Berlin Wall Falls!

“Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?”

It is hard to believe that jewel of the Northwest was ever ridiculed in such a manner but in the 1960’s it was a one industry town and Boeing (yes, that Boeing) was on the skids. People were leaving Seattle for greener pastures. People will always move toward opportunity however they define it.

Then Bill Gates moved Microsoft close by and the term ‘Californication’ was coined as Californians migrated north and snapped up beautiful homes for a fraction of what they sold theirs for back south. Berlin, Germany was another city in the ‘60’s that struggled with an outward migration.

After WWII, Berlin was in the curious state of having been partitioned by the victorious allies who were not so allied anymore. Berlin was situated in what had become East Germany but was divided among the U.S., English, French and Soviet Russian forces. Thousands of citizens would go about their daily routines and cross at various checkpoints. But thousands who left East Berlin (controlled by the Communistic Russians) in the morning would not return at night. About this time, the term ‘braindrain’ was coined.

This was troubling to the powers controlling East Berlin. A worker’s paradise was being created and the best and brightest were leaving, sometimes with only what they could carry. Each day the man in charge would get up and before his cornflakes were soggy would lose a thousand more of his citizens to the West. It is enough to make a dictator testy.

Of course, this was embarrassing to the authorities. People were expected to flock into East Germany, not out of it. But there you are. Many things were tried to stem the flow but with no good results. In fact their tactics of intimidation only made matters worse and were a PR disaster. Mass arrests and shootings by the police tend to get misconstrued by the hoi polloi.

Finally, one morning all of Berlin (and the world) awoke to find a crude wall had been erected completely surrounding the city of West Berlin. This was unprecedented. Usually in history, walls were erected to keep people out; i.e. castles, forts, etc. China built the Great Wall of China to keep the Mongol hordes at bay, not to keep the Chinese from escaping to Mongolia.
When it happened, the world was outraged. No one ever expected it to fall. The Communists held their territory and people in an iron grip. Winston Churchill spoke of this as an ‘iron curtain across Europe’. And now we are celebrating 25 years since it was torn down.

Up to then, walls built to keep people in were associated with prisons. The Communists wanted to avoid that particular connection and so it was explained, with a straight face, that the wall was built to keep fascistic influences from polluting the worker’s paradise.

It was easy in those days to blame the fascists for almost everything as they had just lost WWII, were universally hated and deserved to be. But no one really believed the wall was built to keep the fascists out as most of the surviving fascists had magically transformed into Communists. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…

The irony which escaped no one was that while the East German police claimed to be protecting their city, the ‘infiltrators’ coming into East Berlin were all shot in the back as they climbed the wall to escape.
One of the great Cold War novels, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” is centered on East Berlin and the Wall and is deliciously cynical about that time and place.

In a side light, the fascists got their name from an odd weapon made up of an ax like blade protruding from a bundle of sticks bound together, a ‘fascio’. The old silver Mercury dimes in the U.S. carry an image of one for reasons I’ve never understood. That design disappeared when FDR’s image replaced Mercury on the dime, which I do understand. FDR may have been many things but he was no Fascist.

I remember seeing a movie then, now long forgotten, called “the Seventh Question”. It was made in Germany and released with subtitles about a German boy, Hans, about ten, living in East Berlin at the time the Communists took over.

One day in school his teacher hands out a questionnaire and instructs the students to take it home and complete it with their parents. The seventh question on this document inquires about each family’s religious affiliation and activities with any churches or religious organization.

Hans realizes, having just survived the Nazi scourge that a regime which puts the state first and the individual last could only want to know this information for purposes of control. The boy struggles whether to show his parents the questionnaire. His father is an official at the local church. Hans doesn’t want his father to get into trouble.

Events put Hans in a position where he must act. He crosses from East to West and doesn’t look back.

People move toward opportunity.

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