The History Of A Wall

Originally posted April 21, 2008

As a member of the first generation that grew up with television, it would not be hard at all for me to make a long list of astounding images and events, many of them horrible and sad, that I’ve seen through the medium. For all the violence and sorrow that I’ve seen through television’s window, however, one of the images that stays in my mind the most clearly is the vision of the exultant crowd dancing atop the Berlin Wall in November 1989, on the night when the government of East Germany surrendered and opened the gates.

I’d visited some friends for dinner, and afterward, we’d listened to some music I’d brought along. About nine o’clock, as I prepared to head home, my host turned on the television and we saw the crowds celebrating the fall of the Wall. We stood in my friends’ living room, mouths agape. Even though the news in recent weeks had told of greater and greater pressure for change being placed on the East German government – one of the more repressive among the communist states in Central and Eastern Europe – the sight of Germans from East Berlin mingling freely with their brothers and sisters from the west was unexpected. And being so, it was an image that stays with me.

I recall driving home that evening – about thirty miles – shaking my head in amazement as I listened to the news. When I got home, even though I had to work early the next morning, I stayed up quite late, watching and absorbing more as Berliners celebrated into the dawn.

That evening and those images come to mind these days as I read The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 by Frederick Taylor. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the book, and even though I know the wall will eventually fall, I’m angered as I read of the suffering endured for those twenty-eight years by the citizens of East Germany and East Berlin. The casual cruelty of the men who led that nation – a nation formed by default out of the tragedy of World War II – can still astound, even though so much has been revealed of their character and their conduct in the nearly twenty years since the Wall fell.

Taylor begins his book with a brief history of Berlin itself, examining how the city became the capital of first, Prussia, and then the united Germany before it was divided into occupation zones in the aftermath of World War II. He also examines the lives of those who would create the wall, chiefly Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker, who were essentially the creators, respectively, of East Germany and the Berlin Wall.

And then Taylor examines in great detail how the wall, once in place, evolved over the years from simple concrete, brick and barbed wire to a complex barrier as wide as a river, intended to do nothing other than make East Germany and its capital, East Berlin, into a prison camp. My reading has gotten me to the autumn of 1961, just after the first barbed wire barrier was put into place, during the time when that first barrier was becoming the Wall. In the pages I read last evening, the East German guards for the first time shot and killed those who attempted to cross into West Berlin. Even though I know the Berlin Wall will eventually come down, Taylor’s book can be difficult reading.

But it’s a good read, too. Taylor puts the construction of the Berlin Wall in context, noting how relations between WWII’s Western Allies and the Soviet Union were not always mirrored accurately in the relations between West Germany and East Germany, chiefly because the goals and wishes of Germans on either side were quite different than the goals and wishes of the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Taylor makes clear that the Wall was the creation of the East German leadership, acceded to reluctantly and after the fact by the leaders of the USSR. And he makes clear as well that when the Wall went up, the U.S. and its allies had no intention of ever challenging its existence; to simplify a little: as long as West Berlin – still nominally occupied by the Western Allies – was safe, all was as well for the west as it could be at the time. Short of war, there was no way the west could alter the sad fate of East Germany and East Berlin.

It’s a good enough book that after I finish it, I’ll be seeking Taylor’s earlier book about the fate of another tragic German city: Dresden.

For this morning, I thought about putting together a Baker’s Dozen from either 1961, the year the Berlin Wall went up, or from 1989, the year it came down, but decided that instead of a random selection of songs, an album that always provides me with solace might be a better choice.

Daniel Lanois first came to my attention when he produced Robbie Robertson’s self-titled solo album and U2’s The Joshua Tree in 1987 and then Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy in 1989. Lanois released Acadie, his first album, in 1989 as well. I picked it up about a year later and immediately wished I’d done so much earlier. It’s a stunning album, musically and lyrically, one of those I like so much that I tend to lapse into blathering fandom when I talk or write about it.

Given that, I’ll just share what Paul Evans wrote about the album in the 1993 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide:

“Having lent his supple production skills to such heavyweights as Bob Dylan and U2, it’s fitting that Lanois would craft his own record, Acadie, with the care that makes it sonically gorgeous—warm, immediate, bell-like. [Brian] Eno is Lanois’ collaborator and secret weapon, the avant-garde experimentalist adding subtle effective oddities—cello sounds, whistling synthesizers—that transform the folk-based melodies into textured mood-music that’s more self-consciously distinct. New Orleans provides the spiritual home for the project: ‘O Marie’ is sung in French, ‘Jolie Louise’ has a soft, Cajun lilt. Fascinating in its mix of high technology and rootsy integrity, Acadie is artful without being precious, studied but still passionate.”

Along with the tracks that Evans mentions, I’d tag “Still Water” and “Where the Hawkwind Kills” as standout tracks. It’s a remarkable piece of work.

Still Water
The Maker
O Marie
Jolie Louise
Fisherman’s Daughter
White Mustang II
Under A Stormy Sky
Where The Hawkwind Kills
Silium’s Hill
St. Ann’s Gold
Amazing Grace

Daniel Lanois – Acadie [1989]


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