Remembrance in the shadow of the Berlin Wall

On the 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall was breached. For the previous 28 years crossings had been made, and many more attempted and failed, with those fleeing from East to West shot as they sought freedom. The line that stood between East and West crumbled that night as guards looked on bewildered as their commands to fire never came, as families cleft apart for a generation were reunited.

In the weeks and months leading up to that symbolic ending, the façade of the Cold War slipped and the decayed state of the Eastern Bloc became visible for the world to see. The Soviet Union refused to send tanks into Poland to support the communist government. The Hungarian leader told Soviet leader Gorbachev that his border with Austria would be neglected and unguarded if he didn’t get the funds to reinforce it.

Gorbachev was a communist but his actions and inaction hastened the decline of the Soviet empire and brought the Cold War to an end. It was an economic decision as much as anything, the cost of maintaining an empire was one that could not be afforded. Gorbachev reasoned that dispensing with the satellite states might give the Soviet Union scope to prosper. Instead it gave permission for collapse. Those countries that attempted to maintain a one party communist dictatorship soon fell, the crowds took impetus from the revolutions across the border, in Czechoslovakia peaceful protest led to the Velvet Revolution. In Romania Nicolae Ceausescu desperately tried to cling onto power but after his security forces fired on protestors violence erupted, he was ousted, charged with genocide and killed by a firing squad on Christmas Day, just six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I was five when the wall came down. All I have ever known is a world in the shadow of the Cold War. We did not watch the fall of Soviet states in Eastern Europe in my primary school classroom (but I do remember my year one teacher switching on the TV just two weeks later for the first televised parliamentary debate).Warsaw February 2013 141

I have been to Poland, Hungary, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia as well as the countries that used to make up Yugoslavia. The impact of the Cold War and Soviet domination is hard to miss. From the architecture to the culture, from the history shared to the secrets hidden. But it is only history, a curiosity, an interest, something to peruse as I walk around a castle in Bratislava and ponder how it was used in decades past.

By a quirk of diarisation this anniversary is also Remembrance Sunday in the centenary year of the outbreak of World War One. This week I took a visit to the Tower of London, I live only a couple of miles away and yet had not seen the ceramic poppies planted in the moat to represent the lives of British soldiers lost in Flanders fields.


It was dark and crowds huddled close to the railings to take their photos and look across the sea of red that swept around the ancient fortress. The rain came, the umbrellas went up and the people kept on coming. This weekend the masses will form in ever greater number, and the pressure to preserve this memorial gave way to a government announcement that parts will be preserved, tour the country and feature as a permanent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.

There is something about remembering that is important. Not to glorify or to excuse but to look at the past and try to learn some lessons. The carefully crafted poppies, sold to raise money for military charities, sold on to line profiteers’ purses, can give an image of beauty that discords with the violence and horror of war. The souvenir hunters blurring into those commemorating fallen friends and family. A sober remembrance is also important, and a recollection that treaties are signed, walls are broken down, armies return to their home: but violence does not cease.

In the quarter of a century since the end of the Cold War I have grown up in peace. I was not instructed at school about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. I have never felt the fear that the way of life I enjoyed was fragile and could be thwarted on the back of Soviet invasion. Ten years after the Berlin Wall came down I wrote my GCSE history coursework on the Cuban Missile Crisis and I got a bit absorbed in it, taking it far more seriously than most other fifteen year olds would I wrote pages and pages looking at the brinkmanship that nearly brought catastrophe on the back of aggression and power plays.

In the early 1960s when the Wall went up this was the frontline in the conflict between East and West. A relic of the final days of the Second World War Berlin was divided into four zones, all within the area which was to become East Germany under Soviet control. Soon the British, French and American zones joined together and families worked in areas they did not live, had friends under other jurisdictions; Berlin was a city carved into pieces much like Africa was at the end of the nineteenth century at the strangely coincidentally titled Berlin Conference.

In 1948 the Soviet Union had tried to strangle Western control of its portions of Berlin by blockading the city. Airdrops relieved the mortal threat but the conflict did not dissipate. A little more than a decade later the division was cast in concrete.

I wish I could say I grew up relieved not to have global conflict hovering close by. But it was irrelevant. My fascination with history was just that, a study of the past. I look back at the terrorist attacks on 9/11 as in the present era neglecting to realise they are further away than the Cold War was when I was at school, or when those attacks took place. Even for someone with an abnormal interest in history and politics as I do, the Cold War was not relevant.

The years that have gone by faded the realities of the threat. They say that time is a great healer, it is also a good anaesthetic: it lets us forget and that is not always the best recourse. Sometimes remembrance matters, after all, that’s why each November poppies are worn, wreaths are laid and in cities, towns and villages across the country services will take place on this Sunday.

I have an ambivalence towards pacifism. I wish I could believe that war should never be the right response. But I also struggle to see why bullets and bombs are the answer to ‘how should we be bringers of peace?’ War is a tragedy, but I believe sometimes a tragic necessity. But that is an opinion formed from security and comfort, it is pontificating on what happens somewhere else.

That’s how I view the Berlin Wall, its erection, it’s separation and its fall. Not only did it happen in a different age, it happened somewhere else. And yet, these places which are somewhere else are not that far away. I am ashamed, for example, of how little I know about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Just yesterday one particular episode was referenced in something I was reading and I was shocked and appalled that this happened so close to home, and just as abruptly reminded of my ignorance of so much history.

As much as it saddens and frustrates me that many of my friends know nothing of the end of the Cold War, or the events that happened in its forty year span, I look first to see the plank of ignorance blinding my own vision.

My biggest concern with major public acts of remembrance is that they aid a voyeuristic style of remembrance. Compassion by proxy. If I’ve got a poppy pinned, or Instagrammed a photo of the red patchwork quilt around the Tower of London, I’ve done my bit to remember the fallen. Alternatively, if I’m passionate about my pacifism I could wear a white poppy to symbolise my dissent.

It worries me that is that. How can these points of remembrance, these anniversaries, be used to provoke better understanding of what went on and why we choose to remember? This photo of Berlin with illuminated balloons stretched along the line the wall defended has been tweeted again and again. It’s a poignant image and a striking visualisation of how a city was torn in two.

But it also places our attention on the past as another place, something that has happened which we remember but are also able to place in that box called history and seal it from relevance to today. Except we can’t, this recent photo from space shows the line still exists. Berlin is still a city divided. Not by a wall, and you or I could freely walk through the Brandenburg Gate, but the legacy of the past still casts a firm imprint.

The history of Northern Ireland is also part of the present, parades and flags still cause controversy and anger, and drags the past into the present and the future of the nation still struggles to find a way forward to peace and prosperity.

One reason why the Cold War seems so long ago is it was a relic before it ended. The leaders of the USA and the USSR would slip into Cold War thinking – and George Bush Snr was suspicious of Gorbachev’s motives – but by the time the wall came down the world was ready to move on. It was why when the Soviet Union cut loose its client states they did not stick to the script but found their own path. There was a pace to change that they could not deny. It’s why when we look, it is so far away, it’s why, when we remember, we place it in the category of history.

And the past is a different country. But it’s dangerous if we build the border fences too high. If we place quotas on the lessons that we will allow entry into the present. There’s something othering about describing an event as history.

Daniel Philpott, in his introduction to Just and Unjust Peace writes:

“Over the past generation all over the world, societies have sought to confront histories denominated in commas and zeroes. Rwandans face a genocide that killed some 1,000,000, Cambodians one that left 2,000,000 dead. Bosnians look back on a death toll of 100,000. South Africa’s truth commission documented some 38,000 human rights violations; Guatemala’s, 55,000. Even where death tolls are lower – Northern Ireland, the Arab-Israeli conflict – other injustices abound and conflict is all-consuming. Were they stood upright, the collected files that recorded East Germany’s surveillance of its citizens would stretch 121 miles. In the Jewish scriptures, the prophet Ezekiel describes a society overcome by evil as a valley of dry bones. Still today, chroniclers of enormities often select geographic images – rivers and lakes clogged with bodies in Rwanda, killing fields in Cambodia. The desolate aftermath of evil makes it difficult to talk about justice.”

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One thing stands out when considering the Cold War, the conflict that defined the second half of the twentieth century, whose end we look back at today, that thing is the absence of war. Proxy battles took place, most notably in Afghanistan, but the Cold War has been described – persuasively in my opinion – as the Long Peace. There was paranoia, authoritarian crack downs from the Stasi, but little loss of life in a clash of empires that had all the criteria for a third world war and one with nuclear weapons. That very capability is suggested as why the spark never lit. In Cuba it was the threat of battlefield nuclear weapons ninety miles from Florida that pushed Kennedy and Khrushchev to find a way out of the crisis. The bi-polar world of the Cold War collapsed and changed the shape of global order. It’s in the ashes of this reordering that governments have tried to work out what to do with global terrorism and the many interrelated issues in the Middle East.

The challenges of today are different to those of the past but it takes a while to learn new ways to respond. At the start of the First World War cavalry charges were attempted but cut down by machine guns. In the Second World War trenches were dug only for tanks to ride straight over them. History can teach us so much but it can also give us false assurance for the present. The more we know about how to win one battle might inoculate ourselves to how to win the one we are fighting.

But aside from learning how to win the war we’re fighting, remembrance should teach us how to stop fighting. The lessons of peace are rarely remembered as the heroes of war, but they are just as remarkable. In David & Goliath Malcolm Gladwell writes:

“Some religious movements have as their heroes great warriors or prophets. The Mennonites have Dirk Willems, who was arrested for his religious beliefs in the sixteenth century and held in a prison tower. With the aid of a rope made of knotted rags, he let himself down from the widow and escaped across the castle’s ice-covered moat. A guard gave chase. Willems made it safely to the other side, The guard did not, falling through the ice into the freezing water, and Willems stopped, went back, and pulled his pursuer to safety. For his act of compassion, he was taken back to prison, tortured, and then burned slowly at the stake as he repeated ‘Oh, my Lord, my God’ seventy times over.”

The attraction of peace traditions is unavoidable. The stories of those who refused to give into violence extraordinary. I cannot say I am a convert, I look at suffering and sometimes see the intervention of armies as the only response, I wish it wasn’t so.

Churchill spoke of an Iron Curtain descending across Europe, Dwight Eisenhower spoke of humanity hanging on a cross of Iron. The desire for peace and for the end of war is not enough. Speaking in 1953 not long after taking office he said:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. … We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. … This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Eisenhower served as president for eight years as the Cold War escalated. This speech, given in the brief moment of hope after Stalin’s death, was quickly forgotten. Today we all know the words of another president who spoke of hope, but is faced with wave of crises on wave of crises he cannot solve with words.

Peace is hard, but it is a promise we cannot ignore. Especially today as we remember those who have died in conflicts down the generations.

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