By Nitika Reddy
“Berlin is the most bike friendly city!” my tour guide enthusiastically explained as the rowdy boys in my class fidgeted with their bikes. For a class of twenty coming from Copenhagen, we knew immediately that this statement was, in fact, not true. When in Copenhagen, you needed, even wanted a bike to participate in day-to-day activities. The orderly bike lanes and calm streets were easily manageable. This was nothing like Berlin. The city was larger, more chaotic, and extremely exciting. “I’m so excited to see the wall,” my friend, Audrey, said as we started our bike tour. I smiled and nodded careful not to take my eyes off the road for too long. We were, after all, literally in the middle of the road. After a couple more minuets of hectic cycling, a few facts about Berlin, and an unwanted trek up a tiny hill, we were there: The Berlin Wall. Below the wall was a flea market accompanied by loud, festive music and an overall air of joy. Our tour guide didn’t say much about the wall. We mostly just examined the layers and layers of coated on paint and were told that this was the wall that separated so many Germans from each other. I examined this concrete and steel canvas for street artists and rubbed my hands along the cold, hard surface, not quite grasping the importance of it all.
Now, a few months have gone by since this first visit, and I head to Berlin once more. As I reflect, I can’t help but acknowledge how quickly (just over 30 years since it has fallen) people seem to have moved on. For my generation, 30 years seems both so recent and so unfathomably long. This is probably due to the fact that most of us were born a few years after the wall came down and don’t know much about the German reunification. But there is a responsibility in knowing history as well as questioning it. The History Channel’s The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall gives a good overview of the history and stories brought on by the wall. From its sudden creation to collapse, the wall drastically changed the social climate of an already divided Germany. The Berlin Wall no doubt played a huge role in Berlin’s history. While watching the documentary, one gets a general idea of the two sides of Berlin and Germany during this time. The documentary gave plenty of anecdotal examples of stories of Germans split up. And it detailed riveting stories of both failed and successful attempts to leave East Berlin.
The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall also shared very interesting narrativess about freedom. It was clear that before the construction of the wall, West Berlin was the symbol of an oppression-free land. This symbol of unattainable freedom that East Germans experienced seems to somewhat parallel the lives of marginalized people during and after the collapse of the wall. For example, in a foreword written for Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, Audre Lorde writes,
I walk into a shiny tourist sweetshop in the newly accessible East Berlin of 1990. The young white German saleswoman looks at me with aversion, snaps an outraged answer to my first question, then turns her back upon me and my companion until we leave the shop. Once outside, I look back. She turns also. Through the glass door, our eyes meet. That look of hatred she hurls against the glass in my direction is prolonged, intense, and very familiar. (xi)
It is still interesting to see the lengths to which people will go to secure the right to live in a free land, which in the case of East Germans was democracy.
When the wall went up, many people were separated from their homes, family, and significant others. This sense of urgency to “break free” was quite relevant. It became increasingly evident that people would risk going to jail and dying to get to this protected “free land.” For instance, a man explained his failed attempt to bring over his fiancé, Roswita Koppen, to West Berlin, where he engineered his car so that she could hide next to the engine and under the hood. Roswita risked going to jail or even her own life, as she was burned badly by the engine next to her. The documentary claimed that 136 people died trying to get out of East Berlin through the wall and thousands were jailed after they were caught. These people were trying to gain the right to vote, have jobs that they wanted, and generally live without oppression.
Unfortunately, however, The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t showcase many voices of marginalized people during this time. This was also the case with much of the discourse of the non-Jews after World War II. For example, in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” Ruth Linden explains how “researchers studying women in the Holocaust have generally, unself-consciously assumed (or preceded as though they assumed) that all the women in the Holocaust were Jewish” (26). We now know that Hitler and the Nazis didn’t just extended their hatred to Jews, but many other groups of people including Africans, the Romani, as well as gay and lesbian people.
It wasn’t until reading texts like Showing Our Colors that I realized the history of Afro-Germans went back as far as it does. For instance, Audre Lorde writes, “I have Black German women in my class who trace their Afro-German heritage back to the 1890s” (vii). Even if those voices might not have been the majority of the minority, they are still important and need to be addressed. As Jasmin Eding points out in “… And I Let Myself Go Wherever I Want,” which outlines the importance of ADEFRA (a group for Afro-German women), “After the collapse of the wall between East and West Germany, we witnessed unification between Black women in the East and the West as well” (131). There are clear stories here that people are willing to tell. So, it’s important for us to acknowledge and listen to these narratives.
As I end this blog post, I leave you with this. Although the Berlin Wall represents a lot of different things for a lot of different people (may that be freedom, oppression, or even hope), it is important to acknowledge the uncommon voices in history. It is our responsibility to do so. As this class gets started, I’m more excited to learn about these narratives. In some ways, many of these stories are just now coming to light. And the only sure fire way to have them survive is to listen and share them, so that more people will do the same.
Nitika Reddy is a rising senior at Colorado College from Salt Lake City, Utah. She is an Economics & Business major, as well as a Feminist & Gender Studies minor. She is an avid dancer and a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta women’s fraternity. She has been traveling for the past 5 months (studying aboard in Copenhagen and visiting parts of Asia), and is finishing her 6th month of traveling with FemGeniuses in Berlin! Nitika loves reading memoirs, really any kind of film, and singly loudly in the shower. Fun fact: She is currently in a long distance relationship with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which she misses dearly!