Cycling the Berlin Wall Way… an education, a warning, an inspiration

In the faultless pageantry of Queen Elizabeth’s recent funeral, we witnessed one of the things that Britain does really well. Whether you are pro- or anti-monarchy, it was a spectacular display of planning, coordination, ritual, symbolism and attention to detail, as well as a gratitude- and love-filled farewell to the only ‘Her Majesty’ we have known. Impossible though it might sound, I missed most of it!

I was in Berlin experiencing what Germany does really well: remembrance and commemoration of a difficult and painful history. It was, however, not Germany’s intensive and on-going process of coming to terms with its Nazi past that I was focused on. This time, I was with my two siblings cycling the Berlin Wall Way, a continuous bicycle path that follows the former footprint of the 100-mile long Berlin Wall as closely as possible. Taking five days to complete, with added time to explore some of the many poignant locations in the centre, it was a total eye-opener, not least to the very concept of a divided city and country.

Map of West Berlin with the 160km Wall marked in red

The first initially confusing fact to digest is that, contrary to the widely held idea that the Berlin Wall was a north-to-south boundary separating West and East Berlin, in reality the wall went all the way round West Berlin thereby creating a democratic West German island within socialist East Germany. Even with a map, we found ourselves frequently asking: So, are we in the West or the East? the answer to which, I assure you, is rarely as straightforward or obvious as it sounds.

The second tangible shock felt while snaking along its course, was the utter illogic and arbitrariness of this ideological divide – through streets, houses, communities, lakes and woodlands. This randomness would have started as a line drawn on a map by the leaders of the victorious nations – USA’s President Harry S. Truman, Josef Stalin of the USSR, Britain’s prime ministers Winston Churchill and then Clement Attlee as well as other leading members of the three delegations present. That’s probably how most of the other contested border lines around the world have originated. To engage with the whole concept of division, not to mention the impact it had on families and friends separated for nearly three decades, is almost impossible. An enormous 360˚panorama entitled THE WALL by artist Jadegar Asisi gave us arguably our most immediate and visceral sense of being in West Berlin looking at and over the wall into the deadly world behind.

From the360˚ panorama THE WALL by Jadegar Asisi

The third challenge was understanding the complex evolution and structure of the wall that was built in three phases, starting overnight on 13th August 1961 as Berliners slept. What began as a barbed wire barrier and the closure of all but 13 of the 81 established crossing points between the Western and Soviet sectors, eventually developed into not one but two concrete walls separated by a corridor of no man’s land known as the ‘death strip’ with mines, raked sand to detect footprints, trip wire machine guns and armed East German guards in watch towers or patrolling on foot with dogs. By 1989, the Wall was lined with 302 watchtowers and more than 136 people had died trying to cross it.

An example of a section of the wall. What we call the Berlin Wall is on the left

Our little trio started our circumnavigation of West Berlin on the famous Glienicker Bridge in Potsdam in the middle of which spies were on a number of occasions exchanged in the dead of night.

Glienicker Bridge

Following a reassuringly well-marked ‘Mauerweg’ route, we soon passed Schloss Cecilienhof, host to the 1945 Potsdam Conference where the division of Berlin and Germany into occupied zones was decided. From there we hugged the shoreline of beautiful lakes, passing the Sacrower Heilandskirche, the church stranded in the controlled border strip and cut off from its congregation.

Heilandskirche, Sacrow, 1961

Heading north, we reached Alexander House, whose history became the subject of the acclaimed book by Thomas Harding, The House by the Lake, and is now a place of education and reconciliation.

Alexander House: The House by the Lake

Staying in different hotels en route at intervals of roughly 30 miles enabled us to gain a sense of the scale of the wall and the extraordinary episode in history that only ended a little over 30 years ago. Sections of the concrete boundary, a double cobbled stripe embedded into the pavement or road surface, information boards with photographs and explanations all punctuated our journey.

Most moving were the memorials telling heartbreaking stories of failed escapes, largely by young twenty-something-year-old men. With the same unflinching honesty for which all German WW2 or Holocaust-related museums and memorials have come to be known, these allowed us to feel the individual human cost of an ideology based on fear and a necessity to keep people in rather than keeping undesirables out, as the East’s ‘Anti-Fascist Wall’ name misleadingly proclaimed.

Continuing along canals and suburbs, we crossed the ‘Bösebrücke,’ the ‘Bad Bridge’ or Bornholm Bridge that made history on the evening of 9th November 1989 through the jubilant scenes of East Germans flooding across to be greeted by their Western “brothers and sisters” with sparkling wine, cheers and hugs while bemused Eastern border guards watched on helplessly. Unlike my former visits to Berlin while researching for my book, it was this joyous energy of liberation that primarily accompanied me on this trip and allowed me to experience the incredible resilience of Berlin’s inhabitants, past and present, and the revival of its worldwide status as a brilliantly creative, thriving city.

The Bornholm Bridge today and 1989 (pictured)

On we cycled, heading south through the beautifully curated but frequently harrowing Mauerpark (Wall Park) that leads into the Bernauer Strasse from which many of the well-known pictures of people jumping out of house windows into tautly held blankets in the West were taken. It was also the street under which various escape tunnels were dug similar to that shown in the 1962 documentary, The Tunnel and including the ‘Tunnel 29’ of the brilliant podcast and book with the same name.

An extended section of the wall and border strip have been preserved as a chilling testimony to its once terrifying presence.

Bernauer Strasse

The Wall then continues through Berlin Mitte past some of Berlin’s most famous landmarks: the Reichstag, the Brandenberg Gates, Under den Linden and the Tiergarten, past Potsdamer Platz and Check Point Charlie and along the boundary of what is now one of Berlin’s most chilling museums – the Topography of Terror – but what once was the location of many of the most sinister ministries of the Nazi regime. Then through graffiti-covered Kreuzberg, over the River Spree and to the longest surviving stretch of the inner wall painted in 1991 by painters from all over the world to form the colourful East Side Gallery.

Eastside Gallery: ‘My God. Help me to survive this deadly love.” From a press photograph of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker painted by by Dmitri Vrubel.

The final 40 miles or so along the southern strip of the wall’s course back to Potsdam was largely rural. A sense of peace replaces the former horror of all that the border came to represent. Long stretches of open fields, avenues of birch trees and an alley of 800 ornamental cherry trees donated by Japanese citizens and a TV station in 1995 “out of joy over the reunification of Germany.”

Finally, the three of us arrived back on the Glienicker Bridge from which we had begun our trip, each a little changed, each with a greater knowledge and understanding of German history and our German roots. Each with different emotional responses but a shared sense of the ultimate triumph of humanity and freedom over inhumane systems of repression.

Back on Glienicker Bridge

Upcoming Events relating to my book – In My Grandfather’s Shadow:

Friday 7th October, 7pm. Ebeneza Presents, Somerset: In My Grandfather’s Shadow. More information and tickets here

Sunday 9th October, 4pm. Cuckfield Book Festival: I will be in conversation with Julia Boyd, the best-selling author of Travellers in the Third Reich and A Village in the Third Reich.
More information and tickets here

Wednesday 12th October, 4pm. Mere Literary Festival: In Conversation with Jo Hall. More information and tickets here

Sunday 3rd November, 8.30pm. Stroud Book Festival: In Conversation with Alice Jolly, novelist, playwright and memoirist. More information and tickets here

We love commemorating our victories and losses… but not our declarations of war it seems?

Could it be that even the British have become weary of commemorating the World Wars? Or was the lack of fanfare around the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War earlier this month down to having a selective national memory? Do we only like to remember the bits where we emerge as clear heroes, victors or victims?

To my surprise, nothing, or very little, happened in this country on 3rd September 2019. Yet, at 11.15am on that day in 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in a somber broadcast to the nation made from the Cabinet room in 10 Downing Street, announced with regret that his efforts to ensure peace had failed and that “this country is at war with Germany.” The ensuing conflict lasted six years and cost around 50 million lives.

For Poland this anniversary was obviously a huge deal. Germany’s invasion was the catalyst for Britain’s and France’s declaration of war and few places suffered the same level of death and destruction between 1939 and 1945. It lost about a fifth – that’s six million – of its population including the vast majority of its three million Jewish citizens. Wielun, the first city to be bombarded by the Luftwaffe, was the chosen location for forty world leaders and representatives of other countries to gather together for a dawn ceremony on Sunday 1st September at 4am (2am GMT). Polish President Andrzej Duda, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, US Vice President Mike Pence were all present. (President Trump cancelled citing the approach of Hurricane Dorian as his reason for basically spending the day on the golf course.) President Putin wasn’t invited. But, why wasn’t our Prime Minister there? I think we sent our Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, to a subsequent ceremony in Warsaw but…? 

Surely a bit more than just a nod to our role in the unfolding of the most momentous episode in modern history would have been appropriate? Maybe a moment where we press pause on all justifications and humbly reflect on the regrettable escalation of the horrors that our declaration of war unleashed? Or a clearly stated renewed commitment to peace in Europe? Or an informed and respectful acknowledgment of the far greater losses suffered by so many other nations? I recently asked friends how many people they thought died in WW2. “Seven million Soviets? Two million Germans? Two million British?” they guessed. “Actually we have no idea,” they admitted. And they didn’t. Most British people don’t. It was between 20 and 27 million Soviets, 7 million Germans and 450,000 British… that’s including Crown Colonies.

To be fair, Boris Johnson, in a videoed speech that circulated on Twitter, praised the “dogged and unconquerable resistance” Poland displayed during the Second World War and how it “never succumbed to tyranny…” But he also couldn’t help slipping in a quick pat on the UK’s back for standing with Poland “in times of triumph and tragedy.” Hmmmh, you just have to listen to Neil Macgregor’s excellent series on Radio 4 As others see us to realise that this is not quite how Poland sees things. Part of their otherwise generally positive national memory of us is of ‘betrayal’, not once but three times! (This relates to the Katyn massacre, ignoring the plight of Polish Jews and Britain’s role at the Yalta Conference in 1945 when it was decided that Poland would be given to the Soviets.

British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, just rolled out the same old tired stuff about Britain going to war to “defend our values and our allies from the Nazis”. (Defending ones values and friends is how all sides justify conflict, however small or large.) He added, “Even though nearly every family in the UK still possessed the memories and hurt of the First World War, they were prepared again to make the ultimate sacrifice. The incredible courage of that generation who fought for our freedom must never be forgotten.” Aaaagh, they just can’t help themselves, these men! It is always all about usOur heroism, our sacrifice, our justified defence. Wouldn’t this have been the perfect time to engage with Polish history? The imbalance between what we know about others and what others know about us is embarrassing. Our narrative that “We went to war for Poland” is, for example, in Polish minds “We declared war for Poland” because the much hoped for military support didn’t actually follow. We really need to start embracing a wider-angled view of history! (This podcast is a great start)

For me it was once again the German contribution that lit a way forward for us all. Speaking with typical unreserved apologetic candour, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier described how “Eighty years ago, at this very moment, all hell rained down on Wielun, fueled by German racist barbarity and the desire to annihilate… My country unleashed a horrific war that would cost more than 50 million people – among them millions of Polish citizens – their lives. This war was a German crime… I, along with [Merkel], want to tell all Poles today that we will not forget. We will not forget the wounds that Germans inflicted on Poland. We will not forget the suffering of Polish families and nor will we forget the courage of their resistance.” He then went on, with a bowed head and speaking in both German and Polish, to ask for Polish forgiveness. “I bow my head before the victims of the attack on Wielun. I bow my head before the Polish victims of Germany’s tyranny. And I ask for your forgiveness.”  

Wow! I know, this is not new. Germany has been publicly apologising for years, starting back in 1970 with Willy Brandt’s silent ‘Kniefall‘. Nevertheless, can we just pause and reflect a moment. The president of a powerful country holding up his hands in surrender and basically saying: “What we did was shit. We were shits. There are no words to describe just how shit we were and nothing can ever change that.” Just imagine how difficult that is to do. And how different the world would be if more people did that. The power of apology. The power of asking for forgiveness. (Whether it is possible to ask for forgiveness on behalf of another / others is debatable as Bernard Schlink does so well in his book ‘Guilt about the past’. But still…)

I’m glad that in a return speech, President Duda thanked Steinmeier for his presence at the painful anniversary before continuing to rightly denounce Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland as “an act of barbarity” and list other massacres and atrocities on Polish soil. He also drew attention to the genocide and mass murder continuing around the world today, and underlined the importance of international alliances like NATO and the European Union. (The question of further compensation was also raised later on… but you can read a fuller summary of the speeches here.) The pain still lingering between these countries that were so utterly destroyed on so many levels is visceral. As is the will for lasting reconciliation.

As much as I am frustrated and disappointed by our on-going and often unimaginative, inward-looking and lop-sided to the point of ignorant rhetoric on the World Wars, I am also optimistic. Younger generations are asking awkward questions that force a re-evaluation of the dusty, airbrushed pictures of our ‘glorious’ Empire. And the answers they are finding are uncomfortable. Maybe when we stop hiding our misdeeds behind the undisputedly ghastly deeds of the Nazis and the Holocaust and finally acknowledge our own national shadow, when we admit that the whole British Empire was based on the genocide of indigenous people and a forcing of our values on others, maybe then we can be genuinely better in the present and the future. 

Further reading:

https://www.dw.com/en/german-president-asks-for-polish-forgiveness-on-wwii-anniversary/a-50247207

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/09/01/german-president-asks-forgiveness-80th-anniversary-start-second/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_em

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/30/truth-is-a-casualty-80-years-after-start-of-second-world-war

‘Shot’ for what you represent

I had a funny experience the other day… not sure if I mean funny-ha-ha or funny as in quite strange. Or maybe it simply made something visible that usually remains disguised or hidden.

I had just arrived at the theatre where I was due to give my talk on German WW2 counter memorials. The woman, who had booked me on the recommendation of several other art societies, greeted me warmly, bought us each a coffee and sat down opposite me in the café.

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Light at the end of the tunnel…

Yesterday I wrote two words that I have frequently thought I would never get to write: THE END. Of course it is not The End by any stretch, but nonetheless this week, for the very first time, I caught sight of a teeny-weeny light at the end of the tunnel; just enough to be able to acknowledge its reality, in writing. I am talking about my book; the book that I have been writing for the past three years and researching for well over ten.

To be honest, I have never known a task so challenging. The idea arose out of my talks to schools and Arts Societies all over the country in which I present the Second World War and its aftermath “through the eyes of an ordinary German family”; my family to be precise. “I had no idea,” is the usual, unanimous response. And here in Britain, we actually don’t. So when audience members started asking me with such regularity “Have you written a book?” or told me in no uncertain terms “You must write a book”, I decided to seize the gauntlet. I’ll just stretch the contents of the talks, I thought naively.

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Unconditional obedience or conscientious disobedience? Which should it be for a soldier?

Interesting things are happening in Germany in relation to the army. Did you know that in early 2020 the British will close the last British garrisons in Germany and all units will be transferred to the UK? Some training areas will remain in British hands, but this will be the end of an era – more than 70 years, to be precise, of British presence in Germany since the end of the Second World War. I have to admit I had no idea that we were still there.

But that isn’t the only way in which, on a military level, things are changing. Just on Wednesday the German Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, signed a new “Traditionserlass” at an army barracks in Hannover. An almost impossible word to translate, it is a form of proclamation, or edict, defining the traditions that a soldier in Germany’s Bundeswehr (federal armed forces) can refer to, and which they cannot.

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Brötchen and Brexit

Just back from a trip to visit family and friends in Hamburg and Cologne. Whenever I am in Germany, I find myself indulging in the familiar, yet distinctly different, smells and tastes of fresh brötchen and good coffee; my body relaxes into the warmth of the modern apartments while my mind clicks into a different gear, re-structuring sentences and dusting down long-unused words and concepts that don’t exist in English. It’s a funny kind of home-coming feeling, away from home.

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I was, of course, asked about Brexit. It has dwindled in significance since the German elections, for Angela Merkel’s ensuing demise has given Germany a headache of its own. It felt strange being in a Germany that is punishing her for her open-arm policy to refugees. ‘Mutti’ has, after all, been such a solid rock and island of hope to us all in the choppy European waters. Nonetheless, the people I met – from bank managers to former colleagues and elderly relatives – all wondered how Brexit was going to work. “I don’t know, I can’t see it yet,” I’d say, trying not to be disloyal to the choices made by the ‘British people’. “The country is very divided on almost every issue involved,” I’d continue, and then change the subject. The impending split always pushes me into a bit of a national vacuum.

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