Monday 9 November 2009

Berlin Twenty Years On

It is hard to believe that it is twenty years since the Berlin Wall came down. But its legacy can be seen throughout an Eastern Europe that has been transformed since, in no small part thanks to the openness of the European Union to countries in the region. I spent over a week in old GDR in 1985, with a Quaker group, where we combined the obligatory visits to the propaganda ministry and those implementing Dresden's ten year plan with far more enlightening evenings in the company of East German Quakers.

There was no hint then that the whole edifice of the GDR might be about to tumble. But one was struck by the appetite of those one met for the wider world. Clearly well-educated, they wanted to read and experience more than their censors would allow, and they devoured that which was permitted. A charming retired history teacher in Dresden, who proved an excellent guide to the city's splendid art collection, had managed to retain a sense of humour despite having had to teach her subject in the Nazi and Communist years. She kept her sanity listening to BBC broadcasts and watching West German news bulletins that the authorities tried to distract people from viewing by screening BBC Miss Marple episodes against them. Even then, among religious people, there were some signs of the struggles that would give birth to New Forum and the ultimately successful church-led protests that led to the fall of the Wall. But these were small scale efforts to avoid the humiliations that often came with trying to keep a faith in a society where it was officially discouraged.

Leaving the virtually deserted streets of East Berlin, with their feel of the 1950s, to take the U-bahn into West Berlin after ten days on that side of Iron Curtain was a profoundly strange feeling. Little did we know that within four years the ghastly security apparatus that divided the city would come tumbling down. Two years ago, when I took my first trip back to the city since 1985, it was great to see how much had changed, and what had not been shown on that first visit, particularly the way the TV tower shows a cross at certain times of the day that furious GDR officials had never been able to eliminate. True, there was a bit of Ostalgie in the fascinating GDR museum, but there was much more the sense of a city that is going places again, and is far more than just the political capital of a united Germany. Today's celebrations are significant not just because of what they mean to Berlin, but because of what they signify for a Europe that is no longer divided by the grotesque stitch-up that followed Yalta.

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