Sunday, 18 April 2010

A lesson from Berlin to take to Strasbourg

I spent a brillant spring day on Saturday strolling down from the hostel where I’ve been staying in the Prenzlauer district of the former East Berlin, gentrified but still diverse in ways that remind me of some of the parts of Brooklyn closest to Manhattan, into Berlin’s “Mitte” (downtown), past the Jewish cemetery and back through the Mauer Park where the Berlin Wall used to stand. In the Alexanderplatz, I spent several hours contemplating an excellent bilingual (German-English) open-air exhibition on the events that led up to the fall of the Wall 20 years ago.

By coincidence, my only previous visit to Germany was during just that exceptional week in November of 1989. But it came at the end of my first trip around the world, and I hadn’t followed the news from Europe closely that summer and fall while I was travelling in China, Pakistan, and India. (To the extent I noticed the news from outside Asia, I was distracted by the Boston and Bay Area baseball standings and then the Loma Prieta earthquake.) So this visit to Berlin was a good chance to learn more about those historic events and how they are remembered.

I have my differences with the ideologies both of those responsible for building the Wall and of those responsible for this particular official story of its history.

I also don’t want to fall into the trap of so many others — including notably a succession of American presidents — who have seen in the Berlin Wall and Germany’s division and reunification only what they wanted to see, and used it as a theatrical prop for their own messages.

Sometimes the value of travel is what it helps us to see about ourselves and our worldview. If you like, you can take this as a reflection on how I see the world, rather than about Berlin, Germany, or the Cold War.

All that said:

Last night over dinner I asked a native of East Germany — the great dividing midpoint in whose early adult life was the fall of the Wall that had divided the country and separated the members of her family — why people opposed the old regime in the DDR.

Unprompted, and not knowing the nature of my work, she began with the desire for freedom to travel, to move about and go where one pleases without having to ask permission of the state or anyone else.

Like most people I have talked with on this trip, she was shocked when I told her that the government of the USA has already put in place such a system for domestic flights in the USA and for international journeys by all means of public transport across US borders, under which common carriers must demand to inspect your papers, send your identifying information and reservation details to the government, and receive affirmative, individualized, per-person, per-flight permission from the Department of Homeland Security — based on a secret file about you including your lifetime travel history, and with a default of “No” if the government doesn’t answer — before they are allowed to let you on board.

How did the potential closing off of the Western “zones” of Berlin and all the borders of East Germany go unnoticed? As Berlin’s experience suggests, checkpoints can seem innocuous and routine if we are always allowed to pass — until the day when the barrier isn’t lifted at our approach, the sentry doesn’t wave us through the way we have come to expect, and the ID “check” has been converted into a barrier. Inherent in every checkpoint is the potential not merely of monitoring and inspection but of using that “check” as the basis of control of movement.

Today, the checkpoints are automated and invisible, but more pervasive, and their potential power to constrain our movements no less solid than the barbed wire and later concrete of the Wall. If all the automatic doors suddenly didn’t open when you approached, would you feel any less trapped than East Germans did on the day in 1961 when their daily commute to the other side of Berlin was suddenly blocked by the suspension of U-Bahn (elevated railway) service between sectors and the presence of tanks at the points of passage between the zones?

At what point, if any, before the barriers to our movement are set in concrete will they become real enough in our minds for us to recognize their threat? Yesterday, walking through the Mauer Park, where families and lovers were sunbathing, picnicking, cuddling on the grass, cycling, skating, and walking freely in what had been for decades the free-fire “dead zone” between the inner and outer walls, it was hard to imagine either that the Wall had ever been there or how quickly and easily it could be rebuilt in a new form if we acquiesce or simply aren’t vigilant.

It’s common to seek in the German example answers to the question, “How can can we learn from this, so that it will never happen again?” where “it” is the Holocaust. I doubt that we, or the world, have learned that lesson. But equally, the moves by the US and other governments to erect barriers to our movement — and the lack of a movement against them comparable to that which brought down the Wall — suggest that neither have we learned from the German example not to repeat the DDR government’s error of attempting to control people’s movements and transform ideological divisions into physical and geographic ones.

Never in my life have I been so certain as I was yesterday, and as I am today, that I am doing the right thing to oppose the creation of a network of new, virtual Berlin Walls, or the building of a new, invisible “Silicon Curtain” around and within the USA, the EU, and their allies in the “war on terror”, to replace the “Iron Curtain” between what called themselves the “friendly socialist countries” and those self-styled the “Free World”.

“You are now leaving the American sector.” But only if the American authorities allow you to do so.

I’m writing this at 250 km/hour (150 mph) on the Inter-City Express (ICE) train from Berlin to Strasbourg, where I’ll be meeting with members of the European Parliament regarding my testimony at the EP hearing earlier this month in Brussels. My European friends thought me odd to take the train: “Couldn’t you find a cheap flight?” In the event, they have been the ones scrambling to find space on other trains, as the airspace over most of northwestern Europe, including Germany, has been closed due to the cloud of fine, hard, abrasive particles (potentially devastating to aircraft engine turbine blades and bearings) drifting southeast from the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

I expected the train to be full this morning, but to my surprise, I have a six-person compartment to myself for most of the journey. Perhaps it’s because I’m in first class: Two weeks in advance, only full-fare second-class seats were still available to Strasbourg on the day the European Parliament and all its staff and camp followers arrive for their monthly plenary session. Discounted first class, which was still available on the German railway’s own mostly-multilingual Web site although unmentioned by Rail Europe or other foreign outlets, was only EUR30/USD50 more than second class for the seven-hour journey, which seemed worth it for the quiet and the greater space to spread out and work (although second class on these trains is more comfortable and spacious than first class on US domestic or short-haul international airlines).

More likely most of the empty seats on the train are in this car because I chose the “quiet zone” where cell phone calls are prohibited. (Even in the quiet car, there are power outlets at every seat, and there’s supposed to be onboard Wi-Fi Internet access although it isn’t working at the moment.) For Europeans even more than Americans, and especially for the business travellers who make up most of the first-class passengers, it’s unthinkable to be cut off from mobile phone calls for most of a day, even a Sunday. So the first-class quiet zone seats are the last to fill up.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 18 April 2010, 08:40 ( 8:40 AM)

I just found your blog, and I really like this post. That's amazing that you were in Berlin when the wall fell in 1989. Great insights about the travel industry, too. I look forward to reading more.

Posted by: Mary, 23 April 2010, 09:08 ( 9:08 AM)

This is a wonderful opinion. The things mentioned are great and need to be appreciated by everyone. Best Travel

Posted by: Best Travel, 4 May 2010, 14:04 ( 2:04 PM)

Great informative blog. Thanks for including the links.

Posted by: Natasha James, 10 January 2011, 09:19 ( 9:19 AM)
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