The Wall - Then and Then

…when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city…

Joshua 6-20

I had only lived half of my life when The Berlin Wall fell. I was a young engineer troop commander, living in the Federal Republic of Germany. I was fresh off my first major NATO exercise, and massive, expansive force on force exercise in the German countryside, practicing to defend against the Russian Bear if he ever decided to forage into Blue Territory.

It was the thawing for the Cold War. And because it was in the Time before the Internet, my understanding of what was happening, and what it meant to us and me, was strangely fragmented and unnerving. I saw the images on TV, but back then in the Crazy Olden

Days (of the late 1980s) of service in Europe, English video was on a 3 day tape delay flown over from Canada, and our Nachricht

1988...the Handover just before The Wall felll

1988…the Handover just before The Wall felll

was all delivered auf Deutsch. I understood snippets, but it was a distorted picture of what was happening – volunteer DJs on our local radio station tried to tell the story, but it wasn’t the same as the calm narratives of Knowlton Nash – or his young new successor, Peter Mansbridge.

It was quite the time to be in Germany; many before us had fought the Cold War, but if the news was right, it was actually our cohort that had won it! Not log after the throngs on partyers on the The Wall dissipated nursing their hangovers and pre-Unification angsts, the dominoes fell in short order relatively quickly – it was weird witnessing the Evil Empire collapse like a kid’s sandcastle at high tide. And through it all, while we still kept a wary eye on the Hammer and Sickle, there was slight swagger in our step – but we knew deep down in our hearts  that more than Berlin and Germany was changing. The World was changing.

Rust only to mark the lost power of the Hammer and Sickle

Rust only,  marking the lost power of the Hammer and Sickle

It was not long after that November 10th, that I made my first and only trip to Berlin. It was not a pretty city, industrial and business-like and boxy. While West Berlin was clean, and efficient, and colourful, our brief foray into East Berlin was surreal. It was as if we had become colour blind crossing the scarred landscape of no-man’s land; the landscape became monochromatic …

Easy to drive, easy to maintain, easy to junk! The Shabby Trabby!

Easy to drive, easy to maintain, easy to junk! The Shabby Trabby!

buildings grey and dull and unkempt. People seemed hesitant and cold, distrusting and apprehensive – unless they saw Deutschemarks or US dollars. Landmarks were odd and filled with unease – the Reichstag, the Stasi HQ, It looked like the land that time had forgot – as if the damage of the Second World War has been patched with spackle as opposed to erased and rebuilt. There was an air of despair as I looked at weeded asphalt and broken down Trabants…it hardly seemed that the German experiment of communism had been fruitful. And after a short visit to the East, we crossed back into relative familiarity through the magnificent but forlorn and shabby Brandenburg Gate to the West, where like all tourist we passed away time hearing the bartender’s stories quaffing beer at the ubiquitous Irish Bar…Murphy’s or Finnegan’s or something like that.  Because, as you all know, nothing says Berlin, or Amsterdam, or Bangkok, or Buenos Aires, like a Guinness with a shamrock in the foam.

It is funny how life changed after that. A mere three years later, in my first blue beret experience, we shared a camp with Russian Airborne soldiers. Yes they were tough, but other than the fact that they had 55,000 tanks, 24,000 infantry fighting vehicles and over 33,000 artillery pieces, we had them right where we wanted them! That tour in Croatia and Serbia was bizarrely dreamlike… we were sharing the same space, eating in the same mess and executing the same mission with soldiers who for over 45 years were the enemy, who had different ethos and procedures, and expectations. But we did play ball hockey better than them – the 1992 Canada v Russia Summit was epic!

Wall FallThe Wall is gone, save for little asbestos riddled chunks that live in people’s memory boxes, or on bookshelves or in several monolithic sections found in the same cities that house all those Irish Pubs; iconic, yet strangely misplaced and somehow trivialised – a footnote, a bauble; some huckster’s way to shill history for a few sheckles. And gone, save in some history textbook, library reference section, underappreciated fiction, or in the folklore of those of us who are growing older and older are historic places like Check Point Charlie, the open and dogmatic struggle between Democracy and Soviet Communism – our way of life versus their way of life – of Ludlum’s original Jason Bourne and Tinkers and Tailors, of a recognisable predictable. Unfortunately, with the fall of the wall also goes the significance of the courage, resourcefulness and desperation of over 136 Germans who died trying to cross no man’s land.

 

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And filling the vacuum in the Bear’s place? The snake, the unpredictable, the non-comprehensible and unknown unknowns. Gone now is the other half of the bipolar relationship – the one that kept our enemies in check because they were his friends. And it all started with a wall…a wall that fell a quarter century ago – when I was 24. I remember that.

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