One of my best travel experiences occurred well before digital cameras and social media. It was 1990 and communism was in the midst of falling throughout the Eastern Block. The revolution started in Poland, then continued to Hungary, East Germany, and Bulgaria followed by Czechoslovakia and Romania, then the rest of the East European Soviet satellite countries.
I was heading to graduate school starting the summer of 1990, so I left my job early and traveled to Europe with the intent of going to some of these newly “open” countries. One of my close friends came along for the first half of the trip.
Having lined up visas where needed, with backpacks in order, off we went starting in Western Europe to acclimate then making our way east, planning to go to Czechoslovakia, then Poland, East Germany, back to West Germany, then down to Budapest, Hungary.
Our first stop was Prague in Czechoslovakia – what a beautiful and complicated city. We had not understood that although communism as a governmental entity had fallen, the communist party still owned and controlled everything – railroads, stores, hotels, everything. The atmosphere was a mixture of excitement with clear divisiveness.
As a tourist it was difficult. Arriving without plans pre-arranged through the communist apparatus left us little option but to be ripped off by hundreds of dollars or to turn to the black market for accommodations, food, and other basics. Black market it was.
Even a so-called peaceful revolution carries a certain amount of discord and danger. Prague was a far cry from what tourist experience today. And there were very few tourists anyhow.
Visiting other Czechoslovakian towns after leaving Prague, most notably Karlovy Vary in the Bohemia region, which was a Communist Party resort town, exposed how hard conditions had become under the Communists for many. But the Czech people’s sense of spirit and the optimistic future was strong.
I observed that, with the revolution, those who did not have abundant means (working class) began to have hope and a voice. Those who had abundant means (any level of party official or boss and their families) harbored anger and growing fear for their futures. The friction and tension between both sides was crushingly obvious even if not acted upon.
I will save more about other experiences in Czechoslovakia for a future post.
Our next planned stop was Poland. We found out at the Polish border that no one was being allowed in regardless of if you had a visa or not because there was not enough food in the country to feed those who already there. We were denied entry so we turned around and headed for Berlin.
Entering East Germany
Entering East Germany as a United States Citizen coming from another Eastern Block country without a transit visa was not a good idea. The situation quickly became shit-my-pants scary, and of course we only spoke English and none of the border guards did.
But then some average Czech and East German citizens had enough of the Communist borders. They saw a meaningful opportunity to flex their muscle with these Party members. These average citizens intervened on our behalf.
An angry old farmer with huge arms who loudly had enough of the Communists, a school teacher who spoke some English (Amen for her), a train conductor who clearly switched sides opposing his employer (the Communist party) and had no intention of leaving without us, and maybe a half dozen belligerent teenagers all took our side. These average citizens went chest to chest and face to face with the border guards. It was a small example of a hyper local uprising based on a principle of open transit and that was really important to the people.
In the end it worked out that we paid 50 West German Marks for two transit visas and a threat that if we got off the train before Berlin we would be put in jail. Believe me, we stayed on that train until our final destination.
East and West Berlin
Many hours later we arrived in East Berlin. The first thing that struck me about East Berlin was how grey and run down it was. Being that we were still rattled from the border crossing (and we were pretty hungry) we decided to make our way to West Berlin to find a place to stay for a few nights as opposed to staying on the East side.
We found the Berlin Wall which, although it was being torn down more and more with every passing day, was still not an open border. We eventually found Checkpoint Charlie which was the only border crossing we were allowed to use. Seeing US soldiers at the crossing gave me an overwhelming sense of comfort and safety. Before we knew it we were in West Berlin – the sun shone brightly on the clean and colorful homes, stores, restaurants, and vibrant life of the West German citizens.
The Berlin Wall
Large parts of the Berlin Wall had been taken down but plenty of it remained.
The Berlin Wall was much more than just a wall. The wall itself was tall and thick. Behind it was a swath of open land maybe 200 feet wide. This land was called the death strip. We were warned to be careful because the death strip had been mined and booby trapped. On the East side of the death strip was the “Iron Curtain” which stretched well beyond Berlin. In some places the iron curtain was actually a second wall. In other places it was layers of tall barbed wire. The whole area was brightly lit and heavily guarded.
Although it was still a border, festivities and joy were being celebrated on both sides along the length of the wall. We were invited to do our part and tear down some of the wall.
To this day my piece of the Berlin Wall is a possession I treasure. I treasure it because it is a significant piece of world history. I also treasure it because going through the eastern block as it was “falling” and helping “tear down the wall” gave me first hand knowledge and wisdom that define my world-view even today.
“Tear Down This Wall” – My Thoughts
You might be wondering how the Eastern Block and the Berlin Wall has solidified my world-view on topics relevant today. One prominent area is my opposition to building long border walls to keep people out or keep people in.
My lesson learned from Berlin and other walls I have scene in my travels (Israel) is that that any wall that divides people should be torn down. A wall may achieve short term goals. A wall may give a sense of security (different from actual security). A wall might even fulfill a campaign promise and offer some great short term jobs.
Walls Don’t Work
A simple history lesson tells us that ultimately walls don’t work in modern times. This isn’t the period of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (Hadrian’s Wall) to keep out Vandals and Nords nor the Huang Dynasty (Great Wall of China) to keep out Mongols (and neither wall worked well anyway). There are so many ways around walls (physically, virtually, dimensionally, and more).
Israel has built a number of walls. Yet Israel still does not have peace or security. The wall separating the Catholics and Protestants in Belfast didn’t yield peace either. Terror continued. Peace only came decades later through a purposeful peace process.
There are a number of walls throughout the world built to keep immigrants out. If they worked, these countries would no longer have an “immigrant problem”. Yet their “immigrant problem” remains and immigrants keep coming in one way or another. Where there is a will (or enough desperation) there is a way.
Walls don’t work because they try to divide people who are indivisible. Walls don’t work because people figure out ways around them.
Walls Have Long Lasting Costs
Not having a wall is hardly the equivalent of an open border. Having a wall is exceptionally expensive. And don’t underestimate the economic cost of a divided people. Nor the cost of people from other countries that learn animosity, sometimes extreme, to the country that built the wall.
Walls don’t work and they are eventually torn down. Or turned into a tourist attraction so future generations might learn.
I would love to see a world where we build no more walls between people. I feel somewhat optimistic.
All photos taken by or of PaulSeesTheWorld. Please do not reuse without permission.