A city divided.
In the early ‘60s, Berlin meant one thing to Dubliners, namely, Checkpoint Charlie; for it had been rebuilt in Smithfield market to film "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold", starring Richard Burton. So, visiting Berlin in 1989, I went to see the real Checkpoint Charlie, with real East German border guards. From the checkpoint, I walked along by the Berlin Wall, which was over twice my height and covered with colourful graffiti. It was a pleasant, sunny afternoon and so were my thoughts. I came to a bend in the Wall where Potsdamer Platz, once Europe’s busiest intersection, had been.
I climbed into the wooden stand overlooking the Wall. It was somewhat of a surprise to see that the other side held nothing but grass for 200m and then another wall without graffiti. Instead, there were observation towers every few hundred metres. Armed guards inside prevented anyone from crossing the grass. They were assisted by dogs, by steel bars bent to ankle height in the grass, and by mines. This grass was not as innocent as it looked.
I continued along the Wall, past the Brandenburg gate to the river Spree, whose closest bank was the actual border; so if someone fell or jumped in, they were fired on. This end was marked by seventeen small white wooden crosses, each remembering someone shot while swimming or escaping through the river. The stillness was broken by a sinister grey-green gunboat that surged past along the centre of the river.
The afternoon no longer seemed so sunny. I hurried back to the viewing stand and sat. The graffiti here were many and moving. One in particular struck me - “Where is our daughter Gretchen, disappeared 13/8/1961?”
I thought to myself, as I regarded the Wall – “I don't know if I believe in evil as a reality, but this is the closest I have ever been to a personal experience of evil”.
Imagine my astonishment when, some 12 months later, I revisited Checkpoint Charlie to find all the guards had left; when I retraced my steps to the Brandenburg gate past the ‘Potsdamer Platz’ bend without any trace of the Wall remaining; no guard towers; and finally, when I arrived at the seventeen small crosses, a pleasure boat carrying dozens of joyful people cruised down the centre of the river. My ‘experience of evil’ had completely vanished! Later, at midnight, East and West Germany were reunited.
What does it all mean now? Some say that our thoughts are powerful. How careful are we about how we use them? Do we choose fear? Or its opposite? Nostradamus, we admired for foretelling the future. But that was centuries ago. Have we progressed? Is it now time we valued, not observing the future, but choosing the future within ourselves?