Monday 9 November 2009

The Breach Of Berlin's Wall

On the 9th of November 1989 I was part of the audience in a small arts theatre in Berlin watching a juggler performing to a cover of an Irving Berlin song.

I remember the backing track.(above)

The evening was beginning to wind down; drinks were being consumed and conversation beginning to replace what we had been watching on the stage.

Our attention was suddenly redirected to the stage when someone appeared, walked up to the microphone and spoke solemnly; they looked as if a close friend had died.

The atmosphere in the room went from convivial to cemetery in a blink and everyone around me went numb and seemed to be staring into some very distant, personal space.

My German was rudimentary to say the least - but I had understood that the person had not been introducing another act - so I turned to my neighbour who I knew spoke very good English, as I was sleeping at their house.

“What’s going on?”

“They’ve opened the wall.”

Her voice betrayed a hesitant disbelief at what she was saying and her words drifted off into the same distant place that everyone was sharing.

Of course, it was just a coincidence that I was there the night this happened, although I had chosen to be in the city .

But I had arrived only 4 days before and I planned to leave the next day and even though it had been obvious things were changing quickly in the East and that the days of division were numbered, the timing with my visit was extremely fortuitous

Before leaving England I had urged my friends John and Caroline to come with me - “You not going to get many more chances to see the city like this” I had said.

When I returned it no longer existed.

Events are always perceived from individual perspectives, and mine were very different from those who lived on the East side.

I saw the city as someone who had the freedom to come and go as I pleased and thus for me the city was a historical anachronism, unique in the west – unlike any other city anywhere.

It was exciting for me, not a prison.

In a period of about seven years I had been coming to Germany fairly regularly, always in the West often to Berlin.

In most parts I felt an intruder, a poor man in an affluent culture I didn’t understand; I couldn’t tell if the people were angry (German sounds like that to me when it’s spoken) and I was constantly being told off – using the washing machine on a Sunday, crossing the road when the light wasn’t green, playing the saxophone too loudly, driving a car that wasn’t new….. It was only among the eccentricities of Berlin that I ever felt at home.

Where else could you be walking along a pavement and have to step into the road to step around a War Memorial because those few yards were Russian and controlled by Soviet Soldiers? Or live in a van at the end of a road that led nowhere and have no one care?

And it be accepted as normal.

And because everyone in the West had lived with this normality for so long, the overall feeling when the break came, certainly in that small theatre, was shock.

For a long time no one moved, conversation became more intimate and thoughts and silences longer. Then people began to wander away separately.

Krissie, Mark and I stood up and said goodbye to our friends and got into a taxi.

Where to go? It was midnight passed.


Or jubilant crowds?

I’ve never been very good in crowds ever since the time I was almost crushed at a firework display in Edinburgh, even though I remember the fireworks as brilliant.

Krissie and I chose bed; Mark chose leaking wall.

A few years ago when I tried to tell Loui all about what had happened in Berlin – ok maybe I went into a bit too much detail; war, occupation, barbed wire, air lift, wall, acceptance –he looked at me as if I was the one from another planet (when we all know its he).

His incomprehension was total. It meant nothing to him and I felt like a Dinosaur.

Today he can’t believe that I didn’t go and dance on top of the wall with the others.

I’m thinking about that today.

I think for me, maybe foolishly,I was coming from a different space - of freedom -the opening of the wall felt like the END of a history.

I didn’t need either to celebrate or to mourn.

Tomorrow was already a different day.

I needed to sleep.

Through other coincidences we were staying at the home of an actor whom I had first seen in the film ‘Himmel uber Berlin’ in which he shared a scene walking in no-man’s land between the two parts of the wall.

In the morning, as Krissie left with Mark to drive back to the west – a trip that thousands were now doing, I stood with him watching the televised scenes taking place outside the Town hall.

We both cried.

Later I wandered around the centre and it was weird.

A snapshot taken at that moment would have shown that freedom was all about BUYING as many bananas and crappy stereo systems you could cram into your Trabant car, and SELLING as many bananas and crappy stereos as you could find.

Somebody seemed to be confusing freedom with capitalism, but at least someone else was remembering to put a red rose under the windscreen of each Trabant that crossed over that day.

There have been a lot of anniversaries this year, Man on Moon, Woodstock, Sesame Street (tomorrow) and (until now almost slipping past this blog) the 400th of Galileo presenting his telescope for the first time!

Yet only at the breach of the Berlin Wall can i claim to have been there, so i had to hack a bit off with my own hands.

Trouble is when you look at it now it's just a bit of old concrete.

Back then, it meant a whole lot more terrifying things.


Anne Hodgson said...

"Somebody seemed to be confusing freedom with capitalism" - precisely! That's what was so very disconcerting about encountering the Ossis as they came streaming west. That behavior and value system (or lack thereof) caused me to have a huge row with my East German friend, whose first move was to go on Safari in Kenya.

I hoped the crass materialism would pass, and it did, but it grated for quite some time and and alienated me at that key juncture. Then came the fiasco of the round table and the big political sell-out, when the Bündnis 90 was left empty-handed. The "Wendehälse" switching from pro- to anti-SED and Stasi. Wondering who had a file and what was in it. Totalitarian is nasty, and so is its aftermath. But as confused as my emotions were, it was simply momentously moving.

Janet Bianchini said...

What a coincidence. I have a tiny bit of the Berlin Wall in one of my unopened boxes. I have a Trabant sitting on the mantelpiece!

popps said...

Janet, your mantlepiece must be pretty big!

popps said...

Anne you are either going to have to educate me or i need to do some studying. the round table? Obviously not Arthur! What happened ..... and then the 90 who were they ?

Anne Hodgson said...

Only if you tell me what Poops stands for ;)

Um, where to start? The Bündnis 90 was a coalition between various groups of movers and shakers behind the peace movement, e.g. those responsible for the Monday demonstrations at churches after the rigged elections that demanded that the government clean up its act. The Round Table was a meeting of delegates from East and West Germany that negotiated the details of reunification over several months, if my memory serves me well.

I know, the English-speaking world thinks that Gorbachov, Reagan and the Pope had this decade-long "tear down this wall" party and got Maggie Thatcher drunk enough, and that just because the East Germans weren't invited, they weren't involved. But some of them were. Of course, the majority couldn't have cared less.

From Wikipedia:
"Bündnis 90 was formed in February 1990 by Neues Forum, Demokratie Jetzt and the Initiative Freiheit und Menschenrechte. It received 2.9% of the vote in the 1990 Volkskammer elections." 2.9%! The CDU got the lion's share. We couldn't believe it: The East Germans voted for the reigning West German party. Sell-out. End of revolution. End of politics. My political peers were none too keen to meet East Germans after that.

I went as far East in East Germany as I could that spring, in April and May, just before the DM was introduced, to reasearch my masters thesis and get a feeling for the Wild East. And? I couldn't fins any public life to speak of. Whatever people were doing, it was connected to loving and doing each other's hair. East Germany without a government was Bonoboland. We may know why there was no public life, But the people who want the old east back simply don't care.

A true revolution must feel very different.

popps said...

It,s not Poops but Popps!
Thanks, i was looking in the wrong bit of wikipedia, i didn't find any of that.

Anne Hodgson said...

(blush) sorry, typo.
Most of that isn't in Wikipedia, actually, just the short bit. A book needs to be written, but by someone who doesn't take the events too personally.