A week after the surprise-party opening of East Germany’s borders people were still gathering at the Berlin Wall, smiling at each other, drinking champagne and singing bits of old songs. There was no sign of the letdown which every sublime experience is supposed to inspire. People kept coming back just to walk along the freshly useless ram-parts. They came at all sorts of hours, at lunch, dawn, three in the morning. Every possible kind of person was on promenade in the narrow gutter beside the concrete eyesore: wide hausfraus, kids with lavender hair, New Age goofs, drunk war vets in wheelchairs, video-burdened tourists, Deadheads, extravagant gays, toughs become all well-behaved, art students forgetting to look cool and bored, business tycoons gone loose and weepy, people so ordinary they defied description and, of course, members of the East German proletariat staring in surprise–as they stared in surprise at everything–at this previously central fact of their existence.
Even West Berlin’s radicals joined the swarms.
West Berlin had the most dogmatic agitators this side of Peru’s Shining Path, but that was before November 9th. Near the restored Reichstag building I overheard a group of lefties amicably discussing nuclear strategy with a half dozen off-duty U.S. GI’s.
“Ja, you see, tactical capability mit der cruise missiles after all vas not der Soviet primary concern …”
“Sure, man, but what about second-strike capability? Wow, if we hadn’t had that …”
All in the past tense. A British yob, who certainly should have been off throttling Belgians at a football match, came up to me apropos of nothing and said, “I fucking ‘ad to see this, right? I ‘itched ‘ere from London and got these chunks off the wall. You think I can’t pay for the fucking ferry ride back with these? Right!”
At the Brandenburg gate the East German border guards had shooed the weekend’s noisy celebrators off the Wall. But the guards weren’t carrying guns anymore and were beginning to acknowledge their audience and even ham it up a bit. Somebody offered a champagne bottle to a guard and he took a lively swig. Somebody else offered another bottle with a candle in it, and the guard set the candle on the wall and used a plastic cup to make a shield around the flame.
The people in the crowd weren’t yelling or demanding anything. They weren’t waiting for anything to happen. They were present from sheer glee at being alive in this place at this time. They were there to experience the opposite of the existential anguish which has been the twentieth century’s designer mood. And they were happy with the big, important happiness that–the Declaration of Independence reminds us–is everybody’s, even a Communist’s, unalienable right to pursue.
The world’s most infamous symbol of oppression had been rendered a tourist attraction overnight. Poland’s political prisoners were now running its government. Bulgaria’s leadership had been given the Order of the Boot. The Hungarian Communist Party wouldn’t answer to its name. Three hundred thousand Czechs were tying a tin can to the Prague Politburo’s tail. And the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was looking disunified, unsoviet and not as socialist as it used to. What did it mean? The Commies didn’t seem to know. The Bush administration didn’t either. And you can be certain that members of the news media did not have a clue. Ideology, politics and journalism, which luxuriate in failure, are impotent in the face of hope and joy.
I booked a hotel room in East Berlin. When I arrived at the West Berlin airport a taxi dispatcher said the border crossings were so busy that I’d better take the subway to the other side. The train was filled with both kinds of Berliners, and stepping through the car doors was like walking into a natural history museum diorama of Dawn Man and his modern relations. The Easterners look like Pleistocene proto-Germans, as yet untouched by the edifying effects of Darwinian selection. West Germans are tall, pink, pert and orthodontically corrected, with hands, teeth and hair as clean as their clothes and clothes as sharp as their looks. Except for the fact that they all speak English pretty well, they’re indistinguishable from Americans. East Germans seem to have been hunching over cave fires a lot. They’re short and thick with sallow, lardy fat, and they have Khrushchev warts. There’s something about Marxism that brings out warts–the only kind of growth this economic system encourages.
As the train ran eastward, West Berliners kept getting off and East Berliners kept getting on until, passing under the Wall itself, I was completely surrounded by the poor buggers and all the strange purchases they’d made in the west. It was mostly common, trivial stuff, things the poorest people would have already in any free country–notebook paper, pliers and screwdrivers, corn flakes and, especially, bananas. For all the meddling the Communist bloc countries have done in banana republics, they still never seem to be able to get their hands on any actual bananas.
The East Berliners had that glad but dazed look which you see on Special Olympics participants when they’re congratulated by congressmen. The man sitting next to me held a West German tabloid open to a photo of a healthy fraulein without her clothes. He had that picture fixed with a gaze to make stout Cortez on a peak in Darien into a blinking, purblind myope.
At the Friedrichstrasse station in East Berlin, passport examination was perfunctory and the customs inspection, a wave of the hand. I walked outside into a scene of shocking, festive bustle. Though, to the uninitiated, I don’t suppose it would look like much–just squat, gray crowds on featureless streets. But there are never crowds in East Berlin. And the crowds had shopping bags. There’s nothing to shop for in East Berlin and no bags in which to put the stuff you can’t buy. Taxi drivers saw my luggage and began shouting, “You want taxi?!” “Taxi, ja?!” Imagine shouting that your services are for hire in East Berlin. Imagine shouting. Imagine services. I heard laughter, chatting, even giggles. I saw a cop directing traffic with bold and dramatic flourishes. I saw border guards smile. It was a regular Carnival in Rio by East Berlin standards. And, the most amazing thing of all, there was jaywalking.
I had been in East Berlin three years before. And I had been standing on a corner of a perfectly empty Karl-Marx-Allee waiting for the light to change. All Germans are good about obeying traffic signals but pre-1989 East Germans were religious. If a bulb burned out they’d wait there until the state withered away and true communism arrived. So I was standing among about a dozen East Germans, meaning to follow the custom of the country, but my mind wandered and without thinking I stepped out into the street against the light. They all followed me. Then I realized I’d walked into the path of a speeding army truck. I froze in confusion. They froze in confusion. Finally I jumped back on the curb. And they did too, but not until I’d jumped first.
In 1986 I’d come through the border at Checkpoint Charlie, and getting in was a dreary and humiliating experience similar to visiting a brother-in-law in prison. There was much going through pairs of electrically locked doors and standing before counters fronted with bulletproof glass while young dolts in uniforms gave you the fish-eye. There were an inordinate number of “NO EXIT!” signs, and I remember thinking the exclamation points were a nice touch.
You had to exchange twenty-five perfectly good West German marks, worth about fifty cents apiece, for twenty-five perfectly useless East German marks, worth nothing. I thought I’d see how fast I could blow my stack of East marks on the theory that the test of any society’s strength and vigor is how quickly it Handi-Vacs your wallet.
I walked to Unter den Linden, old Berlin’s Champs Elysees. The city was empty feeling, no construction noise, no music, no billboards or flashing lights. There were plenty of people around but they all seemed to be avoiding one another like patrons at a pornographic movie theater and, although it was a beautiful spring day, the East Berliners were moving with their shoulders hunched and heads turned down as though they were walking in the rain. The women were frumps but the men bore an odd resemblance to trendy New Yorkers. They had the same pallor and mixing-bowl haircuts. They wore the same funny, tight high-water pants with black clown shoes as big as rowboats and the same ugly 1950s geometric-patterned shirts buttoned to the neck. Except the East Berlin guys weren’t kidding. This wasn’t a style. These were their clothes.
Unter den Linden’s six lanes served only a few deformed East German Wartburg sedans and some midget Trabant cars. The Trabants had two-cycle engines and made a sound like a coffee can full of steel washers and bees. They looked like they were made of plastic because they were. Other than that the traffic was mostly blimp-sized double-length articulated buses progressing down the vacant avenue at the speed of Dutch Elm disease.
The store windows were full of goods, however: a fifty-bottle pyramid of Rumanian berry liqueur, a hundred Russian nesting dolls, a whole enormous display devoted entirely to blue plastic tooth-brushes with the bristles already falling out. The huge Centrum department store smelled as though the clothes were made from wet dogs. The knit dresses were already unraveling on their hangers. The sweaters were pilling on the shelves. The raincoats were made out of what looked like vinyl wallpaper. And there were thirty or forty people in line to buy anything, anything at all, that was for sale.
I went to a bar in the showplace Palace of the Republic. It took me thirty minutes to be waited on although there were two bartenders and only five other people in the place. The two bartenders were pretty busy washing out the bar’s highball glass. I was amazed to see ‘manhattan” listed on the drink menu and ordered it and should have known better. There was some kind of alcohol, but definitely not whiskey, in the thing and the sweet vermouth had been replaced with ersatz sloe gin.
Next, I stood in line for half an hour to see what Marxism could do to street-vendor pizza. It did not disappoint. The word cottony is sometimes used to describe bad pizza dough, but there was every reason to believe this pizza was really made of the stuff, or maybe a polyester blend. The slice–more accurately, lump–had no tomato whatsoever and was covered in a semiviscous imitation mozzarella, remarkably uncheeselike even for a coal-tar by-product. Then there was the sausage topping. One bite brought a flood of nostalgia. Nobody who’s been through a fraternity initiation will ever forget this taste, this smell. It was dog food.
I went back to Checkpoint Charlie. You weren’t allowed to take East German money out of the country. I don’t know why. It’s not like there was anything you could do with it in the west. The bills are too small for house-training puppies. But East Germany was so total in its totalitarianism that everything was banned which wasn’t compulsory. Anyway, when I went through customs a dour official in his early twenties said, “Have you any currency of the German Democratic Republic?”
“Nope,” I said. “I spent it all.”
He looked skeptical, as well he might have. “Empty pockets, bitte,” he ordered. I had twenty-one marks left over.
“Well, I’m coming back tomorrow,” I said.
His expression changed for a moment to boyish amazement. “You are?” He resumed his governmental frown. “This once I will allow you to retain these currencies because you are coming back tomorrow,” he said and rolled his eyes.
I did come back and this time couldn’t find anything at all to spend money on. The only excitement available in East Berlin seemed to be opening the subway car doors and getting off the train before it came to a complete halt. But I couldn’t figure out how to pay the subway fare so I couldn’t even spend my money on this. I walked back toward Checkpoint Charlie with forty-six marks in my pocket. Then I did something my capitalist soul had never allowed me to do before in my life. I crumpled up money and threw it in a garbage can.
There was no question of throwing money away on my 1989 visit to East Berlin. The glimmering new Grand Hotel, standing on that very corner where the garbage can had been, accepted only hard currency. In return you got food you could swallow and Johnnie Walker Scotch at the bar (although something described as “cod liver in oil” still lurked on the restaurant menu).
There had been changes for the regular citizens of East Berlin as well There were three or four times as many shops on the streets, some with pseudo-boutique names like ‘medallion,” “Panda” and “Joker.” The stuff for sale was awful enough, but there was more of it. Thus at least half the law of supply and demand was being obeyed–if something’s lousy, it’s always available. The first lineup of shoppers I saw turned out to be waiting for an antique shop to open. The new Wartburg 353 models even had styling– not much styling and that borrowed from 1960s Saabs, but styling nonetheless.
However, the real change was the lack of fear, a palpable physical absence like letting go of your end of a piano. My note-taking– which in 1986 would have sent passers-by scuttling like roaches surprised in a kitchen–now went unremarked. American reporters were all over the place, of course. And in every hotel lobby and cafe you could hear East Germans griping loudly to the reporters while the reporters loudly explained how all this was feeling to the people of East Germany.
There were pictures everywhere of the new East German leader, Egon Krenz, just as there’d been pictures everywhere of the old East German leader, Erich Honecker. But these weren’t the lifted chin, stalwart forward-looker vanguarding the masses photos. Egon–who resembles a demented nephew of Danny Thomas’s–was shown spreading hugs around, tousling toddler mop-tops and doing the grip-and-grin at various humble functions. He was politicking, plain and simple. The Commies didn’t quite have it right yet: they take office and then they run for it. But they’re trying.
Personally I missed the old East Berlin. The only thing East Germany ever had going for it was a dramatic and sinister film noir atmosphere. When you passed through Checkpoint Charlie the movie footage seemed to switch to black and white. Steam rose from man-hole covers. Newspapers blew down wet, empty streets. You’d turn your trench coat collar up, hum a few bars of “Lili Marleen” and say to yourself, “This is me in East Berlin.”
That’s gone now and the place is revealed for what it’s really been all along, just a screwed-up poor country with a dictatorship. The dictatorship part is understandable, but how the Commies managed to make a poor country out of a nation full of Germans is a mystery. The huge demonstrations that had shaken East Germany for the past several months had one characteristic which distinguished them from all other huge demonstrations in history–they never began until after work. I went to one of these at Humboldt University. The students were demanding economics courses. It was hard to reconcile this with my own memories of student protest. We were demanding free dope for life.
The students were also protesting the opening of the Wall. Not that they were against it. But they were furious that the East German government might think this was all it had to do. One picket sign showed a caricature of East Berlin’s party boss, Gunther Schabowski, naked with a banana stuck in every orifice and a balloon reading, “Free at last!” No one made any attempt to break up the rally. Soldiers and police were there, but they were applauding the speakers.
Even though the guard dogs and the machine-gun nests were gone, the east side of the Berlin Wall was still pristine, smooth whitewashed pre-cast reinforced-concrete slabs a foot thick and ten feet high and separated from the rest of the city by thirty yards of police. On the west side, the Wall was in your face and covered with graffiti paint as thick as ravioli.
I went out Checkpoint Charlie–with nobody worrying over what I might do with my East German marks–and turned right on Zimmer Strasse, what Berliners call “Wall Street” because the Wall runs along the old curbstone, leaving only a sidewalk in front of the West Berlin buildings. There was a steely, rhythmic noise that, for a moment, I thought might be some new Kraftwerk-style Euro synthesizer music (Berliners are horribly up-to-date with that sort of thing). But it was the sound of hundreds of people going at the Wall with hammers, chisels, picks, sledges, screwdrivers and even pocket knives. The chipping and flaking had progressed in a week until long, mouse-gnawed-looking ellipses were appearing between the slabs with daylight and occasional glimpses of East German border guards visible on the other side. I saw thirty schoolchildren on a class excursion with their teacher, all beating the Wall in unison with rocks, sticks and anything that came to hand.
I talked to a man in his sixties who was going along the Wall with a rucksack and a geologist’s hammer. He’d escaped from the East in 1980. He’d been in prison over there for his political opinions. He gestured at the layers of spray-painting, the hundreds of symbols, slogans and messages ranging from John Lennon quotes to “Fuck the IRA.” “I want one piece of every color,” he said.
A twenty-year-old West German named Heiko Lemke was at-tacking the Wall with a set of professional stonemason’s tools. In two days he’d made a hole big enough to pass a house cat through, even though the police had twice confiscated his cold chisels–the West German police. During a one-minute breather Lemke said he was an engineering student, a supporter of the Christian Democratic Party, didn’t want history to repeat itself and was going to come back to the Wall on the weekend with some serious equipment.
Two American teenagers, Neville Finnis and Daniel Sheire, from Berlin’s English-language JFK high school were attempting to rip the top off one section of the Wall with their bare hands. The Wall is capped with six-foot-long two-hundred-pound half-pipes cast in ferro-concrete. These need to be lifted nearly a foot in the air before their edges clear the cement slab and they can be heaved to the ground. Neville and Daniel straddled the wall, in postures that would bring dollar signs to the eyes of any hernia surgeon, and lifted. When that didn’t work, two more JFK students got up on the Wall and lifted Neville and Daniel while Neville and Daniel lifted the half-pipe. “Go for it! Go for it!” they yelled at each other. It was an American, rather than a scientific or methodical, approach. The half-pipe landed with a great thump. The political message was clear to all the JFK stu-dents. “Yeah!” shouted one. “Let’s sell it!”
The East German border guards didn’t interfere. Instead they came up to openings in the Wall and made V signs and posed for photographs. One of them even stuck his hand through and asked would somebody please give him a piece of the concrete to keep as a souvenir.
The hand of that border guard–that disembodied, palm-up, begging hand … I looked at that and I began to cry.
I really didn’t understand before that moment, I didn’t realize until just then–we won. The Free World won the Cold War. The fight against life-hating, soul-denying, slavish communism–which has shaped the world’s politics this whole wretched century–was over.
The tears of victory ran down my face–and the snot of victory did too because it was a pretty cold day. I was blubbering like a lottery winner.
All the people who had been sent to gulags, who’d been crushed in the streets of Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, the soldiers who’d died in Korea and my friends and classmates who had been killed in Vietnam–it meant something now. All the treasure that we in America had poured into guns, planes, Star Wars and all the terrifying A-bombs we’d had to build and keep–it wasn’t for nothing.
And I didn’t get it until just then, when I saw that border guard’s hand. And I think there are a lot of people who haven’t gotten it yet. Our own President Bush seems to regard the events in Eastern Europe as some kind of odd dance craze or something. When I got back to the United States, I was looking through the magazines and news-papers and it seemed that all I saw were editorial writers pulling long faces about “Whither a United Germany” and “Whence America’s Adjustments to the New Realities in Europe.” Is that the kind of noise people were making in Times Square on V-E Day?
I say, Shut-up you egghead flap-gums. We’ve got the whole rest of history to sweat the small stuff. And those discredited peace creeps, they can zip their soup-coolers, too. They think Mikhail Gorbachev is a visionary? Yeah, he’s a visionary. Like Hirohito was after Nagasaki. We won. And let’s not let anybody forget it. We the people, the free and equal citizens of democracies, we living exemplars of the Rights of Man tore a new asshole in International Communism. Their wall is breached. Their gut-string is busted. The rot of their dead body politic fills the nostrils of the earth with a glorious stink. We cleaned the clock of Marxism. We mopped the floor with them. We ran the Reds through the wringer and hung them out to dry. The privileges of liberty and the sanctity of the individual went out and whipped butt.
And the best thing about our victory is the way we did it–not just with ICBMs and Green Berets and aid to the contras. Those things were important, but in the end we beat them with Levi 501 jeans. Seventy-two years of communist indoctrination and propaganda was drowned out by a three-ounce Sony Walkman. A huge totalitarian system with all its tanks and guns, gulag camps and secret police has been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes. They may have had the soldiers and the warheads and the fine-sounding ideology that suckered the college students and nitwit Third Worlders, but we had all the fun. Now they’re lunch, and we’re number one on the planet.
It made me want to do a little sack dance right there in the Cold War’s end zone. We’re the best! We’re the greatest! The only un-defeated socio-economic system in the league! I wanted to get up on the Wall and really rub it in: “Taste the ash-heap of history, you Bolshie nose-wipes!” But there was nobody to jeer at. Everyone over there was in West Berlin watching Paula Abdul videos.