It took a miracle to like my country

Growing up in Germany in the 70’s and 80’s was a complex emotional experience. Once you learned about the Holocaust in your teens, your world suddenly darkened. Questions filled the dining room table inquiring about the family’s involvement in that dark period of time. Everyone above 40 looked suspicious. Silent bystander, collaborator or murderer. What else was there? Many people didn’t want to talk about the 30’s and 40’s. Only the ones that were part of the opposition talked. And some survivors. My math teacher who carried his own parents out of the death chamber into the ovens. The English teacher who fled to the United States when the synagogues burned. The majority just talked about the war. The Russians. The bombings. Starvation. Holocaust? Silence. “Those were different times.”


We had heroes who tried to change what Germany once was and start the process of working through history, not just denying it. Willy Brandt, German chancellor, visited the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1970. After laying down the wreath, Brandt, very surprisingly, knelt for long moments in silence. “Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fail them. In this way I commemorated millions of murdered people.” Authors, artists, intellectuals. These were brave exceptions, not the rule.

And we had this other Germany. Whenever I thought about East Germany, I envisioned Siberia. A cold place in black and white, people in long coats, waiting in line. Both of my parents had family in the eastern part of Germany but I grew up close to the Dutch border. Once a year my mother prepared weird holiday packages for her relatives: Oranges, lemons, kiwis, chocolate and some cookies. East Germany just felt like a strange, bizarre place. A few years before the wall fell, I visited Berlin for a few days. You had to drive on a transit road, only allowed to exit a official rest places. The snack shops were segregated: We had the typical Western brands, the East Germans had badly designed knock-offs. It felt like visiting an alien world. The restrooms were shared, littered with signs “No talking allowed.” Any conversation with an East German could lead to imprisonment. On a foggy Sunday morning, I visited the wall. The western side was littered with Graffiti, lame quotes and a lot of expletives. We were able to touch that monstrosity and adding our creations to the mix. You could step on a plateau and look over the wall. East Germans weren’t able to come close to the wall. In the distance, I could see some of them walking around, half a mile away. It felt like a safari, wild animals in the distance.

Unless you had close relatives in East Germany, you felt closer to any French, British or American citizen. We had the language in common but that was it. We felt bad for them but we felt bad for many things: Ethiopia, Zaire, anyone living close to Chernobyl, Nottingham Forrest and Chicago Cubs fans, you name it. And the wall was there to stay. Nobody, I mean nobody, believed the wall could ever come down. I was born when the wall was standing, I would die with the wall standing. We were okay with it. You don’t question gravity. It just is.

The day the wall came down

I was on a 6-week vacation, driving down the 101 in Los Angeles, listening to KROQ when the disk jockey interrupted the latest Nirvana song. People were dancing on the wall. I checked into the next hotel with CNN and barely left the room for the next few days. For the first time in my life, I wanted to be in Germany, not away from the country that filled me with mixed emotions. These strangers did something nobody ever thought possible: A soft revolution led by feet, not fists or weapons. Suddenly, the perception of Germans changed. We were known to be machines of efficiency. For good and evil. We were known to be hard workers. For good or evil. Now we were known for changing the world without any big speeches, people injured and shots fired.

We dismissed East Germans for so long and they were the ones that started the German healing process. They made us whole, they made us rethink who we are and they made us believe there was more to being German than feeling ashamed and guilty. When I returned to Germany 4 weeks after the wall came down, the country was changed forever. It wasn’t an easy process. West Germans felt superior, East German had an inferiority complex. Many of my friends, including me, voted against the reunification. We still felt closer to people in Sydney than in Leipzig. We were wrong. When you grew up with the wall, you can’t comprehend a life without the wall. The political leadership during that time was exceptional. Helmut Kohl single-handedly, supported by Gorbatchev, pushed through a reunified Germany against the objections of Mitterand, Thatcher and Bush. Based on my political views, giving Kohl credit feels like Tea Partiers lauding President Obama. Still, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong. He got this thing right and never wavered.

25 years later

Nothing is perfect. Inequality continues to be a problem between the two Germany’s. We continue to see extremist groups being present on the street and political system. The overall reality is positive. It gives you hope in humanity and change for good. And some glimmer of pride in a country that was willing and open to change for the better.

Ironically, if the Berlin Wall were still standing, which is to say if the Cold War were still raging, it is hard to imagine that there would have been, on the one hand, an Arab Spring or, on the other hand, a thriving al-Qaida. One superpower client or another would have nipped such movements in the bud, as often happened in the old days.

The collapse of the wall led to democracy for some and lawlessness or new forms of dictatorship for others. In other words, it shattered the amber in which history had, in many ways, been frozen for 44 years and freed the forces lying beneath — the sects, tribes, ideologies, and allegiances — to flow forth once more with unrestrained vigor, for better, worse, and both.

I don’t expect to experience such a political and personal miracle in my lifetime again. But I expect to see many more walls crumbling under the will and power of average people. North Korea, you’re next.

It took a miracle to like my country. Well done, Germany.