Monday, August 12, 2013

Revisiting History Two Decades Later....

Back during my school days, books for the academic year would be issued a few weeks prior to the school opening. You were expected to cover and label them during this period. School administrators in those days loved emulating Henry Ford, I think. Just as Mr. Henry decreed that his customers could have their Model T painted in any color as long as it was black, schools allowed book covers of any color as long as they were brown. Girls in class invariably drew beautiful patterns in blue ink to make the book look appealing. Boys being boys believed that applying sticker labels was appealing enough.

There were two subjects whose books I would completely finish reading even before the school year began. One was English. History was another. Flipping through historical events was an engaging exercise to magically go back in time and apply vivid imagination to people, places and things. Stories do that to you. Full Disclosure: two other subjects were hardly touched even after the school year ended - Math and Science {grin}.

Reading history in those days was also a structured opening of the mind. You knew much of Indian civilization, kingdoms, invaders, British colonialists and the Indian leaders of independence by Class 8. Class 9 exposed you to European history. And Class 10 - among other things - was about the World Wars, Iron Curtain, and 40 years of independent India.

But imagination had limits.

How do you relate to the Berlin Airlift at a time when internet was non-existent, TV was Doordarshan and the Encyclopedia Britannica way too expensive? The Berlin Airlift operation involved allied planes flying into Berlin to supply food and fuel when the Soviet Union blockaded land routes to Berlin. But then, how could the Soviet Union blockade ALL of Berlin?

And what was the deal about the Wall? The city was anyway divided between West Germany & East Germany. How did it matter that the East decided to formalise it by putting a wall around?

Why did 'Ich bin ein Berliner' by JFK and 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall' by Reagan elicit thunderous applause by the crowds? Why are they rated - even today - among the greatest speeches ever made?

The limitation of history is that it only tells what happened, thereby resulting in naive questions like above. To fully understand why, you sometimes have to go there.

My first view of the Wall was that it was not imposing. 12 feet in height, a benevolent looking curvature at the top and no spikes don't give you the shivers. Plus, the East Side Gallery - as this section is called - is today painted in vibrant color.



But answers begin to unravel when you pore deep - and look at old maps.

When the four victorious powers of WWII divided Germany into four administrative zones (each zone administered by a victor), Berlin was in the middle of the Soviet zone. Since Berlin was the historic capital, they also agreed to divide Berlin into four sectors with the Soviets guaranteeing permanent air routes into the city. As relations between the Soviets & the rest began to deteriorate, the Soviets blockaded all land supply routes into Berlin in order to force the other 3 powers to evacuate the city. The result was the Airlift using the previously agreed air routes that turned the view of the allies by the German public from 'occupiers' to 'saviors'.

Berlin's sectors continued to exist even after the formation of West & East Germany. It remained an undivided city with people from the east working in higher paying factories of the west and people from the west shopping in the east where goods were cheap. Heck, trains ran all around Berlin too.

Until 12 years later, when East Germany woke up to the fact that nearly 20% of its population had emigrated to the west via Berlin. And promptly put up the Wall and barbed wire around West Berlin, creating in effect a walled city of 100 miles. Families were separated, friends were split and a city population was sorrounded by an enemy.

That explains the emotion among teeming masses gathered to hear JFK & Reagan. When a nation and city united for long is suddenly separated by brutal regimes and artificial structures, expressions of solidarity swell emotion, evoke pride and make you work harder to reunite.

The remnants of the Wall today are a reminder that regimes that separate people and curb freedoms will one day ultimately fail. And a wake-up call to the rest of the world that there are other brutal regimes too.



Rohit Singh said...

My memory of Berlin wall is a little different. Long after the Berlin wall came down I was reading an article in the Reader's Digest about how a mother was separated from one of his daughters in the city of Berlin (the younger daughter being on the left and the elder daughter with her mother on the right). My father had a tough time tackling my questions related to the wall.

Thankfully the story had a happy ending. :)

Snigdha said...

Enjoyed reading every bit of your blog. Takes me back to googling more on this historic place...

Arun Kumar said...

Yes Rohit; we read about walls in abstract ways. But when you realise that families were separated for no fault of theirs and sometimes completely separated, you suddenly look at walls in new light. Apparently there were less than 10 border crossings around West Berlin; but they were reserved only for very rare movements....

Arun Kumar said...

You should. There is so much you can dig out. Got to give it to Berliners. They were resilient, resourceful and very very courageous. Ultimately they broke the wall.

And frankly, West Germany had fantastic political leaders who wanted the nation rebuilt to past glory. What you see in west Germany, Japan and South Korea today defies odds, ESP when you consider how impoverished they were in late 40s.

A lesson that India can well inculcate....