atomisation of consumer society. But, I don’t think the situation is hopeless. The very fact that so many Germans still long for the DDR – including young people who weren’t even born in 1989 – shows that people will never give up hope. The DDR’s national anthem was called Auferstanden aus Ruinen – Risen from the Ruins. That remains the hope. From the ruins of our destroyed communities, that we may build, learn and create like never before, und die Sonne schön wie nie,
Über Deutschland scheint.