“It’s time to move on,” said an American friend when I had told her that I was en route to see a Polish war film and the night before had gone to a lecture about Churchill, my pre-Christmas festivities. “We’re obsessed here,” I told her.
The next day, coincidentally, I went to Berlin. There you cannot escape the omnipresence of the Second World War and the Cold War and hard as you try to forget, it’s practically impossible.
On the Berlin U-Bahn, the capital’s public transport system, a one-sided argument began with a man shouting about Hitler and yelling at no one in particular, “raus, raus,” which translates as “out, out”. It was what the Nazis bellowed at concentration camp victims.
As it happens, my destination was Hohenschonhausen, the infamous Stasi prison in former East Berlin, and the guide was an inmate from the late 1960s, a prisoner of conscience in a place where innocence was not an option. Nobody held out for longer than two years before signing a confession and moving to more “humane” spaces with natural light and a shared cell.
He lasted three months in the basement where he had no human contact, heard no sound and saw no other sign of life. He looked forward to the interrogation as it was the only time he had any human contact. Even the guard stood behind the cell door. What kind of people could these have been?
His future was meant to be different. The day before his arrest, he was going to study in Prague for his PhD in physics and had only recently returned to Berlin from the Czechoslovakian capital, where he had protested against the Soviet crackdown in response to the political liberalisation of the 1968 Prague Spring. The four-line leaflet he distributed urged Socialists to demand the truth.
Decades later, after a career in medicine, the fall of both communism and the Berlin Wall, he returned to the place of his two-year incarceration. What concerns him is how the school kids and young people tell him all this was so long ago that it’s not relevant any more. But it wasn’t so long ago. Those who fall asleep in a democracy might wake up in a dictatorship — that’s what he tells them.
I wondered about the guards who enforced this barbarism, not one of whom went to jail. Then I had my run-in with precisely that type of petty bureaucrat on the bus from the airport. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s the same immoveable mentality.
This is what happened: my friend and I ran to catch the bus, which was standing at the stop. Before getting on, I asked the ticket collector if I could buy a ticket. At that moment the bus took off with my friend inside. In a panic, I ran to the next stop and jumped on the bus, where I proceeded to try to buy a ticket but the airport WiFi was slow; mine didn’t connect, then the bus pulled away, and it disconnected.
When the ticket collector (there were two) came round, I gave her a €50 note for what I assumed was a €7 fare when I was told it was a €60 fine for not buying a ticket. So I explained what had happened. The Kafkaesque drama unfolded. There were signs in five languages, said the ticket collector, which clearly stated you had to buy a ticket before boarding, which I hadn’t seen in my rush.
I tried to explain, again, that I had run on to the bus and was in the process of buying a ticket. Not good enough, he said. I should have purchased a ticket from the driver… and round and round in circles it went. I refused to pay the fine.
He stopped the bus and the four of us, two ticket collectors, me and my friend, trooped off to wait in the winter desolation for the police. During those forty minutes, a sympathetic colleague of the ticket collector tried to reason with him, and before she left, looked at me and said, “He thinks he’s God.” Three policemen turned up, and I left without paying the fine.
The lesson that the former prisoner wants to convey to those not old enough to remember the terrors of the Stasi and the East German regime, is that you have to be ever vigilant, especially with the rise of populism. And, he said, “where are there political prisoners incarcerated by a democracy? Guantánamo.”
At the end of the Hohenschonhausen tour, I picked up a book in the shop and on the back page were the words, “Hitler, How Could It Happen?”
“We know, and we have no excuse,” said my German friend Kristina who I had gone to visit. “And that’s why the Germans are so passionate about the EU.”