Sunday came, and with it another painful anniversary. Not, I hasten to add, painful for me, for a change. But it was the 45th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. A friend of mine was here with a high-school group that evening, staying in Kreuzberg, and he remembers waking up in the pension where the group was lodged and looking out the window to see a wall that hadn't been there when he'd gone to sleep. That's really how fast it went up.
It being Sunday, I had, of course, forgotten one grocery item crucial to my evening meal, which meant a trip to a major train station. With Friedrichstr. torn up to the point of near-unnavigability, I decided to go to the Hauptbahnhof instead. This meant walking down Invalidenstr. and over the Sandkrugbrücke, a painfully ordinary bridge over the river, but one which had only been rebuilt since unification, since it was a border. And there, on the western side of the bridge, was a monument I'd seen before, to someone who'd been shot by border guards trying to escape East Germany after the wall had been erected. Days after, in fact. The little monument, which resembles a gravestone, says he was the first person shot trying to escape, which conflicts with my own understanding that the first person shot was on Bernauer Str., near Gartenstr. In both cases, the story was the same: the escapee managed to get into no-man's-land, was shot by East German guards, and bled to death slowly as Western observers looked on. They were powerless to do anything: stepping into the no-man's-land would be tantamount to invading another country, and they had no jurisdiction over the space between the walls. (Yes, there were, in most places, two walls running parallel, with this area between them).
But on Sunday, there was something extra besides the little gravestone and the quadralingual glass historical marker (German, and each of the Allies' languages): there was a wreath with a black ribbon tied around it, the ribbon printed with gold letters. Almost before my eyes could focus on them, I knew what this was: a gift from the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. I've written earlier about the crosses the woman who runs the museum erected on property she'd leased near the museum to commemorate the people who died fleeing East Germany, and her battle to keep them up even after the lease ran out and the bank that owned the site wanted to build on it. She's obsessed, and her obsession is with reminding people that the old East German regime killed people.
This is a scab not worth picking, in my opinion. Lots of people have stood trial over the things they did back then, and lots of them have gone to jail. Others have had their lives ruined by decisions they made out of pure human weakness. And, although it's so obvious it barely seems worth writing, as bad as some of the things the old regime did were, they pale in comparison to what the regime before that did, and, as Günter Grass has proven this week, there are still plenty of people agonizing over that time, even when their choice was to join the army or be shot -- not much of a choice for a 17-year-old.
And perfectly innocent East Germans are still suffering, even though some of them may not realize it. The east still gets the worst food in its stores, it's still got the worst unemployment in Western Europe, and, worst of all, it still gets snubbed by the vast majority of West Germans who resent having to pay for the creation of a whole new political and social life for people who speak the same language they do and, in many cases, to whom they are related by blood. This attitude is called "Mauer im Kopf," the "Wall in the head."
What the Checkpoint Charlie dame has is worse: Mauer im Herzen, a Wall in the heart. She'll never forget, never forgive, never stop trumpeting her gospel of guilt. That's all Germans need, more guilt.
Do yourself a favor. When people come to Berlin, it's hard to avoid going to Checkpoint Charlie just to see the damn thing, I agree. And I agree you should go there. But don't go in the museum. Don't let yourself be battered over the head by this harpy's propaganda. Instead, head to the actual, government-run Documentation Center on Bernauer Str., where the facts are presented a lot more clearly and without emotion or an ultra-right-wing political agenda to cloud the picture. Enough people have already suffered because of this thing, and not just the ones who were caught and killed or jailed. There's a famous picture of a border guard hopping over the barbed wire towards freedom in the West. He made it. He also shot and killed himself a few years ago. Who knows what was going on there? A great honking concrete wall may not trumpet the fact, but there's nuance to this story. Don't let Germany's ultra-right wing convince you otherwise.
Boycott the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.
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