Mary Dejevsky: Remember the Berlin Wall – and not only how it fell

For decades there will be those who live in fear of a knock at the door

Tuesday 03 November 2009 01:00

This time next week Berlin will be suffering a hangover second only to the one that followed the collapse of the Wall 20 years ago. Even though a whole generation has now grown up across Europe with no first-hand memory of the dismembered city and the divided country that surrounded it, the scenes from 9 November, 1989, are lived and relived as the defining images of the end of the Cold War.

It is not just that this was one of the first events to be broadcast worldwide, in the earliest days of live 24-hour television, from anywhere – although it was. It was the sheer, undiluted ecstasy of the occasion. The Berlin Wall was demolished euphorically, spontaneously, almost by accident. A barrier that had taken years to build was torn down in hours with pick-axes brought from home, and bare hands. And the spell was broken that had kept 17 million Germans, and much of the eastern part of Europe, in thrall for almost half a century.

While there is no risk that the memory of this euphoric night will soon fade – especially not while the successive anniversaries of 1989 are still celebrated – the memory of the strange and cruel years that preceded it is vanishing all too fast. Not just in Germany, east and west, but right across what used to be called the Eastern bloc, the experience of repression and occupation is being consigned to an artistic world of fiction and film that is becoming unreal even to those who endured it.

Three years ago, the German film The Lives of Others came close to capturing the claustrophobia and paranoia of those years, while drawing criticism for the narrowness of the social milieu it depicted. A year later, the Romanian film 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days drew in harrowing detail a small picture of Ceausescu's Romania, through the experience of a student seeking a banned abortion. And last year Andrzej Wajda's epic, Katyn, exposed what happens when a country is forced by the dominating power to live a lie, and how that lie determines everything.

Such portrayals of persecution, compromise and amoral accommodations, however, have been few and far between. And already they are giving way to a genre in which history is repeated as farce, without passing first through tragedy. Tales from the Golden Age, which has just gone on general release in the UK, is one such, exposing the absurdities that flourished in Ceausescu's Romania in a succession of dramatised "myths" that could, equally well, have been true.

There is gravitas in the vignettes about honourable individuals who are turned by a perverse state into criminals, the fiction that masquerades as truth, and the corruption which so penetrates society that honour ceases to be an absolute and is measured by degrees. But an audience without the experience or knowledge to appreciate that real people were driven by threats, vindictiveness and fear to behave in such debasing ways, has no reason to treat the absurdity they see on screen as the national catastrophe it actually was, rather than the comedy it appears now.

No one would condemn those who suffered in the myriad ways perfected by totalitarian regimes for wanting to forget the reality of their past so soon. After the Berlin Wall fell, they had a lot of life to make up: family life, professional life, intellectual life. Why should they root around in this demeaning and perhaps shaming time? Why should they impose on their children a burden of fear they need never know?

And the transformed climate in which the children born after 1989 in East and Central Europe have grown up is too rarely remarked upon. Not only have they known nothing other than material plenty – shop shelves are full; fresh fruit and vegetables are available around the year; parents do not need to spend a small fortune at private markets to ensure their children are properly nourished – they have also grown up uninhibited by intrusive and malicious state scrutiny.

In some places, and for some people, old fears linger. For decades yet there will be those who are woken by nightmares about prison camps, who live in terror of a knock at the door, who are paralysed by a sharp word from anyone in authority. But they will be fewer and fewer. The fall of the Wall, and everything that followed, lifted the collective sense of fear literally overnight.

This was inspiring for all who lived through it and for the many millions more who watched it from afar. But it was mostly inspiring because, then, everyone well understood what had gone before. If repression is consigned to oblivion, or translated so soon into farce, the real human cost of those years will not be commemorated, as it should be, in future.

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