Saw the remains of the Berlin Wall today. There was hardly anyone else there, and the day was gray and so cold my ears ached, even with the assistance of a woolly hat. I am old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin wall, but not very clearly. My family had just moved back to the United States in 1989 – I lived overseas for most of my childhood – and I turned ten that winter. Old enough to be excited about seeing Disney’s The Little Mermaid, but not precocious enough to know much about politics.
The memorial area for the wall is simple and moving. There are sections of the wall there that are slowly being overgrown by weeds – one imagines that with time, the concrete itself will disintegrate, which I suspect is the idea. There is also a map that shows how the wall divided the city as well as an area with pictures of the people who died trying to get across.
We also went to see the Stasi museum, which is out in the eastern suburbs of the city. It’s in an area of anonymous and fairly grim-looking apartment buildings. There is a floor of offices, including that of Erich Mielke, that remain essentially as they were in 1989, complete with safes (now open) and a great deal of faux wood paneling and cheap polyester curtains. The whole thing exudes an air of frugality, but a decidedly political sort of frugality. There was also a section of the museum devoted to youth groups and education in the DDR. They had examples of textbooks that were assigned to students – I wish the books had been outside the display cases so that one could leaf through them! I have a very distinct memory of my fourth grade (1989-1990) teacher giving us the spiel about the evils of communism, and yet as it’s described in these books and in the various quotations you see elsewhere, it sounds so appealing: who would not want to live in a place where you did work that was meaningful for you, and received what you needed in return? Of course, this was not how things worked out in practice, and the whole “you should be incapable of being happy outside of the collective group” aspect is extremely creepy – and this is not even to mention the political repression and silencing of all dissent. The parts of the exhibits that showed all the surveillance devices used by the Stasi would be almost laughable – hidden cameras in tree trunks! in button holes! in markers! – if not for the fact that it was in fact real, and for the people involved could have terrifying consequences. No Ostalgie here.