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Walls

August 13, 2006

On this day in 1961 work started on the construction of the Berlin Wall. It stood for just over 28 years before it suddenly, surprisingly and wonderfully came down in 1989. That was the year my first child Eleanor was born. The following year we saw the start of the end of Apartheid and by December 1991 the Convention for a Democratic South Africa had started its work. In the same month and year my son Huw was born. It was a time of hope, both personal and also for openness in the wider world.

The Berlin Wall and Apartheid (or rather the anti-Apartheid Movement) were linked for me in the 1970s when I was one of the very few Catholics engaged with the WSCF, then and now an organisation that refused to separate politics from religion, seeking engagement with the world not removal from it and was deeply engaged in the Programme to Combat Racism. The only place we could meet with our colleagues from Eastern Europe was in East Berlin, and as a British Citizen I had free access so I spent a lot of time in Berlin. I used to stay in an old hotel in the Kurfürstendamm that could have come straight from the set of my all time favorite film Caberet and then make daily trips under the wall on the U-Bahn swapping the compulsory ten West-marks for the same number, but not value of East-marks. I remeber seeing shadowy border guards through dirty windows as the train passed through the Geisterbahnhöfe. I lost a few coats and other items on those trips until I learnt not to wear anything that the VOPO’s might want. I also met some very brave and courageous people who were taking far more risks than a naive young philosophy student with a British passport. Berlin was alive in a very special way in those days, there was an intensity of atmosphere and engagement that was unique and intoxicating.

So why am I musing on this? Well I am sitting here manning a computer linked to a traffic web site and the departures board of Heathrow airport attempting to make sure that my daughter gets on a plane to Singapore this evening. One third of the planes have been cancelled, not even a book is permissible as cabin baggage and I spent time yesterday assuring her that it was safe for her to travel. The optimism of one physical wall, and a ideological wall falling down between 1989 and 1991 may well have been misplaced.

Two years ago I made a memorable journey to Masada and as the only English native speaker on the tour was asked to read Josephus’s record of the speech of Eleazar which had been made prior to the suicide of the Jewish Garrison. We were in the room where they had drawn the lots to select those who would kill the others, and then kill each other leaving the last man to suicide. I don’t think I will ever forget that moment. It was not a speech that could be read without emotion and it’s appeal for freedom over slavery is timeless.

But as we drove to Masada through the outskirts of Jerusalem we passed a new physical wall being raised to separate one people from another. In parallel the ideological walls created by and reinforced by fear threaten the whole fabric of our diverse societies. My children born in a period of hope face the consequences of global warming, terrorism, new forms of Imperialism and a myriad of other dangers.

I struggled to find an optimistic note on which to finish this reflection. Then I remembered during the 70’s being moved by the prison writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who opposed the Nazi regieme from the start. He moved from pacifism to involvement in the plot to kill Hitler, and was brutally executed in a concentration camp. A bit of work on Google and I came up with the following three quotes that should mean I sleep tonight.

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children”

“The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy”

“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility”

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