Nov 10, 2009

My View of the Berlin Wall: Ideology Has Consequences

With this week's 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I am reminded that one of the most important experiences I've had in my life is that I got to see and feel that wall - and I don't mean just the powerful museum pieces at certain Presidential Libraries. I mean the real deal, in Germany, separating West and East Berlin. I will never ever forget it. Its stench is palpable to me even now.

When I saw it, I was in high school, in Germany on a church mission trip (another story for another day.) But the impact for me wasn't the mission in this case, it was my tour of what was then still East Berlin.

We got off our West Berlin tour bus at Checkpoint Charlie, and got onto a special East German tour bus. Before being allowed to enter East Germany, each one of us was questioned and frisked by machine gun toting military personnel. They did this right on the bus, row by row, keeping everyone confined until they were done.

After a bunch of threats related to rule keeping and staying with the tour group, verification of our identities, and finally being approved for entry, we were assigned a special government sanctioned tour guide. He was a large man with a friendly, yet intimidating way about him. I don't know if they were allowed to have bowling leagues in his country, but if they were, he was definitely a part of one. He wore the right shirt, anyway. I think he sincerely loved his job as tour guide. By the time we returned, I decided that he had the best job in the Eastern Bloc.

As we entered into East Berlin, the sun became blocked by a thick gray cloud cover that was mysteriously not present on the West side. Many of us remarked about this, and then the bus full of casually dressed tourists got quiet as we drove further into the country. The cloud gave the promise of rain, but didn't let out a drop. It merely provided a gloomy atmosphere that matched the looks on the faces of the East Germans we would encounter.

The tour guide had a well prepared script, filled with sometimes laughable communist propaganda. He proudly noted that there were ten building projects going on in East Berlin as part of a Gorbachev initiative with the East German government. Ten building projects didn't seem like a big deal to me. But, looking out the window of our rickety tour bus, it was clear why this rather hopeful statement was being made.

We were driving past these construction projects that were supposedly the first major projects since the end of World War II, more than 40 years earlier. Construction workers were clearing debris piles that had been left there since the end of the Nazi regime. For decades, citizens had lived among the bombed out buildings with who knows what under the piles. No wonder ten building projects was a good sign.

It is these workers that drew my attention the most. First of all, there were very few of them around, for what appeared to be large projects. Leaning on shovels, slowly tossing mix into cement mixers, these workers were hardly working. I remember their faces vividly to this day. Dirty and sad. They were moving slow and all had pronounced frowns as they looked longingly toward us free people on the bus. Every one of us noticed; no one said a word.

We eventually stopped for lunch at a government approved tourist break area. They had a western looking soda and ice cream shop, and a western looking bar and lunch stand. They even had western looking employees who wore the only smiles I saw outside of our bus.

I wasn't hungry.

It is at this point that one friend and I decided we'd like to visit some of the "non-tourist approved" locations, so we wandered off. We shouldn't have left the tour group. I'm also sure the tour guides shouldn't have allowed us to sneak off so easily. But somehow, we slipped away unnoticed.

We walked along a river that ran through the city until we came to a dock with some small rowboats tied to it. We stepped out and attempted to rent a boat from a recreational rental shack at the end of the short pier. The sad man inside clearly needed some business as no one was in a boat or riding a bike anywhere that we could see.

Now, I'm not sure where exactly we thought we would row, or what we would do when we got there. We had to know that we would eventually get caught and thrown into some gulag, but this didn't deter us at all. Instead, it seemed like we were doing something right, something important, something that might undermine the entire communist system, if we just rented a boat and paddled around for a while in defiance of the strict rules we had been given.

Looking back, I think I must have seen too many James Bond movies. I probably figured that if something went wrong and we were left behind by our tourist group, I could get out of East Berlin on my own. Someone would help me, either some old inventor like Q hiding out in some catacomb under a pile of rubble, or perhaps some Felix Lighter with the CIA already working on the inside. More likely, it would be some inappropriately named woman who would invariably be sent to kill me but would have been swept off her feet by my charm and wit. She'd help me get back over the wall like some modern day Rahab. Regardless, I wasn't worried that I couldn't escape.

What about my buddy who wandered off with me? Well, let's just say I was 007 and he was, well, 008, and we all know what always happens to 008, usually before the opening credits...

Oh, the row boat...

As we approached the hut where one would actually rent a boat, the man inside looked at us and closed the shutters and sealed himself inside. This seemed like an odd thing to do. But as we walked down the streets along the river, we got the same treatment from each shop owner. Apparently, they were not allowed to sell merchandise to naive free people who had wandered from their tour. They were business people just following orders. They behaved as if they were not happy about it, but my friend and I suspected that they knew they were being monitored and had no other choice. This suspicion led us to believe that we were also being monitored, so the James Bond fantasy ended. We made it back to our tour and back on the bus without anyone commenting on our disappearance.

We stopped next at the Soviet War memorial, Treptower park, full of graves and monuments to the massive Soviet war dead during WWII. There were huge statues and sayings of certain famous thinkers with great academic ideas that didn't account for human greed and corruption or reality in general. Notions of a society where each person would contribute according to their ability and need; an interesting ideology. Its the way of thinking that led to the building of the Wall - a wall not to keep people out, but to keep people in.

I left some illegal literature around the park that I sneaked in to the country. Opium, the statues would call it.

I don't remember much else of the surreal experience, except that somewhere along the way, I found some East German coins and I smuggled them out in my socks.

Before we could get off the tour bus, we were all individually quizzed again about our identities and the information in our passports. This took quite a while to accomplish. They were much more aggressive this time than when we had arrived.

Everyone got the same questions, except for my buddy and me. We were the last two on the bus and got the third degree from a couple of machine gun toting scruffy looking military men. According to the translator, they wanted to know where we went when we left the tour group, why we wanted a boat, who we talked to, and what, if anything they gave us. They threatened to strip search us but reluctantly let us go, because it was time to do their fancy goose step changing of the guard thing.

So I have some worthless East German coins, and a valuable dose of the fear of tyranny.

The sun appeared again as we re-entered the West. Our western tour guide immediately took us to see the memorials on and around the wall of people who had been shot by their machine gun toting countrymen as they tried to go over the wall and enter freedom.

We then stopped at the spot where just one week earlier, President Ronald Reagan asked Mr. Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." The tour guide was in tears as were many of us, as he quoted the great speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate. The Berlin Wall was truly a monument to the focus of evil in the modern world. It belongs on the ash heap of history.

No, it belongs in museums. It belongs in the public view, in free cities, reminding us that freedom cannot be taken for granted, that our fellow human beings are capable of the most ruthless things. And its not just the communists or the ones everyone already call "bad guys." Hitler was elected freely and legally by the people. Even after it was clear he was a crazy thug and had consolidated power to himself, the shortsighted and selfish electorate still voted to approve his policies to a tune of 85%.

The memory of the wall should remind us of a simple truth:

Ideology has consequences.

It matters what our leaders actually believe. Tyranny and war follow when smart people don't ask independent questions they know need to be asked, but are afraid the answer might contradict their academic position or political gambling. So they don't ask, figuring its not really about life or death, its about who wins and who loses. Until everybody loses.

So, here's to those leaders in the 20th century, and there are several, who had the courage to question and expose the ideology of the enemy for what it was, in the face of controversy and criticism. They are why the Wall came down.

I wonder what leaders will do that in the 21st century? I hope those people come onto the scene soon.

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