Berlinermauer

I was twelve when the Berlin Wall went up, forty when it came down. It was one of those markers of our generation, one of the things that defined us. It was Churchill who named Soviet control of Europe the Iron Curtain, at the close of the Second World War. If he had been re-elected, perhaps he would have got his way and continued the war in Europe against the Russians. The Brits in their inestimable good sense, wouldn’t give him the mandate, and the world entered into a long Cold War, marked by client states and hegemony. The Berlin Wall came to symbolize all that the Cold War meant: its division and suspicion, the restrictions and deceptions.

It seems a world away now, but when we were at school we were given training on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. We were to scoot under our desks, put our hands on our heads and not look out the windows. It seems quaint and ridiculously ineffective, but that was the routine. It was called ‘duck and cover.’ Cuba had fallen into the Soviet block and they had placed in Cuba dozens of medium range missiles capable of hitting every city in the continental United States (except Seattle), including several cities in Canada, Toronto among them.

With several options open to him, including an airstrike on Cuba, followed by an invasion, Kennedy chose a safer route and opted for a blockade – technically called a quarantine to avoid having to go to Congress – and managed to avert a catastrophe. In order to coax the missiles out of Cuba, the States pulled their missiles out of Turkey, a quid pro quo that cost Kennedy a lot of military support, and depending on your level of paranoia, might have cost him his life twelve months later.

Years later Ronald Reagan, in one of the few acts of his presidency that I admire, stood in Berlin and challenge then Russian president Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall.’  Two years later it fell, just two days before the Remembrance Day that marks two earlier conflicts, and the world for a while felt like a safer and friendlier place. Germany reunited and eventually elected a leader, Angela Merkel, who was born in East Germany. This is the twentieth anniversary of that historical event. The world has moved on to other, perhaps more intractable conflicts, and The Wall, and the existential anxiety that it produced for our generation, has become a fading memory. May it remain so.

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