I am now old enough for a trip down memory lane.
Twenty years ago my friend Mark and I spent some time in West Berlin as part of a student exchange programme. We had no clue that we were present at a point when history pivoted.
It was 1989, and we were young, impossibly naive and the world seemed easily divided into what was politically acceptable/good, and what was evil/wrong. Ideology gave shape to life, to politics, to faith, to shopping- ideas mattered. Even if the ideas were borrowed and poorly understood.
Germany was an adventure. We were dragged to receptions with the Mayor, toured the Seimens factory, checked out hospitals and social work schemes, and visited the Reichstag when it was still an empty shell.
We also walked and walked and walked the streets of the city- which seemed impossibly trendy and not a little scary- the Ku’Damm at night with it’s nightclubs and prostitutes. The preserved bomb-scarred buildings all lit up alongside the sparkling glass and concrete office blocks. The bars and the continental heat that allowed us to spill out into the street. The bus queues that became a free-for-all scramble, contrasting with the orderliness of the underground.
Of course, the reality of any visit to West Berlin at that time was that the city was a capitalist ‘free’ island surrounded by communist East Germany. The magic of the place was made at least in part by the mad cold war politics that led to its division and isolation. It was a city formed under the ever present shadow of implacable enmity, and an irrational compromise that pleased nobody- apart from tourists like us I suppose.
The visible manifestation of this was the wall.
On one side was neon, affluence and Mercedes. On the other was bad food, pompous architecture, envious aspiration and the smoky noisy Trabant. Over the last twenty years, the stories of the East German political oppression have abounded, and the power of a set of distorted ideological lens over a whole nation. This brilliant film tells some of this story as well as anything-
We spent some time touring the East. If anything, this seemed far more exciting than the west. There was a sense of comic brutality about the place- and the overwhelming feeling of bureaucracy gone stark staring mad. But the beer was dirt cheap, and beyond the centre of the city (which looked like a dated film set from the 1960’s) the streets had largely unchanged since the war.
The division of Germany was a ludicrous political anachronism- but no one could have predicted the change that happened in November 1989- a few months after our last visit.
Rumours started to spread that the borders were going to open-
And once this began, there was no going back.
Reagan and Thatcher claimed this as their victory- which seems to me as ridiculous as me claiming it as mine. For some, democratic capitalism had triumphed- the ideological debate was over. We were all capitalists now.
Or at least we were until the current economic crisis.
20 years later, Germany has all but overcome the pain of reunification. The surviving bits of the wall are tourist attractions. I have some bits of it somewhere- now the dust of history. Perhaps one of those pivotal points on which human history turns…
The last 20 years have seen such change- the internet, mobile phones, a shift in world power towards the far East. The world is a very different place.
I look at photographs of me then, and wonder what the next 20 years will bring?