Chitra Subramaniam| The News Minute| November 9, 2014| 8.30 pm IST
Germany has a special place in my life. As we mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, I write a personal note on what the country means to me.
Get off at the last station and there are taxis outside, my late brother had told me in 1978. Freshly out of college in Delhi, I went on a trip to Europe alone, just like my late mother had travelled by boat to the old continent in 1950. Amma, then a young bride, was joining her husband (appa) in Recklinghausen in the industrial Ruhr valley. My mother who spoke eight languages picked up the ninth, German, in a matter of weeks in the small village as curious about this lady from India as she was about them.
The train started emptying before the last station. Like a good Indian, I told myself since my brother had meant the last station, Iâ€™d do so in peace and not get pushed out of the door. This was my first trip to Europe. I was twenty. I remember wondering why the train was suddenly passing through a cement corridor after beautiful fields and homes, why the coffee was tasteless and suddenly prohibitively expensive and could be paid for only in dollars.
I got off at the last station, the only person to do so. It was well past 18 hrs. It didnâ€™t sink in even then that the last station was in East Berlin and I had just come to another country which encircled West Berlin. I remember it like yesterday, two policemen walking up to me, asking me who I was, what I was doing there and why had I gotten off at the last station. I told them I was to take a taxi to my brotherâ€™s house and showed them the address.
They told me I was in the East Berlin, I found it funny - they didnâ€™t. They checked my passport, my bags with dogs that were unfriendly too. I told them I had a German shepherd back in India, tried to make conversation with the dogs which growled. Two hours later I was on a train to West Germany which was less than ten minutes away. I had crossed into enemy country â€“ the barbed wires, the cold looks and empty platforms suddenly made sense.
Back in West Germany, my story was dining table conversation â€“ people laughed and then laughed no more. I heard terrifying accounts of people being shot in cold blood as they tried to escape to the west, of people holding their babies up on the wall to be taken by someone on the other side, the daring attempts by east Berliners to escape through Checkpoint Charlie, the only official road connecting the two sides, the poverty and the misery of families now separated for generations.
Several years later as a correspondent at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva, then a hotbed of international negotiations, I covered the peace talks between two of the worldâ€™s most powerful men â€“ US President Ronald Reagan and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev â€“ the meeting that was to end the cold war that had divided Europe into two blocs.
To help the post-war construction of a country that had been reduced to rubble one of the things that Germans would do is to write letters and post cards to each other because money collected from the stamps went for national reconstruction. When the two sides unified in 1989, something similar happened â€“ everyone tightened their belts to make it happen. Thatâ€™s what makes Europeâ€™s economic giant.
Years after the fall of the wall, I was invited by the German government to visit the country. I wanted to see Dresden which had been reduced to rubble, but now stood tall and grand. I wanted to see Auschwitz the concentration camp where Jews were exterminated and the Olympic stadium in MĂĽnich where Israeli athletes were gunned down. Six million Jews had perished in the war. Germany is one of a few European countries which ensures that this dark chapter in its history is not glossed over unlike France, for example, which is still mealy-mouthed about the Vichy regime. There is something about the German character that is at once inspiring and frightening, a quiet power that manages to work the least in Europe but emerges as its economic engine.
The Berlin wall technically came down only in six months from today, but looking back at all that has gone right and wrong in the past 25 years, the world is no closer to peace today than it was in 1989. Gorbachev is the man who brought the iron curtain (wall) down. He hoped that would also end the western desire to dominate Europe via the North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO).
We are staring at a new cold war with almost the same players in Europe. The unification of Europe which was one of the promises of 1989 remains incomplete, the continent is divided between rich and poor Europeans as it was in the pre-war days and Vladimir Putinâ€™s recent moves show how short the world has fallen of the ambitious agenda of the day the wall fell. All the blame is not Russiaâ€™s. Part of the problem also lies with NATO which seeks Euro-wide domination. There are newer and deeper walls in the world today, not all of which are visible, but almost all have the capacity to take us back a 100 years. In fact, the question that begs an answer is â€“ is the world a safer place to live today than it was in 1913 when we were on the brink of World War 1?