Growing up in the shadow of the atomic bomb was an odd experience. I remember sitting in a sand box, playing with a plastic shovel. Possibly eating the black volcanic sand. Another kid said the Russians had more bombs than the Americans. That was scary, because the Russians were the enemy. He said they could wipe out a whole city with one bomb and they had thousands. I probably took a mouthful of sand at that moment. It was the first time I realised that life was dangerous and that the world could actually come to an end.
Later, in my teens, I would read the back of the phone books. They had instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Paint the windows they said, then stay away from the windows, cover yourself. Afterwards, see if anyone needed help. They explained how to treat burn wounds and avoid radiation. I wondered if the best thing wouldn’t be to go outside and enjoy the fireworks. Better than survive and die of burns or radiation sickness.
I remember a story from the Cuban Missile Crisis. Someone apparently sat down on the sofa, TV turned on. Gun and a bottle of whisky. Prepared to drink the bottle in no time and use the gun if they announced that the bombs were on the way. Better be gone before the blast got you.
That was the paranoia. The fear. Thankfully, we have been spared this madness for 25 years now. When the Berlin Wall fell, the cold war fizzled out and we could become friends with the east. We could finally accept that Russians were people too. It has been a bumpy ride, ups and downs, crisis here and there, but the threat of nuclear war vanished shortly after 20.000 people crossed Bösebrücke, 25 years ago today.
But there are two things bothering me tonight, on this great anniversary. The first, and most obvious, is that we seem to be heading for another cold war. A pointless and unnecessary confrontation between east and west.
The other thing is that the wall probably wouldn’t have come down, had the east German politburo not made the mistake of telling people they were free to go west. People rose up after being told it was OK. The time had come, communism was crumbling, Poland was experiencing martial laws due to civil unrest, the borders between Hungary and Austria were already open, making the Berlin wall mostly obsolete, but people gathered and the border guards gave up on the day authorities said they could.
What if Günter Schabowski had not said the borders were open? How long would it have taken for the public to denounce their oppressors? How long would the GDR have survived?
The Berlin Wall fell, South-Africa denounced apartheid, but one major wall of shame remains. The one keeping Palestinians trapped. Will they ever be free?
And will we ever be free of the invisible walls we are trapped by? The fear of doing what we think is right? The fear of standing up to authorities that treat us like subjects in a George Orwell novel? Hopefully, some day, we will break down our own private walls of fear. Then the rest will follow.
Happy anniversary, Berlin! See you in three days.
(Photos in this post are taken from my film that will be shown at the Berlin interfilm festival next week)