THE LEGACY OF COMMUNISM – PART II – BERLIN

As I stated in one of my earlier posts, the past travails associated with Communism are fading in many East European countries as stores are now filled with goods, late model cars ply roadways and there is a plethora of fast food places.  And so it is in Berlin.  However Berlin has recognised its historical importance as the dividing line between East and West during the latter half of the 20th Century and has taken steps to ensure this history is retained and kept on display.  Consequently, the past is easily conjured up with some historical knowledge and a city tour that takes you by notorious Communist-era artefacts such as Checkpoint Charlie and sections of the Berlin Wall.

Berlin is where my formerly anodyne views of Communism profoundly changed because it is here where it is still easy to visualise the deprivations, degradations and insults to human dignity that Communist Governments inflicted on their own people.  It has instilled within me a visceral revulsion for a system of government that so humiliated its citizens in the interest of its own preservation.

Since I finished my last post discussing the ugliness of Communist monuments, particularly noting Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science and Prague’s Zizkov Communication Tower, I’ll start by discussing Berlin’s Fernsehturm Tower.

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Look up. Look waaaay up. Fernsehturm Tower.

According to Wikipedia:  the Fernsehturm Tower was intended as a symbol of Berlin and a show of East Germany’s strength.  Even though the Tower was constructed between 1965 and 1969 its construction plan was conceived in the 1950s.  Notwithstanding that Berlin was a divided city at the time, the decision was made to place the Tower next to Alexanderplatz which is the centre of Berlin; therefore, it is easily visible throughout the central, and some suburban, districts of Berlin.  The Tower is the tallest structure in Germany at 368 metres.  The Tower’s vertical structure is modelled on the Fernsehturm Stuttgart while the centre dome is modelled on Sputnik, the first artificial (Soviet) satellite.

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A longer distance view of the Tower demonstrating its dominance of the skyline.

Compared with the Palace of Culture and Science and the Zizkov Tower, I can’t really complain about Fernsehturm’s aesthetics apart from looking a bit like a mosquito with a blood-gorged abdomen. I am willing to concede that this description might just be some biases on my part showing through.

Citing Wikipedia, “on a clear day visibility from the Tower’s observation deck is 42 km”.  That means that when Berlin was a divided city East Germans could ascend the Tower and peer over into West Berlin.  West Berlin probably wasn’t much to look at because it was impoverished and riddled with squatters and apocalyptic types who enjoyed the thrill of living on the edge of Armaggedon.  (David Bowie’s reasons for moving to Berlin in the late 1970s were a bit more personal and complicated.)  These were not the types of people who would have given West Berlin a stable societal base upon which the middle class would want to raise their families.

Even so, I did wonder why the East German Government was so lax about letting their citizens peer over into the West, given the Government’s paranoia about so many other aspects of its citizens’ lives.  It was not until I got back home and did some research that I could form some sort of theory on this.

Wikipedia states that the Tower was first conceived in the 1950s –at that time it was not yet apparent to the authorities that a wall was necessary to separate East Berliners from their western brethren.

Nikita Kruschev was Premier of the Soviet Union then and was (in)famous for his belligerent attitude that Communism would bury Capitalism.  This did not appear to be a ludicrous proposition in the 1950s.  Productivity in the East was rising and the Soviets did initially lead the “Space Race” in the latter part of the decade.  Hubris may have convinced the East German Government that in time its citizens would come to understand that Communism was a superior ideology.

The Government probably also fell victim to the “higher/taller/bigger” syndrome that seems to have preoccupied Eastern European Governments.  Is it just coincidence that during the Communist era the Fernsehturm was the fourth tallest freestanding structure in Europe, after Moscow’s Ostankino Tower, Kiev’s TV Tower and Riga’s Radio and TV Tower? (Source: Wikipedia)  I variously think of these as either the East’s one-fingered salutes to Western Governments or, even less generously, phallic symbols of an insecure system.

In the intervening period between the Fernsehturm Tower’s genesis in the 1950s and its completion by the late 1960s the promise of Communism had deflated like a stuck balloon.  There was no bigger manifestation of its broken ideals than the construction of the Berlin Wall.

When East Germans were finally able to ascend the Tower and could study the long and barren scar that was the Berlin Wall, they would likely have done so in a heavy frame of mind which considered their own imprisonment.  Undoubtedly this engendered a yearning for escape in many of the visitors, but a yearning that had to be suppressed because attempted passage to the west was often deadly.

So while the Tower was initially meant to be a symbol of technological superiority, its easy view of the Berlin Wall and beyond actually made it an instrument for highlighting the failures of a system destined for history’s scrapheap.

From the Tower it is a short jaunt on a tourist bus to the Brandenburg Gate (provided road and building construction doesn’t slow the bus too much).  This was the place from which President Reagan gave his famous “Mr Gorbachev Tear Down This Wall” speech.

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Brandenburg Gate. Fernsehturm Tower in background.

When I alighted from the bus it was more tourist trap than nuclear war flashpoint.  The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week pavilion, souvenir stands and tourist come-ons at such a historically important site jarred initially.  I suppose it shows how far things have come since 1989 but I couldn’t imagine Parisians allowing the Arch de Triomphe to become overrun with such tackiness.

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An assortment of tourist offerings at Brandenburg Gate.

However, one just has to take a bit of a walk toward the Reichstag to suddenly be transported back to tragedy.  There, on a wire fence, is a series of white crosses commemorating each person who had unsuccessfully tried to escape to West Berlin and the date on which their escape attempt ended in death.  To ensure their stories are not forgotten, the circumstances of their murders are also recorded on laminated paper.

 

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Memorial to the victims of the Berlin Wall.

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The cross in the foreground is dedicated to the memory of Heinz Sokolowski, aged 47, who was shot while trying to escape.

These were the people who tried to reach freedom by climbing over/digging under/swimming across/crashing through the Berlin Wall.  Walking along the fence and studying the names, pictures and stories of those who were killed trying to escape will fill you with sadness if you allow yourself to ponder the desperation that drove them and consider the grieving friends and families left behind.  I felt this sadness more intensely whenever I came to the cross of someone who was in their early 20s or younger.  No doubt in part this is because my daughters and their friends are of this age and I compared their relatively easy lives against those of the murdered.  At that point in a young person’s life they should be enjoying a carefree young adulthood, a last hurrah before knuckling down and taking on adult responsibilities.

The most poignant memorial at the fence is for Chris Gueffroy, aged 20; the last person killed trying to escape on 6 February 1989.  The Wall was breached only 9 months later in November 1989 but the order to shoot attempting escapees had been rescinded by April 1989.  So Chris could have made it across the Wall safely two months later or at the most he would have been free nine months later.

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But looking at his situation in this way is a “blame the victim” approach.  By the beginning of 1989 it was clear the East European Communist Governments were collapsing and their whole rotten system would soon collapse with them.  Knowing this, why could the border guards not have shown any humanity and either have held their fire or intentionally missed their target?  They would have known from judicial history that “following orders” is not a legitimate excuse.

I did buy a few souvenirs during my Central European travels but these days I try to restrict my purchases when I go travelling on account of having so many souvenirs from past trips.  These are now mostly buried somewhere at the back of our storage room.  But I did very willingly buy two souvenirs in Berlin because they well encapsulated my newfound contempt for the Communist regimes that used to rule this part of the world.

Taking pride of place amongst my coffee cups is this mug.  The picture on the mug is taken from a mural which is on a preserved section of the Berlin Wall.  The inscription reads “My God, help me to survive this deadly love”.

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The original photograph on which the mural is based was taken in 1979 by Régis Bossu, who photographed the festivities held to mark the 30th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  The photo was snapped when GDR President Erich Honecker rose to congratulate Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on his laudatory speech.

A bit more detail on the picture can be found at this site:      http://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/the-fraternal-kiss/

The mug itself does a good job as a tangible symbol of my contempt toward these politicians and all they represent, but I was very pleased when my mother-in-law burst out laughing when I showed it to her.  It was heartening to hear her mocking laughter at the idiotic look of these two men who supported the repulsive system she was forced to flee in 1956.

The other souvenir I bought is this t-shirt of East German Trooper Conrad Schumann jumping over the Berlin Wall during its initial stage of construction on 15 August 1961.

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I like the shirt because its picture encapsulates people’s strong will to be free, regardless of their position in a society.  Schumann’s story is told at the link below but as I found out after a bit of research, his story is ultimately not a happy one.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/the-leap-of-hope-that-ended-in-despair-1167101.html

And so there it is.  By touring Berlin and bearing witness to the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall and the memorials to its victims, I have developed a belated disgust for the East European Communist Governments.  Even though they collapsed more than a quarter century ago I am now too aware and more sympathetic of the reasons why my parents and in-laws fled Europe some 60 years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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