What I Miss About the Wall

Photo by Emile Guillemot on Unsplash

I sometimes hesitate to admit that I miss the Wall, that I feel a longing for something so awful. But back then you knew where you stood. There was a double wall of concrete with razor wire and mines in the middle, and on one side stood the good guys, bad guys on the other. Clean demarcations are always easier to grasp: walls are comforting tools of gross oversimplification in a complicated age. And the part of my life that I lived within that myth of the healthy marriage between West Berlin and the United States—surrounded by a wall that encircled and constricted but couldn’t quite strangle a tiny island of freedom deep within the cold heart of a totalitarian empire—harbored a sort of innocent faith my country, the loss of which I mourn more each day.

When the wall stood, America was both friendly and tough. My little blue passport with the eagle clutching her olive branch in one talon (but watch out: a thicket of sharpened arrows in the other) provided me the unearned privilege of swift entry into foreign lands and deference from their inhabitants. In those heady days I didn’t have to think about all the bad things we had done. Sure there was four hundred years of slavery, blankets with smallpox, Jim Crow, Vietnam and Iran Contra: but look…the wall! I was half-German, half-American, and the wall had redeemed both sides of the equation, and when in doubt I only needed to shuffle to the top of the scaffolding to peer over the graffiti-smeared concrete and gaze at the bleak, sooty Stalinist housing blocks of East Berlin, like a diorama of deprivation, where guard towers sprouted like the fungus of failed communism out of the cloud of two-cycle engine exhaust, guards ready to shoot down members of their own tribe for merely chasing the forbidden fruits of capitalism.

Back then America was seen as a benefactor and friend to Europe. We were the source of the Marshall Plan and the somewhat flawed but loving big brother in the NATO club. We believed in a united and peaceful Europe, one that was prosperous and economically dependent upon us, and we were willing dance on the edge of war to help make it so. Back then I could watch fireworks without guilt and my parents still loved each other and the world wanted the blue jeans and maple syrup that we smuggled abroad in our suitcases and doled out to family like little badges of freedom that signaled the wonders of modern capital. 

There is one moment I recall that that represents those old days best: it was a summer afternoon in the early 80s and fragments of sunlight filtered through a broadleaf canopy, falling onto cobblestones. I was a kid wandering the sidewalks in a green and peaceful corner of southwest Berlin. Diesel cars rumbled past on the cobbles. The efficient S-Bahn hissed to a stop at the nearby station. In the distance came the pock-pock-pock of Russian troops conducting live-fire drills somewhere on the eastern side of the wall. 

An old German fellow with a cane and felt hat tap-stepped in my direction and when we met he drew up on the sidewalk and began speaking to me. He’d pegged me for American. Maybe it was the tee shirt I wore sporting Old Glory. My German was pidgin at best, but we managed to have a conversation, and I remember that went something like this:

“Well, young man, how do you speak such good German?”

“My mother is German.”

“And your father?”

“He was in the U.S. Air Force and they met here in Berlin.”

 “Ahh, the American Air Force,” he mused, nodding, pleased, even reverent. “Tell your father ‘thank you.’”

He wandered away, his cane plinking on the cobbles. 

On the surface the old man’s affection seem misplaced. He had certainly experienced the “Battle of Berlin,” the Americans rained forty-six million pounds of ordinance on the city. The death toll was in the tens of thousands. Nearly two million people were displaced, including my mother, who as a small child rode the train outside the city to live with her grandparents in their farmhouse during the worst of the onslaught. 

It’s estimated the fiery deluge created more than 30 cubic meters of rubble for every inhabitant. After the war, much of this rubble was piled into a manmade geological feature known as Teufelsberg or “Devil’s Mountain,” looming 240 feet above the surrounding city. As a child I’d visit this bizarre gift of American air power, a mountain made from the bones of their destroyed city.

PERHAPS THE MOST SUCCESSFUL four words uttered by an American president in any speech were John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner.” He botched the German pronunciation even beneath the added slather of New England accent. But it didn’t matter. It delighted the crowd sprawling before the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg, numbering close to half a million. These were people who’d lost a war, faced starvation and poverty, and the shame and the horror of the Holocaust and their role in it. And these are people who understood their precarious position as the caged canary hanging from a limb over the creosote pit of communism.

Photo: JFK’s note cards, National Archives

The speaker was a dashing young president who peppered his remarks with Latin phrases of the philosophers, a man who spoke of hope and truth and solidarity while General Clay, the stoic hero of reconstruction and the Berlin Airlift, stood at his shoulder. Listening to that speech today or watching the newsreel footage provides a stark lesson in how far the power and eloquence of presidential discourse has plummeted. 

This defiant speech was the most daring and powerful expression of the Cold War. While Ronald Reagan famously exhorted the reformer Mikhail Gorbechev to “tear down this wall,” he was delivering the coup de grace over the prone form of an expiring enemy. But in 1963, that enemy was at the height of its power and aggression. Kennedy’s speech sent electric ripples through the crowd of normally taciturn Berliners. Here was an eloquent young man who also happened to be the most powerful elected leader in the world. And he was claiming to be one of them.

Perhaps the old man who had thanked me for my father’s service had been there, in that audience. 

My mother certainly was. She was twenty-one, and from her vantage point Kennedy was a small speck on the scaffolding, his voice canned by the loudspeakers. But the roaring of the cheers was enough to sweep her along in the adulation. She was an assistant to a pharmacist, and her shop had closed for the speech. She was already a Kennedy fan. An aspiring artist with dreams of a life beyond the provincial former capitol, she’d made a pencil drawing of the president’s portrait, copied from a newspaper photo that she kept pinned on her wall. 

My mother’s ambition was to escape her walled city by any means possible. She’d tried a short-lived stint as a street artist in Paris, missing the Montmartre’s heydays of the Belle Epoch by seventy years. Then she worked as an au pair in Switzerland, finding no freedom in indentured servitude. She returned home in a fit of pragmatism and started a career as an assistant apotheker.

She was drawn to Kennedy and all things American not because of his politics, but because she found him handsome. She also found the young, uniformed American servicemen cool, casual and refreshing when compared to the stoic and humorless Berliners of the generation that had survived the war. 

For me, the most consequential aspect of Kennedy’s speech is that my mother’s opinion of the benign occupation of the Americans was elevated enough that less than a year later she would marry to an American airman on those very same city hall steps and be whisked away to the United States, making her escape of Berlin at long last. My sister and I were to become products of that Cold War union. 

It wasn’t Kennedy’s words alone that had cemented special relationship between West Berliners and the Americans. The U.S. had helped them weather the deprivations of defeat. In June of 1948, the German economy was on the verge of collapse. Soviet influence was growing. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania had already fallen under their control. In Berlin people were already rationed fewer than 1,000 calories per day, sentenced to slow starvation. When the allies created a separate currency in the west to shore up the economy, the Soviets responded by cutting off all road and rail transport to the former capitol. It seemed the only options for President Truman were military force or suffering the humiliating defeat of abandoning West Berlin to the communists.

But at the behest of General Lucius Clay, who would later stand on the Schöneberg steps during Kennedy’s speech, Truman chose a bold act in defiance of Soviet aggression. The Berlin Airlift kept the western half of city on life support through a Prussian winter, making more than 270,000 flights and delivering more than two million tons of goods. At the height of the operation, a plane landed every forty-five seconds pumping lifeblood to the city through airy arteries. The Soviets eventually gave up their blockade. West Berlin was saved, and her citizens never forgot. When the old man thanked me for my father’s service, this memory was certain more fresh than the bombings.

When my father served in the Air Force in the 1960s, he was stationed at Tempelhof. It’s an imposing structure, one of the world’s first modern airports. The main terminal was designed by Nazi architects as a testament to their imperial aspirations. Its rigid lines and limestone facade speak to an austere, cold-hearted sort of grandeur. 

Tempelhof’s role has evolved over the years: from showpiece Nazi airport to American air base to civic exhibition hall. Its runways now comprise Berlin’s largest public park after citizens voted to protect this priceless real estate in the heart of the city from development. Today, its buildings house startups, theaters and thousands of refugees from across the Middle East and Africa. 

But when my father lived there on the second floor of the terminal, he was a low-ranking airman who bunked in comparative luxury as he worked maintaining runway radio equipment. Tempelhof was a posh posting, with a bar, bowling alley and basketball court available to the airmen. Out the window of his room, he could look out at a three-fingered stone sculpture in the Platz der Luftbrücke or “Air Bridge Place,” the curved of the stone edifice matching the building’s austere lines. The gratitude embodied in that homely concrete tribute to the Airlift certainly projected itself into those, like my father, who wore the uniform of the American military. As a small boy, I used to sift through the boxes in his closet, pulling on the dusty uniform jacket and sliding his dress cap over my head, the hat brim slipping over my ears and my scalp poking into the soft material of the top, hoping to absorb a little of that magic.

By the early 1960s, West Berlin was settling into its role as a Cold War outpost. The Americans brought with them a sort of nonchalance that belied the fact that they were all staring across the razor wire and concrete wall at the enemy. After more than a decade of the Marshall Plan and the fabled “Wirtschaftswunder” or “economic miracle” that had swept the West German Rhineland, transforming it into an economic engine, the western half of Berlin was polished into a jewel of social democracy with a helpful dose of subsidized capital expressly designed to glitter within full view of the guard towers, a giant thumb in the eye of communist austerity of East Berlin.

The Kurfursten Damm, or KuDamm for short, is a broad boulevard that still sweeps toward the former East Berlin like a giant middle finger of capitalism. From the eastern side you could look down on this sparkling street at night and see the luxury department store Kaufhaus des Westens, KaDeWe for short, which translates into Gallery of the West. There were nightclubs that affected a sort of kitschy ribaldry, hearkening back to their heyday in the 20s and 30s. The Resi Bar had telephones at numbered booths arranged around an atrium where American servicemen could proposition German women awkwardly through the language barrier. Another venue featured multiple levels, each with a different band, plus a giant slide that allowed Cold War clubbers to slip from one floor of music to another. By now everyone in Berlin had grown used to the idea of nuclear destruction, and they adopted a sort of hurricane party insouciance, slipping down the long slide together like children at Disneyland. At the Rex Casino on Clayallee, a street named for the hero of the Airlift, my father spotted an underfed woman with a mane of blond hair wrapped into a glittering 1960s helmet and he was smitten. He asked her to dance. He told her that he was new to Berlin and didn’t know a soul. It’s no mystery what drew him to her: his early photos of her crouching by a pond to feed ducks in the Tiergarten park or demurely leaning on a balcony rail with the city skyline in the background show a woman who might have been a model if she hadn’t grown up in the provincial military outpost that the former capital had become. 

My parents in Berlin in the early 1960s

My father wasn’t what you might consider a good catch. He was a low-ranking airman with friendly disposition and a sense of adventure who had grown up dirt poor on a hardscrabble produce farm outside Chicago. He and his brothers had to shoulder the work after their father passed away early, crawling across every last inch of their forty acres alongside their mother to keep the farm afloat. He’d been educated in a one-room schoolhouse and when he dropped out of college after one year for lack of money, the Air Force was waiting. By the time he reached Berlin he was earning $50 per week. He didn’t have a whole lot to offer. But he had that uniform. The wings on the lapel pin would symbolize another chance for my mother to escape Berlin. And he did come from that far away place that had helped transform the KuDamm from a field of rubble into the lively heart of the shining half of a once-great city. And for a lot of West Berliners, like my mother, that seemed enough.

Few if any cities have CHANGED as dramatically as Berlin has since the end of the Second World War. It was bombed, divided, rebuilt in the image of two separate ideologies, reunified and then rebuilt again. Its shape-shifting cultural landscape saw its dazzling, hedonistic nightlife thrive in the waning years of the Weimar Republic replaced by the cold, depraved cradle of fascist ambition during the Third Reich. Then it morphed into the chessboard of the Cold War, and after restoration it again assumed the mantle of cultural and political capitol of the most powerful country in the European Union. 

But despite the city’s mercurial history, little has changed about the Berlin I have known over the past forty-five years. As a boy I explored the leafy quarter of Zehlendorf in a peaceful district where my aunt and uncle have lived for four decades. I didn’t quite grasp the significance of the fact that these unchanging cobbled streets and shaded footpaths were just a morning walk from the trinity of locations that shaped the horror and madness of the of the 20th Century. 

Reagan’s notes, National Archives

A stroll in one direction takes you to a forest path where the Berlin Wall once stood. A brisk walk in the other direction and you’ll reach Cecelianhof, a Teutonic mud and beam manor that looks like an overgrown cottage from a Brothers Grimm tale and the site of a plot no less twisted: the Potsdam Conference, where the Allies divided Germany into four zones of occupation, laying the fault lines of the Cold War. 

And then take a lakeside ramble in yet another direction and you arrive at a stone villa that squats like a mausoleum on the shore. It’s called Am Grossen Wannsee and it hosted the meeting where Nazi leaders laid the plans for the Holocaust. Now it serves as a museum and memorial to the unfathomable depths of human depravity.

And while I gradually began to grasp the historic gravity of the sites surrounding Zehlendorf, little has changed within the bubble of this sheltered neighborhood. My aunt and uncle still share the same flat they’ve rented for decades. They are ageless in their habits. They still drink coffee on their balcony each morning along with fresh rolls fetched from the baker’s near the train station. They offer the same singsong greetings as neighbors pass by or roll up their shutters to the morning. 

But the pincers of past and present are squeezing their way into even this small idyllic bubble of memory.

On a recent visit, while I strolled to the baker’s to fetch morning rolls, I came across a pair of Stolpersteine, or “tripping stones.” These are small memorials, gilded cobbles embedded into the walkway outside the houses of victims of the Holocaust. It is a public art project that’s spread throughout German cities, and it suddenly provided me with a new lens through which to view Zelendorf. The stones were laid outside a house I’d passed dozens of times before. “Here lived Hedwig Harrwitz, born 1865, deported 10.9.42, murdered in Auschwitz.” Next to it is another stone that memorializes Hedwig’s husband. The stones achieved their intended affect. This quiet corner of Berlin was finally beginning to remember its sinister past. With a simple downward glance, Zehlendorf had changed for me forever.

When I returned from the baker’s that morning, I found a newspaper my uncle had laid on the balcony table next to the materials out of a classic German breakfast: plates of cheese, butter, marmalade, schmaltz (a spread of rendered pig fat), jam, soft-boiled eggs, sliced cucumbers and some thin shavings of pork sausage. Above the fold on the front page of the newspaper was a Warhol-style grid of portraits of the current American president wearing a range of unflattering expressions: vain, baffled, puffing, accusatory, disgusted. The headline read, “Er ist Verruckt?,” which translates into the question “He is crazy?” In the body of the article, a series of psychologists weighed in on Donald Trump’s mental state. The conclusion seems to be that no, he’s not crazy. Just mendacious, fearful and not very bright.  

Contempt for the American president or his policies is nothing new in Berlin. There was little love lost for George W. Bush and his injudicious plunge into the Iraq conflagration. A crowd that rivaled the attendance of Kennedy’s 1963 speech assembled in Berlin in February of 2013 to protest the looming war, this only a couple years after they’d assembled en mass to mourn the 9-11 attacks. Even Kennedy was viewed scornfully as a “boy scout” by the stiff, dignified Chancellor Konrad Adenaur, though he was still a staunch Cold War ally. Students in West Berlin staged massive protests against the Vietnam War in 1968, chanting the name of Ho Chi Minh as they trotted down the KuDamm with placards equating U.S. policy with Nazis. But in the past, these animosities alternated with adulation for America, or at least the symbolic promise of the American idea. There was Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech in 1989. And though he was also greeted with protestors, his words are remembered fondly. “Every man is a German separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look up on a scar,” he said in solidarity.

And there was the adoring crowd of 200,000 who greeted then-candidate Barack Obama in July of 2008, numbers that might incite envy in the current president had he the capacity to face a reality not shaped by ego or the morning talk show toadies. In that speech, Obama offered his own take on barrier removal, saying, “the walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand.” 

Today, these words of American presidents seem products of an alternate reality. Now German newspapers quote Trump’s stuttering invective as headlines: “The Germans Are Bad, Very Bad.”

Trump has lambasted, insulted and questioned the loyalty of NATO allies.  He has cozied up to autocrats like Vladimir Putin and praised brutal dictator Kim Jong Un’s “beautiful” letters. And at the same time he has heavily criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel, refusing to shake hands or look her in the eye. The marriage of convenience between Germany and America seems to have reached its end.

THIS IS AN AUSPICIOUS YEAR. The Berlin Wall fell thirty years ago. It’s been gone longer than it stood. And NATO turned 70 in April. A recent report by the Harvard Kennedy School called NATO, “the single most important contributor to security, stability and peace in Europe and North America.”

But Donald Trump is no fan of the organization, and he shocked the other 28 members when he threatened to withdraw the United States over claims that other treaty countries weren’t paying their fair share for mutual defense, with his ire especially directed at wealthy Germany. Never mind the fact that Germany is NATO’s second-largest supplier of troops, or that it is the first stopover for U.S. soldiers wounded in the Middle Eastern conflicts. 

Like many of his boasts or threats, Trump’s NATO attacks have so far proven hollow, though there is plenty of speculation that the damage to American leadership is irreparable. One has to wonder what utterance will be the breaking point. NATO won’t die on a battlefield. Words will be its undoing.

My parents’ marriage lasted close to forty years, beating the wall’s tenure by more than a decade. Concrete and razor wire is no more permanent than the unspoken constellation of compromises that hold together a relationship of any size. There are treaty signings, vows, handshakes, ceremonies, public affirmations and the like, but in the end it all comes down to that special feeling between two parties and when the magic wears off there’s little you can do to restore it. All the old clichés apply: they grew apart; they become two different people; it was time to start over. My parents represented a collection of contrasts—urban and rural, occupier and occupied, passive and active, European and American—and after the decades, perhaps the sum total of these differences gained mass while the luster of the young man in the uniform and the photo of the young woman in the Tiergarten began to fade.

Watching my parents’ lives split from half a continent away was not unlike watching the relationship between Berlin and Washington splinter on the world stage, the main contrasts being that the former was sadder yet more amicable and diplomatic. What is clear, though, is the power of words. Words are weapons of ideological and emotional warfare that can shatter relationships whether they are geopolitical or interpersonal, and I watched as even the smallest phrase uttered decades ago resurfaced as evidence of the original fault lines of my parents’ flagging union. 

And as I watch the words used now in U.S.-German relations, it’s hard to see such language as anything less than relationship destroying and bone deep. It is a failing marriage writ large. Trump employs the paranoid ramblings of a jealous husband lambasting his young trophy wife: our NATO allies are “screwing us,” taking advantage of United States only for our money and offering nothing in return. The dissolution of the marriage plays out in quotes and headlines: an NPR story is titled, “Washington has become much rougher: Germany is still recalibrating.” The chancellor of Germany responds: “We are not prisoners.” Berlin, which was once cradled in the loving arms of American military power, is becoming a different person. “The times in which we could fully count on others are somewhat over,” Merkel said. “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.” 

Words matter. Words, in many ways, are more permanent and insurmountable than walls and borders. 

The power of language in contrast to historic fragility of structures of stone and steel makes walls no less monumental or destructive. Between 140 and 250 people died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall during its twenty-seven years. But the impotence of the wall is even more tangible when you consider the estimated 5,000 East Berliners who succeeded in crossing to the west. 

Walls don’t work. 

Now in the States there’s talk of a southern border even more insurmountable than the Berlin Wall. But should it happen, it will be no more permanent or effective than its Cold War counterpart. Contrary to claims of open borders, anyone who’s visited the U.S. frontier with Mexico knows that it’s already a highly developed and militarized barrier, and the crossing is lethal. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency reports that seven thousand migrants have died crossing the southern border between the years 1998 and 2017. 

Yet despite the fatalities, far more people have crossed successfully to find work and build better lives in quiet dignity despite the shadow of illegitimacy. This is another testament to the enormity of the human spirit and the impotence of artificial barriers.

Perhaps the collapse of the Berlin Wall and now the implosion of U.S. –German relations will mean a new direction for Germany. It is a nation that is politically, geographically and economically poised to fill some of the vacuum of world leadership created by a retreating America. Perhaps by studying how the United States both succeeded and failed in its aspiration to fashion a new world in its own image, the Germans have lessons to apply. They’ve already taken a position of global leadership on the climate change crisis and they’re engaged in their own grand migrant experiment after temporarily opening their borders to more than a million refugees, positions that have drawn scorn from detractors in Washington and at home. 

What I miss most about the Berlin Wall, the collapse of which feels so fresh for me despite the thirty years that have passed, is that it stood as an elaborate, living symbol of the failure to crush the human spirit. It stood as evidence of the limits of authoritarianism. It stood as a reminder of the ultimate folly in the attempt to divide people, to contain them, to restrain them from their aspirations.

All parties viewed the wall as a symbol of barbarity. “We come to Berlin, we American Presidents, because it’s our duty to speak in this place of freedom,” these words spoken by Reagan, but they may as well have been uttered by Obama, Bush or Kennedy—though certainly not the current president.

I miss winning the war. I miss the stories of the grandeur of capitalism: tales of Boris Yeltsin weeping after his entourage visited a grocery store in Clear Lake, Texas where he was overwhelmed by the sight of the bounty of the free market, our frozen dessert aisles alone more vast than spare pickings and endless food lines in Russia. Later he would write, “For the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people.”

I miss being the good guys. I miss the casual and somewhat naïve American servicemen begging a dance with a swagger that comes from the uniform of a superpower. I miss the “boy scout” president who said he was a Berliner just like all those grim-faced war survivors. 

I miss the marriage where the two parties generally loved one another and forgave the unsightly blemishes, the imperfections and past indiscretions because they knew that, in the end, they were better off together.

I miss climbing the scaffolding to gaze across dog runs and razor wire at the less fortunate.

I miss a world I understood, two countries I believed in, an enemy that was wrong and, in the end, contrite and repentant. 

I miss Boris Yeltsin admiring popsicles and my family in Berlin placing orders for blue jeans and maple syrup. 

I miss the feel of my father’s military cap slipping down over my ears while hoping that I might someday grow into it.

Berlin inside the wall was a fantasyland where the nightclubs had slides and you could hear the sound of the enemy shooting on the other side of the wall, but you were unafraid. It was a place where my American father could pull on his uniform and cross into East Berlin and joke with the enemy, sharing cigarettes with Russian soldiers, though my German mother was unable to visit her dying grandmother.

Berlin was my rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland. It was my childhood fable. It was the story where America was the good guy, where the ideologies were clear and you knew on which side you stood. Berlin was my favorite tall tale made from the bones and rubble of memory. And even now, at just the right time of day, I can close my eyes and stare back through the years to where the Wall once stood, and I can pretend that all of those stories were true.

Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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