Some time ago I walked past the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin from the previously forbidding Eastern sector and back into the Western part of the city. It was a day of brilliant winter sunshine, with a clear blue sky and with the light bathing the Brandenburg Gate itself in a glow. Symbolically, it was the golden light of a hopeful future after the horrors of the past.
Berlin, so long the symbol of a divided Europe, was basking in the afterglow of a new freedom. The wall had come down, to prove to the world and to Eastern Europe that oppression and corruption in the end destroy themselves. Somehow, as I walked down that broad avenue from the Brandenburg Gate and past the impressive Russian war memorial with the breath of its immobile sentries vaporizing in the chilly air, there appeared to be a bright ray that was more than the sunshine. It was an almost tangible ray of hope.The visit was especially memorable for me because I had last been in the divided Berlin of 25 years ago as a young reporter from a Belfast newspaper. My purpose was to visit an Irish regiment stationed in Berlin, and I still recall patrolling the barbed wire border and crossing into the Eastern sector under the steely gaze of Russian soldiers and security police. That was at a time when the cold war was particularly chilling and when Berlin was a pawn in a dangerous tussle of wills between the superpowers.
Today all has changed. Checkpoint Charlie, that famously infamous border checkpoint, is now reduced to rubble, with the local Turkish minority making money by selling the unneeded headgear, uniforms, and insignia of East German soldiers and police. All over East Berlin, there are reminders of the failure of communism. There are half-finished buildings, some still-rutted roads, and bleak wall paintings depicting the glories of the "Workers' Revolution" which failed to work.
It would be tempting to suggest that German unification will provide a swift cure for such a long and unhappy separation. Economic recovery may be surprisingly swift, but inner healing will take some time. One year after the wall came down, the euphoria has all but evaporated. Berlin, still in the heartland of the old German Democratic Republic, is in the forefront where the birth pangs of unification are being felt.
Part of the reason for my visit was to assess the impact of unification on higher education in the city. My West Berlin University colleagues expected a rush of applications from the East, but the flow has been surprisingly moderate. The reasons are complicated, but this reluctance to move is both economic and psychological. In the East, university students had their lodging paid by government. Under unification, all students must find their own keep, and this is difficult for East Berliners in a city where accommodation is scarce, and therefore expensive.
Psychologically, the students from East Berlin are finding it difficult to cope with having to choose a university in the West, instead of being told what to do, and what to think. West Berliners are beginning to realize that the price of unification is not just financial but also philosophic - how will they come to terms in their capitalist society with people who, under communism, have been taught that the state would care for their needs?
Equally, East Berliners are beginning to discover that materialism has its own problems. For example, the rate of serious traffic accidents has soared in the East because the East Germans cannot control properly the new powerful cars they have brought in from the West. Kurt Masur, the internationally acclaimed musician and conductor who was part of the "quiet" revolution in the East, put the point well when he warned his fellow countrymen not to confuse affluence with freedom. Materialism can be as effective a straitjacket as socialism.
As I walked away from the Brandenburg Gate, pondering such matters, I realized - not for the first time - that you cannot remove barriers by simply dismantling a wall.
There is a physical obstruction at the heart of my own city, Belfast, where a "peace line" of corrugated metal and concrete has been erected in those areas where Catholics and Protestants feel that they need protection against attacks from "the other side." Some of these were the result of mob violence in the past, and today there is a danger of sporadic violence from one or other group of marauding gunmen who carry out swift and often deadly attacks and counterattacks on Protestants or Catholics.
For a Belfast writer visiting Berlin, there is a sense of joy about one wall coming down, and also a lingering sadness that another wall remains in Belfast to give its people a feeling of protection. The real barrier is in the minds of men and women, who still have to find the trust and goodness in each other which will make the Belfast wall as unnecessary as the rubble in Berlin. Yet, on a hopeful note, perhaps Berlin after its long winter of division can show the way to Belfast.
The quiet revolution which transformed Eastern Europe was a spiritual and moral revolution, and it achieved by peaceful means what violence could not have accomplished. Only a moral and spiritual revolution uniting hearts and minds in Belfast will be able to bring down the physical barriers of our wall. If the Germans have done it, who will say that the Irish cannot succeed?
As the Brandenburg Gate disappeared from my view in the dying rays of the sun, the light lingered on in my mind as my thoughts turned slowly to my own city. Perhaps someday a real wall of trust, warmth, and peace in Belfast will reduce our ugly "peace wall" to a junkheap, as surely as Checkpoint Charlie crumbled to dust.
1991, The Christian Science Monitor Publishing Society. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.