I arrived in Berlin in November 2009 by a strange twist of fate. A friend
I had promised to meet had cancelled her trip even as I had embarked on
mine. It seemed to be my destiny to come to Berlin to witness the city celebrating ‘20 Years of the Fall of the Wall’, all alone.
It was on a cold and chilly morning that arrived there. As I walked through the almost deserted streets in search of the metro, it seemed like any other European city, however brooding under the pall of history.
As I finally caught the right metro to my accommodation, I could see the strong grip of the past in the tense faces of middle-aged Germans, with triumph twinkling in their eyes even as youngsters stared out of the windows, their eyes searching for an reason for this joyous present in a recent past.
The three days that I spent in Germany was a mental rollercoaster ride on spinning wheel of a bygone era. The history books that I had studied in school suddenly came alive as I navigated the gigantesque city of Berlin. The Second World War, the Germans, the Russians, the French, Hitler, Quisling, the Blitzkrieg, and of course the Holocaust, all came alive in one go and spread across my mind like the multi-coloured dominoes that lined the Potsdamer Platz across Brandenburg gate.
On the streets every smile was cautious and questioning, as if asking “How would you know when weren’t here on that day 20 years ago?” No, I wasn’t there. In 1989 I was a bespectacled school girl in India watching the only late night news show of the week, staring wide eyed at the people rejoicing as they climbed atop a wall full of graffiti in a far off city called Berlin. I sat amused as I watched the excited crowd break down the wall and carry away its colourful morsels like pieces of cake.
It was five years later, in high school that I really understood what had happened in Berlin that night. The wall had divided not just Germany but also the world, into two, spawning fear, hatred, suspicion, war and death. It symbolised the regimes that had barricaded the world against itself, held it like a pair of Siamese twins jostling to separate and yet longing to be siblings. A wall that divided the world into communist and democratic, black and white, good and bad, beautiful and ugly.
The wall drew the line between the East and the West. It was erected in 1961 during the course of a night between East Germany, occupied by the Soviet Union and West Germany, occupied by the Allied forces of France, United Kingdom and the United States of America, to ensure that East Germans didn’t cross over to West Germany, looking for better jobs, entertainment or meeting their loved ones. It stretched for hundreds of miles across Berlin. The initial fence set up in 1961 transformed from being a barbed wire to a concrete wall. In 1989, when the wall was torn down there was a 300 foot no man’s land, an additional inner wall, soldiers patrolling with dogs, electric fences, elaborate light mechanisms, watch towers and minefields.
There are several interesting stories of how people tried to scale the wall. It is said that some did so with a simple rope, while some others made hot air balloons with left over cloth to fly over it. Some even dug tunnels from under the apartment buildings to West Germany. It has been estimated that about 100-200 people died in their attempts to escape
East Germany. But cracks soon began to appear as communism began to experience a slow demise in the mid-80s in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia and it soon became evident that the wall would crumble.
Touring the city meant traversing several warps of time. Even as one emerged from the excitement of seeing statues of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels together at the Karl Marx Allee, one got lost in the bonhomie of Charlottenburg market, only to be immersed later in the melancholy of a church destroyed during the Second World War, but soon one crossed the Rhine and admired the glass panelled dome of the Reichstag, a reminder of German strength, fortitude and power. On the streets the past walked hand in with the present.
The metro cut through the city that lay swaddled in history and memories fell like confetti all over. I was making my way to Potsdam – Berlin’s communist twin. I asked for directions from an elderly man in the metro.
“Are you here for the celebrations?” he asked, after he gave me directions to the Potsdam station.
“Yes,” I said with a smile.
“I remember that day very well. We were dancing on top of the wall,”
he said, his eyes suddenly lighting up with joy. The sudden warmth of happiness melted my cold touristic veneer and I smiled back at him. Potsdam was a revelation in itself. If Berlin was a bustling city of glitzy malls, busy markets and frequent metros, Potsdam was almost a ghost town. The only people who seemed alive were the actors impersonating
Prussian musicians standing outside the Sanssoucci Palace, the summer residence of Frederick II, on this cold and rainy day. While the erstwhile grandeur of this city stood proud, the recent past loomed guilty and gloomy as one passed through banal architecture and the KGB prison of the communist era.