Two images have stuck in my mind from the very first day that the Berlin wall was brought down thirty years ago today. One is a never-ending line of the charming East German car called Trabant making their way slowly through Check Point Charlie – the only official passage to West Germany till then. It was like a festival. People singing, weeping, hugging each other – I was glued to the television with my family, some of whom had served in World War II.
The other image was closer. It was a handshake between Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and United States (US) President Ronald Reagan at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva. I stood there with journalists wondering what, yes, no, surely yes. Staking out in journalese. The two men came out and what followed was history in the making. Lights, cameras, action! The world would no longer be divided into the two blocs – one led by the Soviets and the other by the Allies. There had been uprisings in Hungary (which was already fairly independent compared to other countries in the Soviet bloc) and erstwhile Czechoslovakia and it had become more than apparent that Gorbachev could not quell another revolt in East Germany.
He could have rolled out the tanks. Instead, he shook hands to bring the wall down. I remember weeping because my links to Germany go back to even before my brother and I were born. I still believe Gorbachev is one of the most unsung leaders of the world and history will restore his place one day. It was believed that his brilliant wife Raisa was a strong supporter of his decision to bring the wall down.
For weeks after that, the map of Europe changed. Language changed, conversations changed. Eastern Europe, Western Europe, East Berlin, West Berlin all mingled with hope and a sense of suspicion wondering what next. Cold war language, NATO, troops strategic partnerships, Assad, Middle East, Non Aligned Movement (NAM), what is that, anchor paragraphs, what’s your lead, damn, I have white paper blindness, did they set a timeline, here’s my copy, give me your quote – these were some of my best moments in journalism. We were all competing with ourselves. The best journalists are the ones who play dumb. Trust me, it worked then as it works today.
The agencies had the first cut, stringers like me and other independent journalists formed groups and between us, we spoke many languages - from Finnish to Hindi to Japanese and Portuguese – such was the import of the story. Some of us had also cultivated our friends among the translators so as to not miss any nuance. This was not Google or social media journalism. This was the real stuff. Every word you wrote had to be correct. I had a portable typewriter, a luxury in those days. It was a gift from my brother when I became a journalist. It types in running handwriting, like yours, so I thought I’d get it for you he said. Christmas was around the corner. It felt like spring.
My parents had lived in Germany in the early fifties. My mother, all of 22, had travelled by boat from Bombay to Genoa (Italy) via Aden and then made her way to Recklinghausen in the Ruhr belt where my father worked. When my parents didn’t want us, children, to understand something they were discussing, they’d switch to German. Several decades later my brother worked in the same area. In the mid-seventies, when I was semi-backpacking around Europe, I accidentally found myself in a train station in East Berlin. Like a good Indian, I thought I’d get off at the last station and find my way to my brother’s flat. By the time the train reached the station, it had emptied itself and there were only three people in the platform including me. It still hadn’t occurred to me that the corridors the train was suddenly going through was in East Germany, I had to get off at West Berlin station and the train would continue to the other side called East Berlin.
The couple made their way out of the station. Two soldiers, an animated half English, half German conversation, two phone calls later and a cup of coffee later, I was put on another train and ordered to get off at the next station. Heil Hitler, I wanted to say but magically my mouth remained shut! That is one story for my grandchildren.
During those days, the only way to visit East Germany was through the famous Check Point, Charlie. There were heartbreaking stories of people trying to escape, being shot in the moats, being electrocuted at the barbed wires. My German host worked in the police. It wasn’t easy for him and his wife – in fact, it wasn’t easy for anyone in Germany, a people divided because of war, a country that was allowed to bleed because the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler wanted an empire. Fifty million people were dead, 22 million of them Russians.
I’ve visited Germany several times and the country continues to fascinate me. Perhaps because my parents spoke so much about how every German was contributing to building the war-torn country. My parents used to get a weekly allowance called kartofel gelt (potato money) with which they had to buy potatoes to encourage local agriculture. They were also given postage stamps to encourage the postal services. My mother, a writer in her own right, wrote a letter a day to Madras and made friends with everybody in the village as she was the only non-German, a tall and stunning woman in a sari. Since my parents were the only married couple in the village and my father loved to entertain people, it was parties every weekend with my mother making kartofel sambar, kartofel curry and yoghurt and rice for their German and Indian friends. When the wall fell, I was intermittently on the phone to my father giving him a running commentary.
I have visited Germany several times, once even invited by the government after the unification. In reunited Berlin, I walked up and down the beautiful Unter den Linden (under the limes) boulevard that touched all historic places, some of my parents visited, others not. On one trip, I travelled up and down the Rhine that continues to be used for transport. The story goes that arts and culture blossom along riverbanks, like the Cauvery belt. Magical stories of people who lived in harmony travelled from far bringing goodwill and good luck, breaking bread together. I visited the Cologne cathedral of which family albums had bombed pictures. It was now rebuilt. My father and I took a train from Geneva to Kiel when I was working on the HDW story. It took us through Germany right up to the northern edge. I could go on.
You cannot speak about reunification without Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the kind of l’homme d’etat they don’t make anymore. Overnight one East German Mark equalled one West German Mark, people tightened their belts and began the process of rebuilding their unification. Good things don’t come easy, neither do they come fast – that was the lesson the world got to learn from the country as it went about building itself industrially, politically and emotionally. Today some 80 million people are competing economically with China – let that sink in. A weakened Germany means a weakened Europe and you can already see signs of that in French President Emmanuel Macron’s concerns.
Germany is the only country in the world that has atoned and continues to atone for the extermination of over seven million Jews, homosexuals and gypsies. At a certain age, school children are required to visit a concentration camp to see what human beings can do to others. I have visited a few of them, trips arranged by the German government without any guides. In sharp contrast, the French continue to pretend that the Vichy government (Nazi collaborators) never existed and Austria even sent one of it’s Nazis Kurt Waldheim to head the United Nations (UN). He stepped down after it as his past was accidentally discovered.
When I hear experts on Indian television shouting day in and day out about the Holocaust and calling each other Nazis and Fascists, it is derision that comes to mind. People who have truly suffered don’t speak about it in much, perhaps similar ways to people who have truly done something in their lives are loath to talk about it. Words cannot capture these depths and heights.
For days before writing this piece, I kept asking myself how to write it. As a part of history with dates and people or as meetings and reunions around the world as it became clear that something big was going to happen between Washington and Moscow or as a Geneva-based reporter bringing diplomatic conversations and questions. I finally took a decision – this one is from the heart.
During one of my trips, one of my friends took me to a place from where we picked up a few pieces of the broken wall. Some reminders are important.