In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Act of Vandalism
Reflection 1985/Penned 2005
I drummed my fingers irritably on the steering wheel. The car windows were open, but it was hot for May, and the fuel fumes of the other vehicles queuing made matters worse. I spoke to my wife; “Can you see how far we have to go?”
She leaned out of the window. “About four hundred yards.”
“What’s the matter with the bastards?” I growled, but I had already noticed that the drivers and passengers in the West German registered cars were looking resigned. This was obviously par for the course.
In the back of the car my colleague, Mike, was arguing in increasingly irritable tones with his wife Ann. I had heard enough, and this marital bickering was causing me to become even more angry. I slipped a cassette into the player and soon Neil Diamond was, albeit unconsciously, trying to pour some oil on Peter and Angela’s troubled waters. He didn’t succeed until track three when Diamond’s gravely voice was joined by the spine chilling sound of Barbra Streisand in “You don’t bring me flowers.” That shut them up, but alas, not for long.
It took about forty minutes to reach the head of the queue where a grim faced, silent guard took our four passports. I couldn’t tell if he was East German or Russian, soldier or policeman. He wandered around the car and, in his own time, returned. “English?” he demanded.
This was one sharp operator. One large Rover 2300, complete with a GB plate on the back, next to the Union Flag, four British passports, proper black ones, before the days of the antiseptic EU rubbish, and this is all he can manage.
“British” I replied. The other three might be, but I wasn’t English. I tried a couple of jolly remarks in German, which he ignored. He placed the passports in a small box which was on an ancient conveyor belt, and this contraption creaked noisily up alongside the line of cars waiting ahead.
“Say nothing,” my wife advised.
I contented myself with a “Danke schoen” to the unsmiling one, and added ‘Welcome to the DDR’ under my breath. It was twenty minutes before we were reunited with our passports, with Mike and Ann in the back trying to out volume Neil Diamond. It had seemed a good idea to go on to West Berlin after our conference in Hamburg. Now, with steam coming from my ears, I wasn’t so sure.
And worse followed. My very early form of car phone caused great excitement, this in pre mobile days. After an animated discussion with half a dozen officials, I was allowed to import this piece of equipment into the People’s Republic, at a cost of sixteen DM. Incidentally, three days later, I was charged the same amount to export it OUT of East Germany.
With great relief, finally we got onto the autobahn, an event which temporarily shut up the two children in the back of the car.
West Berlin was a delight, a fragile island of free speech and free association living nervously in the middle of an oppressive Communist sea, which threatened to overwhelm it. There was music, and light, and dancing and shops, but most of all people, who were all anxious to talk to us, as if to preserve their constantly threatened links with the west. We wandered back from dinner at about eleven in an alcoholic haze of well being. It was then I noticed it, at the end of the street in which we had our hotel. The Wall. It was higher than I had imagined, perhaps eight or nine feet and was covered in graffiti. I had seen photos, of course, but here next to it, the Wall seemed to have an evil presence, which dampened my spirits.
The vividly multi-coloured graffiti seemed to cover every inch of the wall; some crude, some poignant, some unintelligible and some political. There were sad little messages grieving a death or the loss through separation of a loved one. The piece which impressed me most was “Deutschland ist grosser als die Bundesrepublik.” Germany is bigger than the Federal Republic.
In the next two days, as we pursued our tourist ways, the same evil presence brooded over the entire city. It was a matter of honour to visit Checkpoint Charlie, and to be reassured by the familiar sight of Redcaps, of the RMP. We did go over to the East on a guided tour, and listened to the Party propaganda spilling out of our hatchet faced woman guide. The streets over there were wide, flanked by miles of red bunting, but were devoid of people and goods for sale in the shops. It was a graveyard.
At one point, despairing of being served at our approved refreshment stop, we wandered into a park and, drawn inexorably by the delicious smell of frying onions, tried to buy four wurst from a stall. After constant refusals, and frustrated attempts to speak in German, the salesman hissed in English. “Go away, go away. I am not allowed to serve Westerners. I will be arrested.”
Coming back into the West from our tour of East Berlin we saw for the first time the other side of the wall. It was pristine. There was no graffiti. If East Berlin was a cemetery, this wall was a tombstone. It would have been impossible to draw anything, as no one could get closer than around seventy yards of the dammed thing. It was protected by barbed wire, concrete blocks, mines, armed Vopos and dogs. This obscene thing had been built not to prevent people coming in, but to stop people getting out. It was an act of vandalism to drive this stake through the heart of a great city.
On our way back to the BRD, and still inside the DDR, we stopped at a motorway service area where, astonishingly, we found a duty free shop. It sold everything anyone could possibly wish to buy. You could use credit cards, and almost every currency under the sun, except the East German mark. The only people who could not go duty free shopping were East Germans.
The acts of vandalism did not stop with the Wall. The State and the Socialist system were the true acts of vandalism, the Wall merely a symptom. As Talleyrand once remarked of one of Napoleon’s actions, “It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.”
Nothing lasts forever. Mike and Ann divorced in 1986, my wife and I in March 1990, just four months after the German people had torn down this obscene Wall.
Written by my Father B.M