Let her go…
I still remember watching images of the Berlin Wall coming down on TV. I was just six years old, but I remember the scenes vividly and I remember also that my parents were glued to the TV screen.
However, I didn’t really understand what was going on.
Most of my education was at the German School in London. People often ask me how I don’t know anything about English history, especially as I’m English. However, at school, I felt like we almost exclusively studied the Second World War. We covered it every single year. All year. Constantly.
I have always read books about history and autobiographies about World War Two are my absolute favourites, however, I hated my history teacher and so I did my best not to learn anything in class at all. It seems I excelled at that, because it was only when we started living in Berlin that I finally understood what I had seen on TV all those years ago.
We have a lot of visitors. I mean a LOT. I don’t know anyone else who seems to have a house constantly full of people like us. I often feel like a hotel service with an added bonus – our guests get the full tour guide service included as well. We have visited the East Side Gallery probably over 50 times, if not much much more. The East Side Gallery is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall that is still left standing.
I am tired of showing people the sights of Berlin, except for the East Side Gallery. I love walking that one mile stretch of concrete, explaining to people what happened all those years ago. And the best bits of our story go something along these lines:
The Berlin Wall was erected overnight in 1961. People went to sleep, a normal night, and woke up divided. Within a few hours, couples were separated, families torn apart and friendships destroyed. Children who had slept at a friend’s house for the night could no longer go home. The division was sudden and unexpected.
After the Second World War came the Cold War. Germany had lost the war and was subsequently divided into four parts: Russia, America, the UK and France. The latter three countries formed an Alliance, whilst Russia (and Communism) took control of Eastern Parts of Germany which encompassed Berlin. The city of Berlin was also quartered, and Russia took over the East part.
As people began to see how prosperous Western Germany was becoming, whilst the Eastern Communistic area was slowly coming to a stand-still, people starting flocking out into the West in droves. Educated families, rich people and people with power rushed as fast as they could away from the East.
Russia noted this mass-exodus of talent and quickly decided to build a Wall around their territory – basically locking people into the East. Russia needed these people and didn’t want to let them out.
At first, people didn’t really believe the Wall could last a long time. The first night, huge numbers of soldiers constructed a Wall of barbed wire. Many people escaped in these early days, creeping across the border at night, running quickly, jumping through the prickly wire. Slowly over the years, the Wall was reenforced with concrete. And then more concrete. Until it was impossible to escape anymore. No one knew how long it would take before it would crumble, or even if it would ever crumble. In later years, people still tried to get across the Wall, some with success hiding in the engine compartment of cars, rowing across the river or even building underground tunnels, but many were shot, impaled and killed during their attempts.
About half-way along the East Side Gallery, you come across an open part of the Wall and you can still see the second Wall that ran behind the main part. In fact, there was not just one Wall and the best way to imagine it, is like a road in the middle surrounded by two high walls. This road was covered in sand to conceal land-mines and to show foot prints. Soldiers patrolled this area with tanks, as well as on foot. It was yet another deterrent to escaping safely.
As you walk along the East Side Gallery, you see large blocks of concrete that have been painted on by artists from all over the world. They have interpreted what they feel the Wall means to them. At the start you see the Israeli flag mixed with the German flag. Moving on, there are images of other Walls that still need to be destroyed, roses representing people who died trying to cross the Wall, smiling happy faces, a massive Berlin sign (the one we use at the top of our blog actually) and many many more.
However, slowly, the Wall is getting smaller and smaller as real estate buys the land and high rise buildings become necessary. People are flocking into Berlin (like us) – the rent is cheap, the cost of living is much less compared to other major capital cities and the vibe is unique. Because you can survive on so little, artists, musicians, photographers etc from all over the world arrive in this city and bring a culture and interest that cannot be found anywhere else. Coming from London, I have always loved how multicultural my home-city is, but Berlin is different. It’s dirty and poor but alive. You can feel a pulse here that beats like crazy.
Of course, this city is slowly changing. Rich people are coming here, upmarket housing is coming, technology is arriving with highly intelligent students, but it’s not quite there yet. Just in the year I have been here, I have experienced the changes occurring. A wonderful bar called Yaam used to take up a large area behind the Wall. There was a sandy beach, a basketball area, stalls selling Caribbean food… but it’s gone. The city sold the land. And this is happening at an extraordinary pace in Berlin, as this city grows and gentrification comes quickly.
In 1989 the Wall was finally torn down. I remember watching those images 25 years ago today, as Germans brought hammers to chip at the Wall, tearing it down. The images of jubilation are something I have come to understand as we stood there, in the middle of the celebrations of the 25th year anniversary yesterday. The installation of balloons along the path where the Wall used to stand was a lovely idea. We walked along the East Side Gallery at night, taking in the atmosphere. It’s crazy to think that friends of mine were born the year the Wall came down. They have lived in Berlin their whole lives, influenced by history, but never experience a divided city. Their parents have many tales to tell and I’ve enjoyed listening to them recently. My own grandmother’s family is from the East and last week she was telling us how they waited for 20 years to get their own Trabbi car under the Communist regime. I love these stories.
So, even though I hated my history teacher, I have always enjoyed history. But I think you have to experience it to really appreciate it and to understand it. We are so lucky to live in Berlin, a city that is still alive with history and a past that is so recent, the people you meet have been greatly influenced by it. I hope maybe you learnt a little bit about the history we are currently experiencing in this blog post and I would urge you to come and visit this amazing city as well, before the history starts to disappear as quickly as the Berlin Wall. You too can touch the Wall and feel the history, before it all disappears, just as it finally did exactly 25 years ago, just we did last night.