Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
What happened in Europe in the late 1980s – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of communism in Poland, perestroika in the former Soviet Union as well as the collapse of a whole social and political system east of the Iron Curtain – had immense consequences not only of political and economic but also of very personal nature.
Suddenly your world was no longer there. All of a sudden, none of the rules you lived by or traditions you followed mattered. It was by all means a good and welcome change but also one which, as always, came at a price.
For those born in those lost countries, even today, it is quite painful to be confronted with often negative and disparaging comments about what life in Eastern Europe before 1989 must have been like. “Grey” is the word that is used a lot. “Sad and frightening” say many Westerns when asked. Occasionally these comments, also such which appeared on this blog, are outright hostile or even, sadly, offensive.
As someone who grew up in one of those “grey, sad and frightening” places, I tend to fire back. I want to remind people that those you might pity for being limited and enslaved still tended to live normal lives, that our basic need to feel safe, healthy and loved, to eat enough, sleep enough and be needed by others, still was – and is – pretty much universal. That people´s lives tend to be what they can make it and that it is something they will always strive to do. Even if the limitations are great and even if, from the outside, it might appear to be little that they achieve.
Seen from the safety of the Western world, East Europeans often appeared to have been imprisoned, limited and deprived: to go anywhere abroad you had to apply for your passport to be released from the state storage (you did not keep it at home) and as often as not, you got a “no” as an answer. It was not your decision to take. Just as in many cases you could hardly decide for yourself what job you would get or where you would work. But for most Poles, Czechs or East Germans, the life “within the prison walls” was just as normal as elsewhere. Not every suppressed citizen is a revolutionary at heart – you only notice the walls when you actively try to walk through them.
Not to speak too lightly of all the terror, difficulties, shortages and persecution that took place east of the Iron Curtain before 1989, it is also equally important to speak of the bright sides of everyday life of the Schmidts, the Kowalskis and the Havels. For many people around you this is the only life that they had. And I, for once, having been born too late to have experienced the true menace of the communism in Poland but early enough to have consciously lived through the poverty, the confusion and the cuts of the 1980s, now and then think that I would do anything to visit that lost country again. “Grey, sad and frightening” as it might have been, it was also home.
Here is a great BBC film about life in East Germany which provoked today´s post.