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November 9, 2007

The Wall Cracks


by William Johnney

EIGHTEEN YEARS ago this evening the Berlin Wall was cut open by the East German authorities.

I remember the first reports -- grainy night film of the first grey Ostvolk stepping gingerly West through the crack near Potsdammerplatz. Glancing about bemused. The great surprise still lighting their faces, alleviating native skepticism.

I took the first flight I could afford, landed in Zurich and caught a train, and started snapping photos of East and West Berlin.


A MAN WAS SITTING next to me on a stoop, as I fiddled with f-stops and sized up the building across the way. But then as I raised my camera he quickly stood and turned -- to step into the shot.

He seemed poor, perhaps homeless. His clothes were dirty and his spirit seemed depressed.

I've often wondered why he wanted to have his picture taken.

Perhaps he felt life was changing again, slipping away in an unknown direction ... And thinking of his parents, wished to preserve something ...

Or to furnish, great or small, a part toward the soul.

Kaiser Wilhelm Churck, Berlin, November 1989

The ruin behind him -- the old Anhalter train station --
is preserved by the German republic to remind people of the cost of war and bad leaders, and thus of the responsibilities of citizenship.

Was it part of his plan to be framed by this memorial?

There were several such mementos in West Berlin -- the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, most memorably. I haven't been to the city since 1997, but guess they still exist.

And are pen and paper ballots still used across Germany, requiring three days to count a nationwide vote? As a safeguard against fascism?

The ruined Anhalter Bahnhof, by the way, floats through a scene in Wim Wenders' masterpiece Wings of Desire, which was made in 1986 and thus serves today as a marvelous souvenir of Cold War Berlin. Which no longer exists. At least in brick.

Berlin election poster, 1990: Hitler, Stalin: From some viewpoints, this is a Democrat

THE WORLD WE LIVE in now, born that evening through the crack
in the Wall, is just now reaching the age of reason. Eighteen years.
Old enough to die for Old Glory if not get drunk. Happy Birthday.

Most adults are old enough to recall that the new world arrived unexpectedly, with unlooked-for hope. Living with the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction had been the way of life. November 10, 1989 seemed the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

Yet when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it was quickly scuttlebutt among strangelove types that one must fear a nexus of international relations in which any power dominates without counterbalance.

Hopes, however, were that all would be okay -- that Uncle Sam would prove exceptional and not misbehave on the world stage.

Berlin Wall near Checkpoint Charlie, November 1989

I am no fan of George H.W. Bush. I loathed him as a president. And continue to look forward to the day his complicity, or innocence, in the murder of Olaf Palme, once the honorable prime minister of Sweden, is aired in the American press and courts.

Who dat?

Berlin Wall watchtower, viewed from West Berlin, 1989

Nevertheless, it's clear in retrospect that Bush pere acted with wise restraint to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when plenty of Cowboy savants were for kicking'm when they're down and kicking ass.

Ten years later Cheney and baby Bush hired many of those same Beltway Cowboys to run American foreign policy. Cheney had been one with them since the mid 90s. Curious George seemed to have no ideas of his own.

The rogue American state that people vaguely worried about in 1991 is now a wild child, nearly seven years old, shitting the bed and stomping about the globe. And Cheney seems yet intent upon attacking Iran.


March 1990

TALKING WITH the OSTVOLK, East Berliners, in their worn, hushed pubs was the most interesting thing.

"Here we prosecute nazis," said a soft-spoken computer fellow, 35 or so. "In the West they are free."

At the time I had little idea how right he was -- how wide- spread and cynical the transport of nazi VIPs into the West had been, far beyond von Braun and his rocket engineers, and Gehlen and his spies.

Russian War Memorial Cemetary, East Berlin, 1977

Nor did I know that it began in 1944 (not after the war), guided from Berne by the Gentleman Spy, Allen Dulles, Wall Street lawyer, servant of Prescott Bush and Fritz Thyssen, future founding father of the CIA, trenchant Cold Warrior, corrupter of the Warren Commission ...

Our wide embrace of the nazi elite casts shadows upon the august memorial ruins of West Berlin. Brecht might have known how best to size them up. Perhaps the heavy treatments of the old Russian Sector are more honest to goodness.

The great thing about America, said the fellow in the pub gently -- its great gift -- was computer science.

That aside, he preferred social democracy.

Believed it superior to what the West had to offer.

Berlin Wall, November 1989

Meanwhile his compatriots were wandering the satisfied West Berlin boulevards and department stores, riding the escalators up and down, and up and down, impassively feasting their eyes on fashions and housewares that sickened their hearts, given the hard-soft currency translation.

And in the supermarkets, Ost women were getting upset at the wealth of food.

Not that they'd been blind. They had relatives, and had seen
a lot of western television. But twenty meters of fresh red meat wrapped in plastic ...

Life had betrayed them.

And was now making mockeries. A hundred soft cheeses ...

Their men had failed them.

The Bonn government caught on quickly and within days was issuing each visitor from the East, when properly stamped and counterstamped, fifty of its imperious Deutsche Marks.

Woolworths, in the shadow of the ruin of Kaiser Wilhelm Church, is where this rubber hit the road. Torn apart as if going
out of business.

Woolworths Department Store, West Berlin, November 1989

The quiet computer fellow had himself just returned with a gilded shopping bag. Sheepishly, but on his own initiative, he
showed me the things he had bought on his first Western sortie. Setting them on the table one by one. Wrinkling his nose, shaking
his head dubiously.

That embarassment, and ticklish irritation -- to be (and to be seen) back home burdened with extravagant consumer goods -- expressed what seemed common consternation.

Berlin Wall, November 1989

Click on photos with blue borders thru out for expanded views

FRANKLIN DELANO Roosevelt installed a plaque in the White House upon which were words from a letter of John Adams, the second president, to his wife:

I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.

Heaven failed Adams in that.

Or was it those who fixed and telemarketed the 2000 and 2004 elections?

The Congress, in any case, might have removed Cheney and Bush, in that order, after Hurricane Katrina. More than sufficient grounds and public opinion were at hand.

But the cost of TV advertising has allowed the relatively few families (domestic and foreign) who own most of the country to buy the Congress too. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, is a child of such a family and made it first business as the new Speaker of the House early this year to squash the impeachment initiative.

Meanwhile that erstwhile citizen, the American consumer, more ignorant and barbarous year by year, imbibing Fox News and reality television, seems incapable of exercising his paper sovereignty.


Berlin election poster, 1992

It may be that the current financial crisis -- which began with defaulting American mortgages but quickly froze bond markets worldwide and continues to worsen week by week -- may lamp the best way out.

That is: All the other major powers in their gut, even our old allies in Europe, are against Bush-Cheney. And we have given to some the power to crush us economically.

Sure, they'd be shooting themselves in the feet to some extent; everyone holds dollars and strives to sell stuff to the American consumer. But conventional means for controlling international behavior seem to have been exhausted.

Joy Division, Berlin Wall, November 1989

It may be, then, that these are the futures that our neglect of the responsibilities of citizenship have left us:

Either socioeconomic pain on the scale of the 1930s.

Or a world war in which this time the nazis are us.


ANOTHER DAY, in a pub just East of Checkpoint Charlie -- the portal to the American Sector where testy Ost officers with terse moustaches and lackeys with machine guns disappear with one's passport for hours at a time -- I met a stolid Russian, 55 or so, an ominous fellow, half worldly, half not, who along with writer Alexander Zinoviev inspired the narrator of my second novel.

East Berlin pub, November 1989

Our talk was so interesting that midway through I made the mistake of trying to record it with my little cassette player. Merely as an aide de memoire.

But his ears, of course, were sensitive to such things.

To try to make amends and set him at ease, I offered him the tape.

He stared at it, sweating. As if balancing the risks of taking and leaving . . . Then swiped it
off the table and departed, observing that I was not a gentleman.

Only later did I realize that the flip side of the tape was filled with rambling vocal memos and big ideas I'd recorded months before while driving across the U.S. of A.

And -- hoo boy. Some pretty pathetic romance post mortem.

Berlin Wall, November 1989

Perhaps my lost friend came upon these confessions and, listening, found himself amused, and drew some satisfaction for having turned tables on the American spy.

Did he pass the tape on to the appropriate authorities?

Or toss it in the Spree a few nervous minutes after our sour good-bye?

Berlin Wall, November 1989

EVERYBODY WAS TAKING WACKS at the Wall -- which was awfully tough -- with hammers and picks.

Selling chips was small business. The outside of the western
wall had been covered for decades with graffitti, and regularly renewed (to the dismay of some, who had discerned decay, a lack of artistry and spirit, in the work of the 80s).

Nevertheless, the market for chips coated on the flat side with genuine paint was brisk, so much so that upon return to the city a few months later I found the Wall had been thoroughly defaced.

Berlin Wall, November 1989

A TINY TURKISH GIRL -- 8 or 10 -- was selling handsome Wall chips laid out on a blanket.

Turkish girl selling chips of the Berlin Wall, 1989

With seasoned smarts she negotiated a sale with a tall and rather dorky US Air Force fellow who bent over her like a willow as he labored to count his coins.

What a tough little cookie she was. Stuffed her purse down her pants after every transaction.

Wall Street Gallery along the Berlin Wall, Kreuzberg, November 1989

A WORLDLY UPBEAT PRESENCE hummed around the clock along the Wall in Kreuzberg, the hipster zone of West Berlin. Something of a party. Hippie chicks of a Post-Chauvanism sort. But never out of hand.

Two girls along the Wall in Kreuzberg, West Berlin, November 1989

I remember walking behind two girls (not those pictured here), seventeen or so, listening to them chirp with high excitement in a language I could not begin to fathom.

Then suddenly one sighed loudly with much love:

"Tracy Chapman!"

Berlin Wall, November 1989

Kreuzberg, United We Stand

AT THE BRANDENBERG GATE, the police, east and west, were still on duty, and No Man's Land -- the 80 yards or so between the parallel barriers that together constituted the Wall -- was still a going concern.

Wall Jumpers Crossing No Man's Land, Berlin March 1990

Wall Jumpers Crossing No Man's Land, Berlin March 1990

Wall Jumpers Crossing No Man's Land, Berlin March 1990

Wall Jumpers Crossing No Man's Land, Berlin March 1990

Wall Jumpers Crossing No Man's Land, Berlin March 1990

Wall Jumpers Crossing No Man's Land, Berlin March 1990

Wall Jumpers Crossing No Man's Land, Berlin March 1990

And it was still against the law to step on that fatal ground, despite the world-shaking events of the past days, other than when crossing between the several hacked portals on the official muddy, plywood-paved ways.

But people were sitting and standing all along the walls, east and west, near the Gate.

And young adventurers, when the cops weren't looking, would jump off and run across.

Cops slowly shake their handsomely hatted heads.
This conduct is intolerable.

Notate the transgression.

Then stride at a dignified pace, in pairs, over to the spot where the offenders had climbed the far side and disappeared.

Deliver a brief lecture on the law. The consequences for society should order fail.
Then respond to the same offense a hundred yards down.

Pure anarchy.

The Reichstag, November 1989

The Reichstag, November 1989


WRITING THIS BIT I've realized my life changed rather fatally that week. I was still in grad school. But Academia was now out. Began the second novel four months later. The first New Combat came a year after that.

Much seems to have turned on an entirely unexpected event,
and a largely thoughtless reaction.

A way of life, perhaps, in interesting times.

November 9, 1989

The End

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