Berlin has become a city of the future. It is the hub of hip Germany with a youthful vibe. Creative types from all socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities come to the city looking for inspiration and to reimagine the world in which we live. Berlin is also the capital of a reunified Germany which has spent the past thirty years cultivating peace and prosperity, in a largely successful effort to escape its deeply disturbing past. Like the rest of Germany, Berlin has become a forward-facing city. The dark shadows of history will always be there, but Berlin has proven that they do not have to define you. The future for Berlin and the rest of Germany holds challenges, but it is as bright as it has ever been.
For someone like me whose frame of reference for Berlin is the Cold War and the immediate aftermath, it is almost impossible to see Berlin as anything but as a product of the past. In Berlin history is ever-present and palpable, at least for my generation. A weird thing happened to Berlin on the oath to peace and prosperity, its history has now aged. The past no longer holds the city hostage. In Berlin, history can still be found on many a street corner, but that history is now more likely to be found in a textbook. The Berlin Wall is distant and remote. It can even seem antiquated as I found out during my recent visit to the city.
Moving along – The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse
The Unthinkable – Distant History
When I first visited Berlin in 2008, I could hardly wait to catch my first glimpse of the Berlin Wall or what little was left of it. The Wall was iconic for my generation. I grew up during the 1980’s, a time when the Cold War was constantly in the news. And if the Cold War was in the news, then Berlin was not far from the headlines. The Cold War may have matured by the time I was a teenager, but tensions between the United States and Soviet Union still escalated to frightening levels. Many have forgotten just how fraught relations were between the two superpowers in the early 1980’s. The paranoia of Soviet leaders, in particular Yuri Andropov, coupled with the anti-communist rhetoric of Ronald Reagan were a toxic combination which threatened to spiral into an armed confrontation. The U.S.- Soviet relationship was marked by mutual mistrust and assumptions about the other side’s behavior that could have led to a catastrophic miscalculation.
The tensions of that time are obscured by the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and his superpower summits with Reagan which went a long way towards de-escalation, arms control and eventually the collapse of communism. Thankfully, the Berlin Wall was a casualty of that historic event. Less fortunately for history enthusiasts, much of the Wall was obliterated. For those who lived through the final decade of the Cold War and its strangely peaceful conclusion, the Berlin Wall was a tangible link to that period and the city of Berlin’s role as the epicenter of that conflict. Berlin without the Wall was once unthinkable. That was true even after the Wall fell. While small portions of it were preserved and still stand today, those hardly did justice to the Wall’s influence upon the city. The Wall was Berlin for twenty-eight years and will always be that way for cold warriors.
Past Is Present – Where the Berlin Wall Once Stood
Dividing Lines – Points of Contention
Berlin could have always existed (and did) without the Wall, but the Cold War could not have existed without it. I can say with confidence that if those of my generation were asked to name the one thing that comes to mind when the Cold War is mentioned, most historically aware individuals would say the Berlin Wall. For younger generations it is difficult to imagine Berlin’s centrality to the Cold War and the Wall’s centrality to Berlin. There were airlifts, military standoffs and multiple diplomatic crises in Berlin from 1945 – 1961. The Wall’s construction was the culmination of these events. It became the static symbol of geopolitical separation anxiety. Television films, news shows, and documentaries all hammered home the point that Berlin could be the trip wire for World War III. The Wall kept two warring ideological views of the world at arm’s length from one another in both a literal and metaphorical sense.
Divided Berlin had been a point of contention since the end of World War II and would continue to be until 1989. The Berlin Wall was symbolic of a divide that stretched all the way across the world. Berlin was the epicenter of that division. Tensions radiated outward from there. For those living in Berlin the wall was a physical barrier separating the eastern and western parts of the city. To the world, the Berlin Wall was the dividing line between American and Soviet spheres of influence. For the average American, the Berlin Wall was a psychological barrier. East of it was a forbidden world of police states and oppression, west of it was the free world. In my teenage mind, everyone was forced to choose sides. It was an either/or proposition. Either you were for us or against us.
Fading shadows – The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse
Passing Away – A Quaint Notion
Returning to Berlin, I could not help but be struck by how in my mind the Wall has transformed from a living entity to a piece of distant history. The physical and psychological barrier that once loomed larger than anything else in the world had now shrunk into the distant past. The Wall seemed like a quaint notion, one that had grown less relevant with the passage of time. I no longer felt an intense urge to go see it as soon as I arrived in the city. My travel companion, who unlike me had lived through the entire period of the Wall had no interest in visiting it. He said, “I heard about it every day for years.” That had been enough for him. It was a different matter for me. Despite my growing indifference I decided to go visit a section of the Wall. This visit would be less about what I might see and more about what I might feel, if anything.
Coming soon: Forgetting To Remember – Backs to The Wall In Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #16)