Sunday, November 15, 2009

….It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…

I begin with the opening line to the iconic Beatles track (Sgt, Pepper’s…) in an attempt to convey the sense of wonder, discovery and historic significance of what was for me a profound and unforgettable little Indian adventure. 20 years ago (Nov 12- 1989) I was on an island in Greece with a backpack (a wad of traveler’s cheques) and several friends I had made while on the road. On a television we saw that the Berlin Wall was coming down and as of November 9 that year hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people were euphorically flooding the streets of Berlin (Germany, not to be officially reunified for another year or so). We knew we had to be there, so over the next 3 days and nights we traveled by boat and rail to arrive in Berlin. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before (or since) and we got lucky (a theme in my life) and found a pension to rent at reasonable rate with a old woman I had stayed with on an earlier visit (2 months prior). Jubilant crowds of revellers and newly freed East German citizens paraded daily, not only at the Brandenburg Gate or Checkpoint Charlie but at all points throughout the German city and countryside where previously had stood the notorious wall. In today’s political climate and age of information overload and for those of a generation born after mine, it may be hard to give sufficient context or description to THE WALL.
I will not provide a history lesson here but briefly, the German city of Berlin was divided into east-west sectors and administered (run) by the victorious allied powers following WWII: East Berlin (Soviet Russia), West Berlin (Britain, France, America) – of course almost immediately after the war tension arose between the previously allied nations and thus began the Cold War. Both the Soviet Union and the US became mighty nations, one under capitalism the other communism. The city of Berlin was almost overnight divided between east and west and eventually the Berlin Wall was constructed to prevent citizens from escaping to the west. For years The Berlin Wall stood before the rest of the world a symbol between East and West, between Communism and Democracy, between tyranny and freedom…

Over the years people were shot and killed trying to escape the East German side and in fact one of the reasons we traveled to the East German side during our first visit was to peer into the gaping jaws of oppression – knowing full well we would be welcome to cross back over later in the day (and have our passports returned) and continue with our innocent wide-eyed hosteling journey. In retrospect, we experienced only the illusion of danger but at the time it did seem a subversive act…imagine, an Indian in Soviet Occupied East Germany. During the initial visit in late September we left our passports at Checkpoint Charlie on the West Berlin side, paid a small fee and were granted foot passage across No-mans Land, that is, the land-mined, barbed wire-lined, gunner-towered area between the two enclaves. I admit I had no idea one could even go the `East`side and our doing so was rather passé for West Germans but for me…a 20 year old Indian kid from Hobbema, who grew up in Cowtown and watched cool fillems like Force Ten from Naverone, The Big Red One, The Great Escape, A Bridge Too Far and on and on, setting foot in a place like occupied East Germany was more than a rite of passage, it was a heroic feat. I had never known or met anyone prior who had said they too had been inside East Germany. Coming of age through the seventies and eighties had left the indelible impression on me that the Soviet Union and its territories were dark and imposing and in all ways they were located at the edge of the world, beyond was terror, imprisonment and even execution. After all, at that point in my life-experience I was only vaguely aware of the horrors people like them (the Commies, the Reds) had visited upon their own people (though I had witnessed China violently crushing dissention at Tiananamen Square on TV previously that year in summer). It seemed rather inconceivable that oppression to that scale existed anywhere close to my reality or within the realm of my experience. At that point in my life I knew my people (Native people) struggled but “oppression” took place in some faraway “other.”

(That was then)

Of course the truth is far more complex and grim 20 years later but the fact remains that at that point in the history of “me” the Berlin Wall was as close to anything tangibly dangerous as I could possibly imagine. It was beyond the protective reach of anything I knew. Real or imagined, I felt as though I was embarking on a defiant act of bravery which would transform me from yahoo backpacker to experienced sojourner. I had in my possession the earliest version of the Sony HandyCam and proceeded to record many significant sights and sounds…the most impressive, the formal changing of the guards.

But as they will (all of them) this experiment in power dynamics failed and the will of the East German people to know freedom was too great and external pressure from influences outside its borders proved too much to bear for East German authorities. Initially a few citizens were granted temporary visas to visit the west, then the trickle became a flood and soon millions were streaming through various checkpoints along the entire length of the wall. By the time we reached the city on November 12th, the celebrations were in full swing. The streets were packed, all of them. Restaurants, inns, taverns were all full and many were free. The parks and all green spaces were full of tents and pitched sleeping spots and the train station was full as hundreds of people were allowed to sleep on the floors nightly and then ushered along during the day by security. Millions of East Germans had arrived with only the shirt on their back, unsure of how long the apparent freedom would last and how imminent it might be the wall and its restrictions would once again be enforced. Many were taking no chances and were fleeing on the first available trains, disappearing into the varied depths of continental Europe or elsewhere in the densely populated German countryside. The actual, physical destruction of the wall was well underway and by the time I arrived, the industrious had already established and staked out “Berlin Wall Souvenir” businesses and access to various sections of the wall. Primarily Americans it seemed had already found ways of transporting segments of the Berlin Wall back overseas in pieces that ranged from almond to brick-sized (I can only imagine how many fake souvenir pieces of wall are fondly kept around the world). But it was deeply stirring to the soul to see the profound joy and gratitude in the faces of the newly freed German people. People walked arm in arm singing songs, waving banners marching throughout the city proclaiming victory. It was not uncommon to find people in tears hugging family members not seen in 20 years. Ordinary citizens opened their homes and businesses to everyone. Many restaurants were free as were many pubs and inns. The atmosphere was euphoric but not chaotic. This struck me. Everywhere you went people were jubilant, ecstatic even rapturous but at no point was it unsafe to be walking the streets. It was interesting to observe what was for all intents and purposes a temporarily functioning fully free-state operated by the people.
Late one morning near our rented room we groggily walked along a section of wall that was still very much intact though there were fissures, chinks and gaping crevices along reinforcement-bar lines. My companions and I stood beside the wall smoking cigarettes and talking, probably nursing beer and we noticed that through the cracks in the wall there stood uniformed East German soldiers directly on the other side (It should be noted that the wall was still manned by armed guards at most points along the barrier who seemed unsure of what their role now was – previous to this they had had shoot to kill orders and were probably nervous to join us and leave their posts). I began capturing footage with my video camera and aimed it at the guards through a crack several inches wide. There the four of them stood hovering round the peek-through spot and they appeared young and not much older than me. They wore thick wool military coats and rifles over their shoulders. They too were smoking cigarettes and taking turns observing us. When it became obvious to them that they were being filmed, they began to mug and ham it up for the camera. I thought it was cool that they were being so playful despite the fact they were soldiers and wore rifles when just then a snowball landed at our feet. We scanned around and saw no one else was around and when the next snowball landed on the ground moments later we grinned realizing where they came from. In the next instant we had lobbed our own snowballs over the wall and for the next couple minutes we enjoyed a good natured little battle of our own. At some point in my life I will be able to say in all seriousness to my grandchildren that this Indian had a snowball fight with East German soldiers over the Berlin Wall (there will be many more examples, like this, of what I refer to as: Larry’s Brown Forrest Gump experiences).

Media crews were everywhere. Surely this was the most important global event of the day and like everything else, the good spirit and meaning behind those first days was lost. The country did eventually become unified, the fall of the Berlin Wall served as a catalyst for all of Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia. In the next few years communism crumbled and dozens of nations declared independence. None were to experience the euphoria of Berlin but that was because it was the first and was the most obvious example to the West of Soviet policy and few saw it coming. Once it did happen, though, communist power structures in countries all across the east fell like dominoes and it could not even be stopped in the USSR. Very interesting to observe the lustre of democracy being lost in most (if not all) of those countries today as they struggle with weak economies, age old ethnic conflicts and the diminishing opportunities of a globalized world. While gangsters and corrupt government officials replaced autocratic regimes, Democracy and capitalism have arrived but the same oppressive quality of life seems to be the reward for new generations of free citizens. The backlash in Berlin was loud and demonstrative, the economy bottomed out and could not support the exodus of new citizens as it also had to cope with an influx of immigrants determined to try their luck in the new and prosperous free land. West Germans placed blame squarely on the shoulders of “outsiders” (which at this time includes former East Germans) and there is currently a loud, active and influential voice within the German political power structure that advocates for a Germany free of “mongrelized influence”…it couldn’t possibly happen again of course…of course it couldn’t because we always learn from our mistakes...that's what's so reassuring.

The spirit of those few days is what stays with me though and the perspective I presently carry is coloured by what I experienced first hand 20 years ago. The following year the Oka crisis would unfold and would profoundly change the way some Indians (like me) all across the land thought about Canada. (you do realize the military force engaged at Oka was far larger than was deployed in the first war in Iraq? – Canada sent more soldiers to Oka than it did to protect its “freedom” in the Middle East). So when you think about the intent of certain actions, policies or statements you must consider the literal meaning and the implied or symbolic meaning behind these same things. One must consider the relativity of statements such as freedom, democracy and power. What is legal and what is just…who decides?

I keep the memories of my time in Berlin safe and cherished and count myself lucky to have been there as I have learned many things that carry meaning for me have been about my “being there” – as active participant, moral supporter…as witness.

** It bears mentioning that “the barrier” (wall) erected by Israel in the West Bank (and loudly supported by conspicuous silence by all other western powers) that dangerously hampers movement by Palestinians is a structure far larger in terms of scale and construction than the Berlin Wall ever was. The powers that be in the West don’t seem to have the same philosophical disdain for such action and symbols that they once did – they apparently have developed “the stomach” for such things

*(written November 12, 2009)
© Champsteen Publishing


  1. Unfortunately we've developed the stomach for a lot of things. Great post and what a great memory to have with you.

  2. Great writing about a pivotal period in our time here.