9 November – Part 2
The backdrop to my childhood years is encapsulated in the Alphaville song “Forever Young” – “Are they going to drop the bomb or not?” The division of the world into East and West was just what it was, it had been in place for as long as I had been alive, and there was no reason to think it would ever change. Soviet General Secretaries came and went, American presidents came and went, and Erich Honecker had been the General Secretary of the East German party for almost all of my life. I’m still not sure if I like the fact that I was born while Walter Ulbricht was in charge, but he was. He was the one who said, just days before the first incarnation of the Wall was constructed, “Nobody has the intention of building a wall” – you can see him here.
When the Wall came down, I was living and working in Munich. I was washing dishes in a hotel there. We had a massive conveyor belt dishwasher for most items, but once a week it was our turn to wash the pots by hand. Three kitchens, a lot of cooks, none of whom had to clean up the mess they made. I still remember the first time I did it, I was far too slow, two of the kitchens were soon backed up and somebody probably had to rescue me. If you were the pot cleaner, you were there till you were done, which could have been well after the official 12:30 (am) finish time. By the time I finished working there, I was very, very efficient and looked forward to being the pot guy for the evening because I would get out earlier. Some of the German culture must have rubbed off of me. Or maybe it was just laziness.
Being 18 at the time, the end of the Wall meant I could travel to the Eastern bloc quite easily, and did so with three colleagues from the hotel in early 1990. There are two memories in particular which are still particularly vivid. The first is of driving through a forest at night to get to the Czech border (it was still Czechoslovakia back then). It was exactly as you imagine it from a spy film, no lights anywhere, no houses, snow on the road and the trees, and then you get to the border crossing where we and our car (an Audi 80, hired of course and standing out wherever we went in the East) were inspected. I don’t recall there being much conversation with the border guards, but they let us pass and we drove through a village which was as dark as the deserted roads we had been driving on. Prague was stunning, even back then. And of course incredibly cheap, even for a Western dishwasher. There were two prices in all the menus, one for the locals, one for the Westerners. It helped that the menus with the cheaper prices were only in Czech so we couldn’t have ordered from them anyway.
And then there was Berlin. I didn’t like it at all. We were staying in West Berlin and I hated it. Too over the top, too gaudy, too in your face. Even to this day, I tend to spend my time here in the Eastern part of the city. I don’t think it’s conscious, it just feels different. And we went across into East Berlin. Complete with the obligatory changing of Deutsche Mark into Eastern Marks (I so wish I had kept some of the Eastern money). We were warned against changing money on the street but there was no point in doing so anyway as there was nothing to buy and the restaurants would only accept our Western money anyway. For all the cliches about the East, it really did feel like a different planet.
At the time, it was just a trip with some friends, but when I look back on it now, I realise just how special it was. I was actually in the GDR. And we had to go to some government building in Prague to get our visas extended by a day or we would have had real trouble when we came to leave the country. I still have the passport with the GDR stamp and Czech visa in it.
To this day, I’m not sure what it was that took me down the academic line I took. I suspect the interest in ethics came from my Mum and Peter Singer’s book (which she recommended to me) Practical Ethics which proved that ethics is not just some theoretical discussion but something which affects real lives. Probably that appealed to my inherent interest in how to apply knowledge in practice. Goodness knows where the media bit came from. I had never met a journalist in my life. And, given my experience in Berlin in 1990, there was nothing pulling me back there to do my research. But I went anyway, and the Berlin I encountered bore no resemblance to what I remembered. Partly because it was a huge building site, partly because everything was changing around me, and partly because I had changed. But mainly because I got to know a good number of Berliners, from West and East, and the city was a proper home to me for the best part of a year. I found recently my notebook from when I was there. Apparently I met with a professor soon after I got to Berlin and recorded that he thought I wouldn’t get any journalists to open up and talk about their life before and after the Wall came down. For a while I thought he might be right. I got no reply to a couple of letters sent to Neues Deutschland, previously the flagship newspaper of the ruling Party in East Germany. I still remember going to their office building and speaking with the receptionist. Had they received my letter? Yes, and they had meant to get back to me. Could I meet with the editor? Yes – we set up an appointment. And from there, it snowballed. Another journalist there loved Scotland (the weather, of all things). And better still, he had been the editor of the main youth newspaper, a total hardliner, hated by the population in general. And I found them both to be thoughtful, reflective and open about their past, about their role in propping up the regime, about the sense of duty and commitment they had felt. They introduced me to other journalists, including at the Berliner Zeitung which, co-incidentally, is my favourite German newspaper, and within a few months I had spoken with over thirty journalists. All of which forms the basis of my book.
Unsurprisingly, the experience of living in Berlin as a twenty-something had an impact on me which far outlived my time there. One family in particular, from the East, and just a couple of years older than me, made the whole experience one of belonging in Berlin rather than just passing through. That feeling has never left me.
And now we are a generation older. Those of us who remember the Wall coming down are now middle-aged (allegedly). We lived in a time which is just history for our children. Things we grew up with are in museums. Including the GDR.
So, what is my fascination with the GDR? I’ve asked myself that over the years. My answer today might be different from my answer tomorrow. But for today, I think it’s because it wasn’t that different from what we still experience today, albeit in a different way. Last night, Klaus Wowereit, the outgoing mayor of Berlin, talked about the concrete walls and the walls in our head. The journalists in East Germany talked of the scissors in your head (die Schere im Kopf). To begin with, control of what they wrote was external, words or sentences would be changed or articles rejected in their entirety. It didn’t take long until they self-censored, knowing what would and would not be accepted. They no longer needed to be controlled, they did it to themselves. It wasn’t conscious, it just became part of who they were. They still tried to get things into the paper that were borderline, but it was small things. At the time, they seemed more significant because they were looking at it from the perspective of the walls in their own head which had limited their perspective.
And I wonder how different we are. I’ve written before about the ideology of the Scottish independence vote, and about the mindset which I might have implicitly adopted over the last few decades. Did I see that at the time? No. Did it limit my perspective? Undoubtedly. Can it be easily undone? That is perhaps the question I’m dealing with now.
It is a truism that we are shaped by our experiences, by our upbringing. School, religion, the values our parents taught us, mistakes we have made, paths we have gone down, choices we have made. They all contribute to who we are right now, and to how we view the world. It’s a gradual process and we don’t notice it. Remember the principle of the frogs? (skip this if you are squeamish) – if you throw a frog into hot water it jumps straight out again, but put it in cold water and heat it up and it will stay there until it dies. (As as aside, I really hope this is just a theoretical point and that nobody actually did it for real). So what does it take for us to make the big changes that we sometimes need but can’t always see we need?
In the case of East Germany, there were a number of factors. Gorbachev, running out money, Western TV, the ruling generation being out of touch with the population who were one or two generations younger. They all played a part. But I learned a new perspective last night from one of the speakers (as I predicted, there were speeches as well as music).
9 October 1989 (not a typo, a month before the wall came down) was the first unsanctioned demonstration in Leipzig, unsanctioned by the Party. Previous demonstrations had been smaller, this one included about 70,000 people. The local population knew that water cannons were being brought in, the hospitals had extra blood supplies ready, the police and Stasi were out in force. And they went out anyway, knowing what could happen but knowing also that they had to. It was described as the day East Germany lost its fear.
And there it is. Losing our fear. I think that’s the thing that, however experienced and capable we are, holds us back again and again. Fear of what might happen, of what might not happen, of change.
And so, for me, the fall of the Wall, and what has become of Berlin, shows us what can happen when we lose that fear. It allows us to break through the limitations we have implicitly put on ourselves and discover something new, something better in ourselves.
The trigger, the thing that can push us to embrace something new rather than stay where we have been, can be external, but it always involves an internal choice. And, once again, I come back to my belief that books can be that trigger in our heads, give us a different perspective that allows us to see something new, or see something for the first time that has always been there. And then to decide to do something differently, to be better than we were before. Even when everyone says it can’t be done. Because until 9 November 1989, everyone said the Wall would never come down.
By the way, I decided yesterday during the concert that my novel needs to be written in the first person. I’ve been going back and forth on that for a long time and trying out different forms. Decision made.