So many knowledgeable people have weighed in this week on the legacy of the Berlin Wall, that I really had not planned to offer anything other than what I saw and what I read. I put this package together for those who missed it the first time, and there were plenty of people out there who did, including Germans. 

Two things struck me, however, as I was researching this project: 

1.    The power of propaganda.

As television viewers, we all know how easy it is to sway large groups of people, but still, it’s stunning how easily East German authorities convinced people that walls and borders were there to protect them from the immoral and dangerous influences of the West.

Judging by the number who escaped or tried to, not all were fooled. But, if you listen carefully to the dialogue between guards and East Germans in the Mauerfall videos, you'll find evidence that many East Berliners still believed they were walled off for their own good.

I went to Berlin and Leipzig not long after reunification. It was still a mess.

You couldn’t place a phone call from east to west. You still had to carry a passport, or a visa provided by a hotel, which took your passport when you checked in. That practice made me very nervous since I had no way to call the US embassy in what-was-once the West, if that passport went missing.

Living conditions in East Germany were much worse than I expected. I had never before seen so many obviously disabled people in one place at the same time. Since my mother was crippled, I was very tuned into noticing such things. One day, I counted 40 physically disabled people on the streets of Leipzig. Many begged on street corners, at entrances to office buildings or in front of restaurants. These were young people -- many blind or with badly deformed limbs -- so these weren’t war wounds they were dealing with.  

Coal was the home heating fuel of choice so the air stunk and, some days, it polluted the air so much you could barely see across the street.

Fences and gates marked many intersections. There were video cameras and loudspeakers at every turn. Recorded voices told you to stop, start, to not spit, smoke, run, or misbehave in any way. They may have told you more than that, but those were the only words I understood. I could hear loudspeakers barking all night all over the city, since I had to leave the windows open in my hotel room to keep cool.
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Leipzig 1991
Outside the cities, empty gun towers still watched over cornfields, maybe a half-mile apart. We were told not to step off paved roads in rural areas because all the landmines had not been removed.

Small towns were gated at every exit with concrete stanchions spaced just far apart to let a Trabant through,  which meant there was no way anyone could simply drive from town to town without dealing with a guard. All movement within the country was watched and recorded.

Highway border crossings looked like American interstate toll plazas with gun towers.     We passed an especially large one that had been shot up to smithereens.

I was in Leipzig the week the first green grocer opened. Lines of skinny and wan customers wrapped around the block to buy fresh produce, many for the first time. I went there to buy water every few days – at the advice of the hotel concierge – and stood in the quiet, very orderly line, waiting my turn to shop. They sold food we would never eat: moldy peaches, rusty lettuce, blackened bananas and overripe tomatoes, all at New York prices!

The Leipzigers we met loved their city, and boasted loudly about everything they could that set them apart from the rest of the country. Think New Yorkers. Texans. Californians. After all, this was home to Bach, Mendelssohn and Goethe, among other notables, and today is home to one of the world’s finest orchestras.

A tourguide boasted about the city’s main hospital, in particular. You’ll see it below. Aside from electrification, it didn’t look to me like much had changed since the 15th century, when it was built. Note: It wasn't tilted, I was shooting from a bus.
Picture
Leipzig hospital wing
2.    How easily it all came apart.  

In spite of all the available firepower, attack dogs, machine guns, landmines, barbed wire, Stasi and whatever else they threatened people with, not one single shot was fired on the night of November 9, 1989. 

Not long after der Berliner Mauerfall, citizens of Leipzig, Dresden and other eastern cities tested the waters and got the same response. Guards were either ambivalent about what to do, overwhelmed by the crowds or unwilling to stop them. 

Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it? 

Think of all the walls that are up today, in places like Israel, China, Korea, the US. Do you think we’ll see them come down in our lifetime? I certainly hope so. 

 


Comments

11/12/2009 14:04

Propaganda is very powerful. We have samples of it all the time. For the unenlightened or uneducated it works all too well. Think of the people who still believe Obama is a Muslim or that he is not a citizen.

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11/14/2009 07:13

How remarkable that you were in Berlin and Leipzig during that amazing time shortly after reconciliation. The image of hungry people standing in line when the first green grocery opened in Leipzig is a haunting one. This whole series was just excellent. I'll share it with my teenage grandchildren -- perhaps they will understand what the "big deal" is all about. . .

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Larry
11/15/2009 19:41

It is fascinating, and frightening, how effective mind control can be. Whether it be the Stasi in former East Germany and the Nazis in WWII Germany, and perhaps even the rant and rave hate-mongers on modern radio in the US, if the message is repeated often enough and loud enough many if not most listeners eventually will "toe the line." Perhaps it is the natural law of self preservation at work: do what you think you must do to survive in an uncertain, and from an individual perspective, uncontrollable environment.

Irrespective of our efforts at educating individuals, "group-think" still reins supreme. Perhaps that is the only way communities can survive. As history seems to prove, it also is the way communities can perish.

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