06 April 2006

Then and now

I was living in Northern Germany when the Berlin Wall fell, ending the long, tense Cold War. I was unable to travel to Berlin myself on that chilly night, Nov. 9, 1989, but I watched CNN on the Armed Forces Network with the rest of the world as jubilant West Germans celebrated in Berlin, chipping away at the Wall with hammers, sledges and even their hands. By the end of 1990, the treacherous border between West and East Germany was open at all points and Soviet Communism was no more.
I remember sitting there in my warm living room, hardly able to believe what I was seeing. The Wall was a both a symbol and a terribly real barrier between the freedom and democracy of the West and the complete lack of both in the Soviet East. I'd grown up fearing the Soviet Union; it sounds quaint now, but the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real. I'd served four years in the Air Force myself, at a "blockhouse" in the Pacific Northwest, as a weapons technician, helping to direct intercept aircraft by radar, practicing against the terrible day that the last war the world would ever know began. Now, my husband watched radar screens at a forward mobile unit, watching the skies day and night for enemy aircraft.
In the spring of 1990, on a cool, gloriously sunshiney day, I took a day-trip with friends. In a town south of Hamburg called Wittingen, we stopped the car and got out, and with a few other curious folks, walked across the border into East Germany on foot. We weren't supposed to do this, even then -- we were four Americans, three of us employees of the U.S. Army in Germany, and one of us an active duty military member. We discussed between us the trouble we could get into if we were caught on the wrong side of the border without East German visas stamped into the back of our passports, but our curiosity and the sheer ... history ... of what we were seeing was simply too compelling to resist.
There was a narrow dirt road across "no-man's-land," that wide strip of cleared area on either side of the border. Cars were not allowed across at this point -- further south, there was an official crossing, complete with border guards, where non-Germans wishing to visit East Germany could stop, hand over their passports, and for a few Deutschmarks, buy a visa good for 24 hours. But we wanted to see and feel under our feet the no-man's-land where so many East Germans had lost their lives, trying to cross over to the West and freedom.
We walked across slowly, staying on the dirt road. There were signs in German warning people not to venture off the road; although by now the landmines had been removed and there were no longer guards drawing a bead on you with their rifles in the watchtowers, that dead strip of land, cleared of all vegetation, dry as a desert, was still potentially dangerous. Had all the mines been found?
When we reached the end of the cleared strip, we all turned around and looked back. Two or three hundred yards away was the West and freedom. Where we stood was limbo. East Germany was still in flux; not much had changed there yet, except that its people could freely cross into the West -- certainly enough. We didn't talk as we looked at the death zone from the eastern side. Just a few months before, what we were doing now would have been impossible.
We walked back. We weren't challenged on either side of the border; there were no guards, no one checking papers. It was over.
A little while later we drove over the border properly, stopping to get our visas. When we left the checkpoint, once again we were all a bit subdued. We were in East Germany, free to travel where we wished.
We spent the day driving along bumpy, poorly maintained, two-laned roads through a countryside that was both beautiful and, compared to the countryside in the West we'd just left, empty. Aboveground pipelines were everywhere, snaking across fields of raps and other spring crops under a sky so blue it seemed unreal. We drove though tiny villages that looked as if they hadn't been painted or spruced up since 1938. Shop windows were dirty, the very few goods displayed behind them looking forlorn and dusty. There were no pubs, no restaurants, very few people in spite of it being a beautiful Saturday in spring. Few cars on the road, either -- we'd go miles before passing one, headed the other way.
We ended up in Schwerin, a small city in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania that had been settled since the 11th Century. We saw the old castle there, built in the 1300s and wandered the Altergarten square. Near the lake -- the Schwerin See, we bought ice-cream bars from a smiling East German vendor. He had to have been one of the first East German entrenpenuers, taking advantage of this new and pleasant freedom.
It was a beautiful city, but what I remember most about it was its grayness. Other than the sky and the trees, and few flowers blooming here and there, there was little color. Here, too, shop windows were all but empty. The windows above them were blank, curtained. There were no flowerboxes outside them, none of the bright advertisements we'd grown used to in the West, and surprisingly few people out and about.
We stayed for a few hours, but the afternoon was getting late and we had to be back over the border before nightfall. And so we returned, taking a road north out of the city and then heading west. When we crossed over again, just as that bright, clear sun was setting, I was struck once again by the incredible difference between the two Germanys. On the east side, colorlessness and a sense that time had somehow stopped. On the west -- within just a few hundred feet -- a smooth road, colorful signs, flowers blooming, buildings clean and bright with paint, cars, traffic, pubs, shops bulging with things to buy, their windows sparkling.
I have seen with my own eyes the difference between a democratic, free society and one that isn't. And I find it stunning that in our own country, now, we face the slow dismantling of our rights and freedoms. President Bush feels free to conduct warrantless wiretapping of our phone conversations; feels free to lie to us about the reason he launched a war of convenience. His administration lies to us daily as it destroys our freedoms. We may never reach the desolate point that East Germany and other Soviet-controlled nations did, but we're on a dark road.


Neddie said...

Why, oh why do you moonbats hate America?

(Welcome to Bloggovia, Wren! May your stay be long and eventful!)

The Heretik said...

Yes, welcome.

gardenin' guy said...

So glad to be able to read your thoughts and such a great story. Felt like I was there.