Two last bits for now.
While I was living in Stuttgart in 1979, working on my dissertation on the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, I returned to Berlin with friends to poke around, look at art, see sights, etc. Not far from Checkpoint Charlie and just a few blocks from Potsdamer Platz on the other side, the Wall ran along Niederkirchnerstraße opposite the ruin of the Martin-Gropius Bau, a gorgeous 19th century exhibition hall built originally to house Berlin’s Kunsthandwerkmuseum – Museum of Applied Arts. Behind where I was standing here was an elevated platform, high enough to look over the Wall, which was itself about 12 feet high. The platform dated back to the early days of the Wall, when there was not yet an extensive no-man’s land behind it and it was possible for people to talk to friends and family across it and toss gifts and provisions over it. Across from the platform was a watchtower.
There’s a story that goes with this picture. I was on the platform for the better part of 10 minutes. The guard, clearly bored, did not move a muscle the entire time. He looked at me. I looked at him. I looked at him. He looked at me. Behind him, however, in the darkness to his right, is an officer. He has a pair of binoculars. When I raise my camera, he retreats into the darkness. When I put my camera down he comes out and looks at me through his binoculars. We played this game for at least five minutes, long enough for something so clearly pointless, as became quickly apparent. Camera up, retreat. Camera down, out with binoculars.
I have always found in that episode another classic illustration of the absurdity prevailing once the Cold War reached the acme of its perfection. Mostly boredom, except in the rare instances when someone on either side would do something provocative – and occasionally fatal – to stir things up. Whether it was strategic bombers or nuclear submarines chasing each other around the world and checking each other out, eventually it came down to pretty much the same sort of standoff. You look at me. I look at you. One of us continues on our way. No change in the game.
(There was of course a continuing and exceedingly ugly side of the confrontation, manifest in the horrors inflicted on surrogates in what was then called the Third World: Afghanistan, Iran, Nicaragua, Angola, among numerous others, bloodiest of all of which was Viet Nam. Historically speaking, arguably the legacy of the confrontation continues apace in the Middle East, Central Asia, and perhaps again soon in Eastern Europe. It’s a fair question whether 9-11 for instance would have happened had the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan not triggered a western response that involved arming the mujaheddin. But that’s a topic for another day.)
To end on a cheerier note. Shortly after I took the picture of the ruin above, restoration work started. I have not seen it, but I understand it has become a major attraction in a Berlin where people no longer know exactly where the Wall ran and where Checkpoint Charlie was. This is what it looks like now: