Singing peace songs at the Berlin Wall in 1988
We were a vaguely hippie-ish group of 20-somethings with a guitar and the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome.”
They were two camouflage-clad soldiers with guns in a jeep on the other side of a barbed wire fence, which bisected what had once been a road between East and West Germany.
In 1988, despite our bravado, we were pretty sure the East Germans held all the winning cards. They had the tanks, the guns, the watchtowers, the secret police. We had enthusiasm and naivete, cameras and liberal arts degrees.
So I was as stunned as the rest of the world when, 16 months later, the Wall came down.
A bit of back story: I was in West Germany for three weeks in July 1988 as part of an international group of volunteers at a peace centre in the village of Sievershausen. Most were Europeans, but there were also two Canadians, four Americans, a Brazilian and a Sri Lankan. (We North Americans joined the work camp through Volunteers for Peace, a Vermont-based organization that still places travellers in over 450 projects a year.)
By day, we did basic maintenance and repairs on the building, and helped put together posters and presentations on peace themes for school groups. We chatted with the centre’s German managers and volunteers, all conscientious objectors who came to the centre as an alternative to military service. At night, we socialized. (There might have been a lot of beer involved.) And on weekends we explored the area, either as a group or on our own.
One weekend, my fellow Canadian camper Tazim and I caught a lift to Berlin (through a ride-sharing program) with a West German woman and her young son. There was a bit of a language barrier between us, but we survived pretty well by miming until we got to the border between West and East Germany. In those days, you had to drive through East Germany along a tightly controlled highway for about 190 kilometres to reach Berlin from northern West Germany.
At the border crossing, soldiers gave our driver’s ID a fairly cursory glance, but they were much more skeptical about Tazim’s and my Canadian passports. In fact, they took them away to show some supervisor in a hut in the distance. When you’re 23 and far from home in a place where you don’t speak the language, watching two guys in fatigues walk away with your passports is kind of a big deal.
Our miming to our companion became more frantic, while her shrugged shoulders indicated she didn’t know what was going on, either. Fortunately, whatever scrutiny the soldiers gave our documents seemed to do the trick. We got our paperwork back and continued on our way.
In West Berlin, Tazim and I stayed in a youth hostel and marvelled at the non-stop energy of the city’s nightlife. We also stood soberly at the bombed-out remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and visited the Checkpoint Charlie museum to learn about the often-fatal attempts of East Germans to cross the border.
We crossed into East Berlin ourselves and spent a fascinating day photographing Trabants, noshing on cheap food and pointing out Second World War-era bullet holes in buildings. As we walked back into West Berlin, we were acutely aware of the freedom we had that most of the people we had met that day did not.
But back to our songfest at the wall. It’s a misnomer to say we were at the “Berlin” Wall, but I’m not sure what else to call it; it was a rural section of the great dividing line, in the middle of nowhere. We sat on the barrier at the end of the severed road and sang “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance”; the soldiers—probably bored, bemused or both—observed us from across the no-go zone. When we packed up our guitars and the remains of our picnic, and clambered back into our cars, they sauntered back to their jeep and drove away.
I wonder if they’re still in East Germany. I wonder if they’re still soldiers. And I wonder if they remember watching a group of idealistic peace campers singing on a country road, the year before the fall of a wall we all feared would last forever.