Last weekend it was 30 years ago the Wall/iron curtain fell. I sat in front of the tv deep into the night watching German live tv. Having visited Eastern Germany just two years before it, I cried watching. I felt a strong urge to go there, but it wasn’t my place I also felt, not my personal history being made and I didn’t want to be a spectator in their midst. It was my neighbour’s, Rainer’s, history, who fled Eastern Germany with his parents as the iron curtain came up in ’61, while his sister stayed as she was freshly in love. Their lives separated for almost 3 decades, punctuated by his visits as often as he was allowed in. Their parents never being allowed back in. I remember in ’87 getting into an argument with an East-Berlin civil servant who told us the wall was there as a ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’ against the/us fascists in the West. It was so much cognitive dissonance for me that the Wall was supposedly there to keep me out, but yet here I was let in, just not them let out. A prison with the key on the inside. He couldn’t acknowledge my comment obviously, which I couldn’t in turn accept as a teenager. Now, as I’ve worked in various places and settings, where diplomacy is the only way forward, allowing others to save face, and room to manoeuvre to get somewhere, I know why there was no way at all I would have ‘won’ being right that day in East-Berlin city hall. Yet I was, empathy against bureaucracy is/should always be right.
Last weekend it was also 81 years ago that Nazis roamed the streets in Germany trashing Jewish owned businesses, homes and synagogues, and the murder of hundreds and internment in concentration camps of some thirty thousand German citizens of Jewish faith, Kristallnacht.
Oddly enough it is in the regions most affected by the separation of the Wall, Thuringia and Saxony, that the fascist echoes ring the loudest in Germany these days, where AfD. ‘alternative for Germany’ finds an electoral feeding ground. Or maybe it is not surprising, as societal complexity may make you yearn for the (imagined) simplicity of something that never was, exchange the simplicity of one authoritarian construct for another, or at least to blame someone, anyone, some mythical Other, for the baffling complexity around us.
All three of these things are important and current to my own life in different ways. As is the next.
Today I was in Brussels, a very complicated city in an equally complicated country in its own right. Whatever you can say about this place, and here too nationalist (or rather regionalist) sentiments boil, there is beauty in the elegance of dealing with otherness here. Where you are being spoken to in French or Dutch, and answer in a mixture of French, Dutch and English, or vice versa, and it’s all fine. Where the hotel barman tonight has a distinctive Flemish/Dutch name, Gert, yet is Walloon, and we both shrug and say, yeah Europe is complicated, and we appreciate each other’s efforts to be understood and embrace how our lands have been the crossroads of so many different things. It’s fitting that the EU has its institutions in both Brussels and Luxembourg, the two linguistically most confused/mixed cities in Europe.
E and I often remark to each other when we encounter situations like me and the barman above how ‘Europe works’. Last time I was here in Brussels, over dinner I sat next to a family of 4 who amongst themselves effortlessly conversed in Italian, Dutch and German, while fluently ordering in French. I texted to E that very phrase, “Europe works”, not for the first time. It’s our regular shorthand for what the EU has achieved, starting from co-governing the coal and steel works of 6 nations in 1951 so that none of us could build up a war machine without the others being able to stop it, to what the EU is now and how it plays out practically in the lives of us, our networks and the people we encounter across the continent. I intimately know the divisions national borders created within my own family, as well as the deep pain on all sides and resentment of World War II. Equally, I deeply know in my bones what we’ve all gained when freedom of movement kicked in 27 years ago (it’s a tangible sensation every time I personally or professionally do something where there before was a fence), as well as how it makes my professional life possible. Yet across the EU, which from my travels around the world I know to be a place of such enormous abundance (which is not a synonym for perfection nor utopia), resentment against those gains has built. While I recognise the things that feed into that resentment, all too often it smacks of Kristallnacht. It reeks. German rock-band BAP, singing in the Cologne dialect which in itself is a testament to the age-old connection between my own lands of origin and Germany (I can use may own Dutch dialect deep into Germany without issue of being understood, and Cologne’s dialect is akin to my own), sketches out the political pantomime of the copy-cat fascists perfectly. Their 1982 song is just as pertinent in 2019.