Germany has been united for well over 20 years, making its division into a communist east and capitalist west a fading memory for American history students. For me, this state of consciousness will be forever foreign. My father grew up in Berlin until he was 9 years old, with an assimilated German Jewish family that felt themselves to be Germans who happened to be Jewish. As a result, my father had a pride in being from Berlin that is comparable to the pride many feel at being from “the Big Apple.
For this reason, the Berlin Wall always captured my imagination. As an American kid growing up during the Cold War, images of every day East Germans risking their lives to escape East Germany’s “worker’s paradise” were seared into my imagination. Even during my teen years of infatuation with communism, the idea of turning a country into a giant prison offended my moral sense.
WFMU has an amazing web page for history buffs called ” A Short Audio-Visual History Of The GDR”. (German Democratic Republic) It is priceless for students of history who ask as I do “What did people on’ the other side’ hear on their radios and see on their televisions? What were they taught in school about the west?”
This web page answers a lot of those questions. It contains a downloadable song called “The 13th.” which is a gloating celebration of the “anti fascist protective wall” that is so reviled today. It has old East German auto commercials. A song called “The Party is Always Right” and another called “Stalin, Comrade, Friend” sung in German in 1949 round out the selection.
I am always interviewing people. I have spoken with people from Soviet Georgia who spoke with me of their love for Stalin. I have spoken with people who belonged to Hitler Youth. I have spoken with a Rwandan Tutsi about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. I have yet to speak to a Hutu Rwandan about this bloody chapter in Rwandan history, but I would welcome the opportunity.
History is not just what we learn in school. It is also what they learn in school. It is also what we have seen, and what other nameless citizens have each experienced in their times.When you walk in the streets of your city or town, you are walking through the corridors of history. In those aisles and in those halls, treat each “book” that you pass with respect. There is a unique story in each and every “rare edition”. Once you realise this, it will transform the way you see yourself as well.