So I find myself in Göttingen* on the Day of German Unity (Tag der Deutschen Einheit). 3rd October is a national holiday, the 29th anniversary of German reunification. I didn’t realise this when I planned the trip: my knowledge of the historical unification of Germany in 1871 is probably more systematic than my grasp of reunification, experienced piecemeal, from afar, as an event in the news. But it’s an event that continues to fill me with wonder.
… that out of the Cold War, this could suddenly happen. Historians of geopolitics may debate what the Cold War was and whether it even existed. But it was certainly real to me, in a psychological sense, as I grew up in the 60s and 70s.
My memory doesn’t stretch back to the Cuban missile crisis, but my dad used to tell us of the football match he’d refereed, not knowing whether they would live to see the end of the match. In 1968 I watched the tanks in Prague with him, through the window of a TV shop in Barrow-in Furness.
This may sound melodramatic now, with the perspective of decades and the knowledge that, in Western Europe at least, nothing actually happened to justify the fears. But it seemed very real at the time.
Some of the memories are more specific to a divided Germany. My school’s German room had a cubby-hole of books, including one with graphic illustrations of what had happened to those who’d tried and failed to cross the Berlin wall, or the no-man’s land between East and West Germany.
This was the baggage I took with me on my trip to East Berlin in 1987**. (It’s one of the two experiences I regard as a true adventure, alongside walking across the top of the Miraflores lock on the Panama Canal …)
I was due to give a paper at the International Congress of Linguists, at the Humboldt University, but arrangements were complicated as we had a six-month old baby. So we all went – baby, husband, my parents – for a week’s holiday in the Harz mountains, driving past Göttingen on the way. At some point in the week, I was deposited in Helmstedt, which was then a border town, to take a train through a corridor of barbed wire for my brief trip to Berlin.
The train was for “Westerners” only, and from West Berlin I had to cross over into “the East”. I used the border checkpoint at Friedrichstraße station (not Checkpoint Charlie, which I never managed to find though I wandered around looking for it from the Eastern side after my talk, like a half-hearted tourist). My impressions of Friedrichstraße station are clouded by a kind of frozen dread. I’m not sure if there really were soldiers stationed on the metal gantries, with guns pointing down at us, but they’re definitely there in my memory.
At some point I must have presented my conference paper. What I remember best, however, is being in the loo before and after. I was still breast-feeding regularly, and had struggled to express enough milk to leave with husband and parents for a hungry baby. But I hadn’t expected the milk would keep on coming while I was away, leaving me with a sodden mess to clear up every few hours. Even more unexpected were the emotions that came with the milk, exacerbated by the thought that my baby was “on the other side of the iron curtain” …
I visited Berlin again in 2007, with the now-grown-up Ellie Knott, and tried to retrace my steps through the streets around the Humboldt University. The area was unrecognisable, though it was hard to tell how many of the changes were physical, given the transformation in circumstances. What that trip did help to do was connect the memories of the old, divided city with the reality of the now-reunified Germany.
But I’ve never lost my sense of wonder that reunification has happened. So I’ll raise a glass of Sekt to German Unity tonight in Göttingen.
(It may even help to drown my sorrows that my own country is intent on re-erecting borders, risking peace and destroying its unity with our European neighbours.)
* My reasons for being in Göttingen are too complicated to go into here. I’m at the stage of a new project where my thoughts are spinning off in many directions (including drawing inspiration from a picture in the bar I visited last night). I’m not sure whether it’s going to become anything definite or serious, or even what “it” is. Suffice to say I spent the last two days in the Murhardsche Library in Kassel, looking at the letters of Rebecka Dirichlet (the less famous sister of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn).
[The new project did become something serious and has dominated my life for the past two years, keeping me going through lock-down with transcription and translation of Rebecka’s wonderful letters. This is one of the reasons this blog has become quite sparse, but at some point the fruits of all this labour will be revealed!]
** I now realise that, only two months before I went to East Berlin, Ronald Reagan had made a speech in West Berlin asking Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall”. Whether I was aware of this at the time, I don’t know, but it doesn’t feature in my memories.