The 20th anniversary of the Cold War’s most tangible symbol celebrates the end of a fearful era, but the healing of Berlin is far from done.
When you travel, you find out how much you thought you knew. I’m reminded of that as I watch Germany celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It was 20 years ago today. The confused, unraveling dictatorship in East Germany finally allowed its citizens to cross freely through Checkpoint Charlie to the west. But after so many years of living in a divided city, thousands of East Berliners had no patience for the gate.
Television flashed the images around the world — joyous Berliners, east and west, climbing onto and over that cold, evil thing, dancing, singing, weeping. Total strangers hugging and kissing, sharing bottles of wine. No more risking prison or death just to be with your loved ones. It looked as if all Berlin were out there celebrating.
Indeed, the whole world celebrated that night, and for good reason. If you’re just a teen or a 20something, you have no clue what that sight meant to those of us who had grown up with the Cold War.
Berlin was Ground Zero for the ongoing face-off between America and the Soviet Union. Our gang, NATO, versus their gang, the Warsaw Pact. Think Crips and Bloods, but with nuclear weapons. And both sides claimed Berlin.
Berliners must have felt as if were living on a knife’s edge, on a bullseye, all those years.
Now, it was over. The sight of Berliners dancing unhindered on the Wall meant that the imminent threat of global nuclear holocaust was gone. A generation that had been holding its collective breath since Hiroshima could finally exhale.
And after 28 years of ruthless division for the sake of ideology, Berlin was whole again — or so it seemed at the time from my comfortable distance.
When I visited Berlin for the first time last summer, I realized just how wrong I was.
This is still a divided city. You see it. You hear it. You feel it. Take a U-Bahn subway train from the west deep into the old East Berlin and it feels as if the spiritual temperature of the place has dropped to near freezing.
Where the western half has the look and feel of a city, the east, with its endless rows of same-same apartment blocks and broad, straight boulevards suitable for tanks, seems more like a giant army base. Any social ill that Berlin suffers — unemployment, alcoholism, whatever — is usually worse in the east.
While looking for the Stasi museum, I wandered into a Ramada hotel on Ruschestrasse. It was a Sunday afternoon in July, the height of tourist season.
The only sign of life inside was a lone desk clerk, who promptly disappeared. In the restaurant, rows of rectangular tables more suited to an army mess hall, and all empty. No waitress. No cook. No diners. No sound. The nearby bar was full of warm, dark woods, rows of liquor bottles behind the bar — and devoid of life. A corridor of wood columns, inset with mirrors, led to the guest rooms, but no guests.
You felt as if you were on the set of a Stephen King horror film, only there were no cameras — or at least none you could see.
Even worse are the expressions from older East Berliners who actually long to return to the “good old days.”
However you say it, it’s insane.
The German government is putting up ultra-modern office buildings, apartment towers and shopping arcades where the Wall once stood, trying to fully reconnect the two Berlins.
It’s going to take a lot more than that. The Wall did more than just physically divide Berlin. It split its soul in two.
In many ways and in far too many people, the Berlin Wall is still up.
And had I never gone to Berlin, I never would’ve known.
This is one of the reasons why you travel. The classroom, the documentary, even the writings of a mad blogger, can show you only so much.