Saturday, November 7, 2009


Getting Accustomed to Murder

I was startled to find inside the detailed media examination of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall that many younger Germans really didn't think it was that big a deal
In the 1960s, the Wall was evil. It filled our news, and it fed our fears.
I remember my first visit a few years after it started in 1961. It still can bring a shiver to my memory. I peered into the East from a rough wooden platform. The nearest watchtower of the 300 along the Wall swung some guns towards me. And I could see glints from binoculars in other towers.
It seemed peaceful enough on that anonymous side street. The river flowed smoothly past the watchers. None of the 600 famished watchdogs barked. I almost wondered what the fuss was all about.
As I climbed down, my minder from the West German government cautioned me not to touch the Wall. Why, I wondered. "They will shoot you," he said. I scoffed. I doubted that they could even get a clear shot. He pointed to a pool of dried blood and red splatters left behind by a man three days earlier who just had to touch the infamous Wall. The minder explained that the "bastards" had built the entire Wall a few feet into Eastern Germany territory so they could shoot at people on both sides.
It was 20 years before anyone dared scrawl graffiti on the Wall.
I had devoured spy stories from John LeCarre and his colleagues all my life. I was even staying at the small Hotel Am Zoo which was featured in Len Deighton's Funeral in Berlin. It was close to one of the most famous crossings in the world, Checkpoint Charlie.
So of course I was on an old bus going through Charlie that the Volkspolezie were examining bolt by bolt. Even a big mirror was rolled underneath/ And we were going into East Berlin, not leaving.
I handed over my passport with indifference which angered a pimply-faced teen-aged VoPo. He shoved the muzzle of his gun under my chin and jerked it up. I started to rise in anger and then stopped, remembering that the VoPos, none of whom were from the city, got a bonus and a holiday back on the farm if they shot anyone.
I visited the treasures of the renowned Pergamon Museum and a huge socialist memorial park. And I wandered. Nothing in the shops. When I returned to the Wall, tired and cold, I passed through great dark grey blocks with maybe a street light per block. No people. No cars. Ahead was a line of VoPos, the line that would murder or imprison several thousands of their neighbours, and even a few foreigners, during the life of the wall. Occasionally they even left them to bleed out in the killing zone, as if they were butchering hogs back on the farm.
Behind the VoPose was a great expanse of brilliant neon and flashing signs. West Berlin. Glittering prosperity. I wondered just how long the East Germans would look across in awe and hunger and wait.
I have returned many times to Germany, and driven and dined in every nook. A print of one of my favourite spots, the walled Rotenberg on the Tauber River, hangs near me as I type. But I stayed away from Berlin and the hassles of its dividing wall.
Then I returned for the world congress of the International Press Institute. In May, 1989. Make note of that day. One main speaker was the famous Willy Brandt. He told us that it had taken a couple of hours to come to our meeting because of the Wall. The trip would have taken 15 minutes or so if it hadn't existed.
He said he had no idea whether the wall would collapse in a year or a decade but it would go eventually. It was only six months later that it did, to the astonishment of East Germany and the delight of West Germany. It surprised the world, and I wrote that we should savour the moment because, after all, it had surprised Brandt, and he was the former chancellor of the country and the former mayor of the city.
All this seems lost on those too young to remember the carnage of World War Two, the thrilling Berlin airlift, and the decade before the Wall became rooted in Teutonic history as if it was eternal.
Rest In Peace memories of the wall. But it is another page of war that we should never forget.
The Sun's Mark Bonokoski was there the night the Germans flooded over the Wall and destroyed it. He brought me a piece. Just a jagged bit of concrete, and there were more than 150 kms of walls, but it looms in my memory like a mountain.

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