Posts Tagged ‘Cold War’

Winter in Berlin

Monday, March 1st, 2010

As a child of the Cold War, I have a special place in my heart for Berlin. For the first 35 years of my life, the only images of Berlin I carried were the decadent pictures of Marlene Dietrich’s Blue Angel, the ominous display of the 1936 Olympics, black-and-white television pictures of the wall, and drab East German buildings under Communism. Since my parents were both high school teachers of German, there were lots of discussions of Germany at home, but the stories always pertained to the Federal Republic of Germany in the West, never to the German Democratic Republic in the East.

One day, we received a letter from a young East German boy who wanted to have a pen pal in the West. I am not sure how his letter got to us, perhaps through the high school where my parents taught, but my parents got the relationship going. About two years into the process, they decided to send the boy a small present – a simple scarf bought at our local department store – only to find out that the East German authorities required a “disinfection certificate.” My father was so incensed that, probably in the only act of duplicity in his entire life, he created a fake French disinfection certificate and sent it with the scarf. Our pen relationship stopped abruptly – probably because our pen pal got tired of writing – but we speculated that maybe the Stasi, the East German secret police, had figured out the certificate was fake and confiscated the scarf, which further reinforced the dark mystery of East Germany in my child’s mind.

Since the fall of the Wall, I have been invited to go to Berlin on several occasions, and each trip has slowly helped erase the gloomy images of the city. A couple of weeks ago, I was there for a European co-creation workshop on agriculture at the invitation of a large chemical company. The city was appropriately cold, snowy and dark. I stayed at a modest hotel across from elevated train tracks from the city transit system in the so-called Downtown area (“Mitte”). This new city center is the former no-man’s-land between the two Germanys, a kind of compromise between the old West Berlin city center built around the posh Kurfürstendamm and the old East German city center at the Alexanderplatz.  When the taxi passed the old Checkpoint Charlie at dusk, it still felt like a John Le Carré book.

But Berlin is now full of life, with students and artists giving the city a unique cachet. The city is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, unbowed by its Nazi and Communist history. I keep promising myself I will one day find the time to visit the DDR Museum, which describes what living in East Germany was about (to exorcise my fears, if nothing else). The Holocaust Memorial, which lies only one block from the Brandenburg Gate – which saw many of the recent commemorative events of German reunification – is powerful testimony to the willingness of the new Germany to come to grips with its dark history. Against all reason, I have promised myself I will one day search to find out what happened to my pen pal after my father compromised him with an inappropriately disinfected scarf (although reason suggests he’s probably peacefully retired from a middle management career in a local government office). The workshop I was involved in was at the Kalkscheune, a giant loft for hip parties and punky Berliners. There was a delightfully incongruous quality to having conservative agricultural people meet there and deal with the clumsy staircase, the squeaky wooden floors, the oddly situated statues in the meeting rooms and the pictures of Amy Winehouse on the wall.

And when it comes to co-creation, it is hard not to think of the generosity of 63 million West Germans who took it upon themselves to reunite with their 16 million East German brethren, giving them in one fell swoop access to the rich resources of a powerful Western European democracy and taking on the cost of reunification without much hesitation. At a  time when democracy in the US is struggling with creating any kind of consensus, one might do worse than look at how Chancellor Helmut Kohl led his country into this giant act of German solidarity, single-handedly wiping out the wounds of several decades and bringing a fragmented country together.

Ich auch bin ein Berliner.