Flying Leaps, 30 Years Later

I never imagined that the US would use the Stasi playbook as the template for its own state sponsored surveillance regime and turning not only its own citizens into virtual persons of interest, but also millions of citizens in the rest of the world.

– NSA Whistleblower Thomas Drake, testifying before the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on September 30, 2013.

The fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989 is, for many, one of those historical moments that you say of, later, “I know where I was when I heard the news.” Well, I was in Boston – but the sweet mellifluous significance of the news never quite permeated the membrane of my consciousness; or maybe I just didn’t care. I vaguely remember it was early evening; Tom Brokaw beaming, his eyes all souped-up on scoop juice, and wild celebrations outside Brandenburg Gate, spontaneously jubilant dancers atop the graffiti-sprayed Wall. Totally unexpected event (because, in fact, it was accidental).

Like most Americans, I didn’t give much thought to Europe or Germany or any other place beyond the rather parochial limits of my immediate needs and desires. My marriage and finances were in freefall. And I’d quit my post at a daily newspaper (which I loved) over a salary dispute, and was now a newly trained claims representative for the Social Security Administration (which I detested). I was down, baby.

But many Americans were also down, still struggling to recover from the economic damage of 1987, the record fall of the Wall Street stocks on Black Monday, thanks to the likes of true-life Gordon Geckos and their “Greed Is Good” meme, so deftly deconstructed in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street that same year.

In Boston, as elsewhere, within a couple of weeks of the Wall’s rapturous rupture, keychains with tiny chunks went on sale in the Downstairs basement of the Upstairs department store, Filene’s. Triumphalism had set in. When the Wall began to be disassembled in earnest a few months later, the corporates and statesmen stepped forward to get a big taste of the mortar pie.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates put up a huge slab of graffiti-sprayed wall in his art museum. GHW Bush got gifted a large sculpture of several wild horses running from a slab of Wall, supposedly depicting the spirit of humanity, but it could easily have been figures of unbridled capitalism loosed, or, hell, the horses of the Apocalypse, if there is even any difference. That seemed reason enough to forget the whole thing right there.

The general assumption was that the Wall had fallen that night due to the triumphant pincer movements of democracy and capitalism against the socialist bladder, resulting in a pressure build-up at various checkpoints until finally there came that breaking point where a disembodied voice seemed to cry out: osmosis, come to take you to the promised land. And people flooded free in high arched bourées and leapt in grand jetes toward the new Valhalla, neo-Nibelungen winking and nodding and waiting for them at desks on the other side, holding out credit applications for usurious fool’s gold. Herr Lurch shuddered to think. He’d seen this prostate problem before.

Though I spent much of my late teens and early 20s submersed in German lit, classical music, and philosophy, my wall of ignorance was high regarding her larger historical roots and culture. Then many years later, after lots of travel and extended ventures to the Middle East, Asia and Europe, I settled in Melbourne, Australia to raise a family and began freelancing part-time, including regular contributions to the Prague Post.

One day in the summer of 1998, I saw in the local paper a picture of Conrad Schumann and did a double-take. I’d seen it a long time before in childhood and instantly recognized it. I wrote in the Post:

“The photo captures a deserting 19-year-old East German soldier, Conrad Schumann, as he hurtles over a coil of barbed wire, discards a machine gun in mid-air, and virtually leaps from the frame out of East Berlin and into the viewer’s world of assumed freedoms. The 1961 photo quickly became a Cold War icon for the democratic world and made its way into U.S. classrooms — always cited as a self-evident expression of the human desire for freedom at all costs. And now, here was the photo again, published as a memento mori following Conrad Schumann’s apparent suicide by hanging at his home in Bavaria on June 20. This time his leap was into the abyss.”

Of course, I was saddened by the news of his demise, saddened not so much in a personal way, for I did not know Schumann, but by the death of a symbol. It was like the disillusionment of discovering a false memory. I tried to speculate on scant information about the whys and wherefores of his suicide – “Had it suddenly dawned on him that his dash to freedom had merely taken him from one bleak Orwellian world into another, wherein he found it impossible to tell, in the end, the difference between totalitarian brutes and democratic humanists?” – a futile pursuit.

What I’ve discovered is that to get a better understanding of Schumann and his motives – for fleeing and, later, for dying – you have to first go through Walter Ulbricht, the head of the East German government from 1960-71 and the principal “architect” of the Berlin Wall. Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961 (2011) proved to be a revealing primer. Ulbricht was a dummkopf to many, had a squeaky, high pitched voice, like a German Willy Whistle, and listeners were said to do double-takes when he gave speeches, turning to each other to huff, “Sag was?”

He’d had his scrapes with Nazis in the pre-war years, maybe killed a couple, before finding himself exiled in Prague in the ’30s, and, in 1968, showed his gratitude for the Bohemian hospitality by applauding vigorously when the Soviets rolled in tanks to crush the Prague Spring. Ulbricht, the “idiot,” had helped bring about the mass exodus to the west with his industrialization policies that neglected consumers and left them jealous of their Western compatriots.

Nevertheless, for most of the post-war years leading up to 1961, East Germans had relative freedom to travel abroad to Hungary, which had fewer restrictions, and locally were able to hop on a train and commute to West Berlin without much worry. The economy was bad, but probably no worse than many of the countries suffering under austerity measures today.

However, under Ulbricht’s too-long leadership, East Germans lost hope and were more and more drawn by the allure of the strong and ever-growing West German economy. According to Kempe, in the 1950s up to 60 percent of the 1.2 million Germans who “escaped” to the West did so by simply traveling to West Berlin, where they were protected by Allied occupying forces.

By 1961 that figure had risen to 90 percent and a panicky Ulbricht, whose “scientific” economics were as popular and workable as the practice of eugenics on angels, decided the best thing to do was turn East Berlin into a concentration camp. Attack dogs were ordered, searchlight towers were erected, guards were given shoot-to-kill orders, and, eerily, though East German trains still ran through West Berlin, they no longer stopped and the line was filled with ghost stations.

But in August 1961, just as they began rolling out the barbed wire and unloading the mortar blocks in preparation for the Wall construction, there stood Conrad Schumann at the border, West Berliners just yards away urging him to leap before it was too late, and so, impulsively, he leapt. (An excellent account of this moment and others in Schumann’s life can be found here.). Schumann missed out on witnessing possibly the most dangerous moment in civilization’s fragile history — one more fraught than even the Cuban Missile Crisis to come a year later— the confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie.

The atmosphere is captured brilliantly by Frederick Kempe. He writes that American General Lucius Clay, who had overseen the Berlin airlift of 1948-49 and was now assigned a command position in the city, was determined to knock down the newly formed walls with tanks. Kempe writes:

“Undaunted by the damp, dangerous night, Berliners gathered on the narrow side streets opening up onto Checkpoint Charlie. The next morning’s newspapers would estimate their numbers at about five hundred, a considerable crowd considering that they might have been witnesses to the first shots of a thermonuclear war. After six days of escalating tensions, American M48 Patton and Soviet T-54 tanks were facing off just a stone’s throw from one another–ten on each side, with roughly two dozen more in nearby reserve.

Reuters correspondent Adam Kellett-Long, who rushed to Checkpoint Charlie to file the first report on the showdown, worried as he monitored an anxious African American soldier manning the machine gun atop one of the tanks. “If his hand shook any harder, I feared his gun would go off and he would have started World War III,” Kellett-Long thought to himself.

After the Wall went up tensions remained ratcheted up for decades.

Depending on who you want to believe, life in East Berlin became much like that represented in the film, The Lives of Others, tightly controlled movements, suppressed expression, and all-pervasive, privacy-eroding surveillance. As one early scene in the film suggests, the communist overseers (eavesdroppers), actually felt a sense of ideological betrayal at the mass exodus of citizens to the West and their failure to understand the essential humanity embedded in their totalitarianism. Naturally, in the post-Assange/Snowden era, there are some valuable lessons to be gleaned from this quality film.

But maybe it wasn’t any drearier than other places you might have been in America. Drive quickly through the heart of Erie, Pennsylvania some time, if you want a special taste of urban blight, or, if sadistic governance is your cup of TNT, check out Flint, where water supplies have squeezed for years, and gentrification has broken-hearted humans fleeing from their homes like a stampede of bewildered beasts.

Another alternative view of East Berlin in the years of the Wall was posted at the CounterPunch at the time: In “The Berlin Wall: Another Cold War Myth,” William Blum suggests an extraordinarily high degree of Western economic espionage in East Germany, as spies and saboteurs exploited the free-flow of traffic between the two Berlins. Blum writes that East Germany was entirely de-Nazified, as you’d expect from staunch communists led by Ulbricht.

On the other hand, “in West Germany for more than a decade after the war, the highest government positions in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches contained numerous former and ‘former’ Nazis.” Blum sagely cites the post-unification proverb: “Everything the Communists said about Communism was a lie, but everything they said about capitalism turned out to be the truth.”

The lip-doodling debate over what really brought down the Wall continues, of course. Some say it was the work of Reagan – all that tough talk he remembered from his wartime training film days paying off (or maybe he was bequeathing to Bush one of his back-up October Surprises to make up for handing him that lethal ‘voodoo economics’ doll).

Others point to the ghoulish Hungarians, who flaunted their own free-access to the West, while enticing Easties to freedom picnics from whence they would scatter like deeply disturbed ants to safe houses in the West. Personally, I’m moved by the Bruce Springsteen Theory. The Boss and his E Street Band performed in Berlin in 1988, the first live concert there by a Western rock group, and while Bruce said he wasn’t there to preach politics, I doubt that there was a dry eye in the house when he sang “Hungry Heart” and a cover of Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.”

But in America, though there was a great sense of relief, public response to the Wall’s fall was rather restrained by comparison. Coming out of an era of industrial mergers, union-bashing, high unemployment and recession, most Americans did not see the correlation of the European events to their own lives.

Thus, in 1991, when Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, opened a speech on the Cold War’s demise with, “We won!” Americans accepted her words at face value, but there were no parades down Main Street, U.S.A. For many, capitalism during the Cold War era, had not made America “a kinder, gentler” place.

They did not hear her simple exclamation for what it was – the starting pistol at a gold rush for industrialists, who saw the Wall’s fall as a symbol of capitalism’s moral rectitude and a mandate for gleeful expansion. A generation ;ater, it’s still an expansion intent on accomplishing what Ghengis Khan couldn’t: reaching, breaching, and crumbling the Great Wall into keychains for the Western masses, while the corporates and NGOs haul away their neo-structuralist art installations to discuss at loud soirees, all spiced up with Übermensch™ cologne.

Somewhere along the line from 1989 to the present, American Democracy was executed gangland style, a point blank double-tap to the back of Lady Liberty’s head. In his memoir, Permanent Record, self-described Deep Stater Edward Snowden describes where we’re at now, “…everyone’s information was being collected, which was tantamount to a government threat: If you ever get out of line, we’ll use your private life against you.” In short, Stasi on steroids. Dystopian psychotronic nightmare stuff.

Self-proclaimed little demi-gods you can’t help telling to go take a flying leap.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.