Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Berlin Wall wasn't a border between countries

This is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I thought I’d tell a little story.

I studied in Germany as a kid, before the Berlin Wall came down. This one time, I met a girl at a party who had recently escaped from East Germany the month before. She had been hitchhiking in Czechoslovakia when the truck driver said “I’m going across the border, do you want me to smuggle you across?”. She had only minutes to decide the fate of the rest of her life, with nothing but the pack on her back.

She showed me her English textbook. English was nearly as popular a foreign language in East Germany as Russian. Like most language textbooks, it told a fictional story of a traveler as an excuse for dialog. The traveler was an East German in America, experiencing the typical American problems of the massive tuberculosis outbreak, hunger, and suppression of the popular American Communist Party. This overlay of propaganda on normal education was a fascinating insight into the way a totalitarian society works.

I asked the obvious follow up question, “so do you plan on visiting the United States?”.

She started crying. Between her sobs she explained that this had been a life long dream of hers, but until that moment, she didn’t realize she could. After a month in West Germany, she had not yet realized she was truly free.

I point this out because the Wall wasn’t simply a border between two countries, but a wall around people’s minds. Even when people didn’t believe the communist rhetoric, the totalitarian governments still had control over people’s minds.


This is a really strong memory.

The house was typically German, in the middle of Stuttgart. The lower floors were businesses, with a nondescript door with buzzer for dwellings on the upper floors. This apartment was typical student housing, converted from an attic, with low and angled ceilings, and inconveniently arranged rooms.

The space was heated by a small stove burning coal. Being from America, I had never handled or smelled coal before. I had expected it to be light, like charcoal, but it was heavy, solid rock ("steinkohle" or "stone coal"). It also had a distinctive smell when burned, which hung over the city in winter.

But even then, in Germany, and especially among poor students, heating was a luxury. Even at a party, we'd wear heavy sweaters and scarves, huddling in small rooms for warmth.

This girl had her little backpack with her, the same backpack she'd had from Czechoslovakia. Her parents were able to send her a few additional things, like her textbooks, but not a lot. She was living on a small stipend from the West German government, going to school at the University of Stuttgart.

It was weird. As a foreigner living in Germany, I felt out of place, but for her, I think the culture shock was even worse.