Remember remember the ninth of November

 somewhere and anywhere


Sixty-six years ago today, I was born; and thirty-three years ago today the Belin Wall “came down”.

Actually, it didn’t come down until rather later, but people were allowed to pass through its various control points relatively freely (they still had to show their ID cards) for the first time since 1961.

My father-in-law, Martin, was born in 1935 in Ostpreußen – then part of Germany. After the Red Army arrived in 1945, he, his mother, his grandmother and his sister made the journey to Berlin by rail in cattle trucks. His father – a farmer who had never fought for or even supported the Nazis - died in a forced-labour camp in the Soviet Union and Martin never saw him again.

From Berlin, Martin and his family walked 80 kilometres or so to a small village in Brandenburg where they had some relatives. They spent the rest of their lives there.

Ostpreußen was divided up between Poland and the Soviet Union; and what remained of Germany was subjected to many other border changes and divisions. The whole of Europe was being criss-crossed by high flows of people across its shifting borders.

In May 1949 the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD) was established in the West of Germany and, in October, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) was established in the East of Germany. West Berlin became an enclave of “the West” in the middle of DDR territory and divided from East Berlin “Hauptstadt der DDR”.

Nonetheless, though there were all sorts of controls and checks at various times and in various places, it was still possible to live and work and move around anywhere within the territory of the BRD, DDR and Berlin East or West with relative freedom. Martin would regularly cycle to West Berlin to buy things that were harder to obtain in the East and banter with the guards at the checkpoint (who were notionally there to prevent “smuggling”) on his way home.

But in August 1961, the DDR walled (or fenced) off West Berlin and the BRD from its territory. Martin had his own family by this stage and got wind of the government’s decision to take control of its borders. He could have tried to flee and once more become a refugee in his own or (depending on how you look at it) a different country. Needless to say, he had mixed feelings about such a radical step, and a deciding complication was that his baby daughter – now my wife – was being looked after by her aunt for a couple of days in another village.

So he stayed, and his days of cycling over the border to the West came to an end.

Like millions of others in the DDR, he was however, allowed to visit the West many years later. “All” he had to do was “fill in a few forms”, but I can imagine the hollow laugh he would have produced if I had ever put it to him like that. Rather like the laugh I produced when somebody told me in 2016, after the Brexit vote, that all my wife would have to do to remain in the UK would be to “fill in a few forms”.

Of course the contexts are very different. Notwithstanding Suella Braverman’s gleeful talk of deporting refugees to Rwanda or putting them back in rubber dinghies to cross the Channel back to France, nobody in the UK government is yet considering opening fire on people who cross our borders “illegally”.

But then in November 1989, everything changed again; and for the better this time. Martin was overcome with emotion.

He and my mother-in-law were free to visit us in the UK (and go anywhere else in Europe) by simply showing their new all-German ID cards. My wife got a shiny new all-German passport and was able to use it to travel in and out of the UK without having to apply months in advance to unelected bureaucrats at the UK Home Office for a visa.

Martin lived just long enough to see his daughter stripped of her status in the UK by the Brexit decision in 2016 and our life here plunged into uncertainty. He did not live long enough to see her spend years and a couple of thousand pounds trying to acquire a replacement status that would allow her to maintain at least some of the freedoms she had acquired after 1989[1]; nor did he live to see his wife having to queue for hours outside in the blazing sunshine in a socially distanced queue outside the townhall so she could acquire a full passport in addition to her ID card and visit us here again (though only for 90 days maximum in a year now).

When the EU expanded in 2004, Germany, like the UK, experienced influxes of large number of people from other central and eastern European countries – especially Poland. There were complaints – even from Martin who had made the same journey himself earlier in life.

But neither Martin nor anyone else in Germany I have ever encountered or heard/seen in the media thinks that their national democracy or identity would be enhanced by turning back the clock and preventing people from the rest of Europe and its own citizens from moving freely across Germany’s borders to visit, work, live, fall in love and raise families whenever they might choose to do so.

They would regard any such suggestion as completely unhinged.

Twenty-three years on, the divisions of Germany – and Europe generally – are slowly healing. Our own country and its relationship with the rest of our continent have, however, been rent asunder. These wounds will not heal in my lifetime.

1 comment:

  1. I read this with great interest. My parents left the DDR before the Wall was built, but their parents stayed for various reasons. I was born and brought up in West Germany, but many holidays were spent crossing the border to see the grandparents. I had already been in the UK for a few years when the Wall came down. Fast forward to 2016 and eventually applying for British citizenship to try and safeguard my right to stay in my own home.


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