It’s been almost fifty years since I crossed the border between West and East and entered communist East Germany. As students, we had spent some time in Nurnberg with German families, a truly memorable experience. Our school had also planned a short trip to Berlin, which was then an enclave in the communist part of the country.
The country was officially called the German Democratic Republic. Don’t let names mislead you. It wasn’t democratic or a republic and, as it was controlled from Moscow, it wasn’t really German either. It was a communist dictatorship and totally different from its western counterpart.
I remember there were no toilet facilities on the long drive from the border to Berlin. It was bad enough that we had to wait a very long time at the border before they would let us in. A couple of communist soldiers spent their time watching a game of chess that two of our students were playing, deliberately holding us up, in an attempt to show they were in control. When they did finally let us in, we had to wait a few hours for a toilet facility – they did, however, make a stop in the middle of nowhere and said, “Men that side and women this side” of the road. That was it.
I remember touring East Berlin after we crossed through the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. The wall had been built in 1961 to keep out the degenerate undesirables from the west. At least, that was the official version. Of course, the reality was very different. The real reason for the Wall was to keep their own people inside the GDR, to stop them escaping to freedom. That didn’t stop them, though – hundreds of people tried to cross the Wall. Some succeeded, some were caught and shot to death.
One vivid memory I had was of an evening at the Berlin Opera House. We had gone to see Puccini’s “La Boheme,” one of the most popular operas. The opera was written by an Italian, is sung in French and was being performed in Germany! It was the first time I had seen grown men cry (German men, remember!). During the interval we had gone out on to the balcony and looked east, at East Berlin. On the western side, everything was lit up, inviting people to go downtown and have a good time; the east was in total darkness. Touring the city had revealed that all was dull and drab, service in the museum restaurant was slow and surly, the food limited, dry and hard. Soldiers seemed to be everywhere. There were very few vehicles.
It was not too difficult for young people from the West to see which society was the better. At a time when many people were becoming left wing to one degree or another, this was a stark reminder of the failure of centralized planning.
It’s not surprising that, exactly 25 years ago this weekend, the Wall came down.
People want freedom. I should add “up to a point.”
Reflecting on Germany’s past, we should never forget that freedom can and will be rejected when times are hard. High unemployment can so easily lead to a dictator who promises to give the people what they want, everything that is except freedom.
Another great lesson from the past is that borders are constantly changing. This has been particularly true of Germany. The country was divided by the allies after World War II. The German Democratic Republic was absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany in October 1990.