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Wall

BERLIN — This is a city heavy with history. Berlin was the seat of the Prussian Empire that brought together the many kingdoms, principalities and baronies to constitute what is now modern Germany.

When I arrived here and found that I had an afternoon free before the slew of briefings and meetings that would be a test of endurance, I thought the best way to spend it was to visit the memorial to the Berlin Wall. That proved a moving experience.

I nursed some sort of relationship with the Wall for years. The breaching of the Wall was an event I missed. When demonstrations were happening on both sides of the wall at about this time in 1989, I was in Amsterdam. Friends there suggested we travel to Berlin and observe what was going on. Weary of the cold weather, with work waiting to be done in Manila, I decided to fly home as scheduled.

I would regret that decision. It turned out to be a historic moment not to be missed. Back in Manila, I watched television coverage of the crowds surging through the checkpoints with the thought I could have been part of this. It was testimony that freedom cannot forever be restrained.

We were then only a few years removed from our own Edsa Revolution. That was an event that inspired the world with the possibility of changing history through the peaceful action of a determined people. Berlin in 1989 seemed a reenactment of the heady days we went through leading up to a tyranny’s collapse.

The Berlin Wall was a monument to the extent a tyranny could indulge in self-deception. By erecting two layers of concrete barriers, the East German regime convinced themselves they could forever tame a people and divide a nation. 

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The hideous barrier was officially called the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall.” It was pronounced a means to keep imperialist spies and saboteurs from entering the zone of socialism. That deceived no one.

In the decades the Wall was there, hundreds died trying to cross the barrier. They were all citizens from the eastern side trying to reach the west. There were barbed wires, electrified wires and layers of spikes lining the barrier. There were guard posts with machinegun nests to shoot down people trying to defy the barrier and cross to freedom.

There were small markers along the course of the demolished Wall with numbers. A phone app was available where, if you entered the number, a biography of the person killed trying to be free would play over your phone. Once, East Berliners even dug a tunnel under the barrier and managed to transmit people through before the thing was discovered.

A church once existed between the two barriers that composed the wall. When that proved to be inconvenient, the communists simply blew it up. After the Wall was taken down, the old parish decided to rebuild what now stands as the Chapel of Reconciliation forming part of the memorial. Only in that spot were surviving portions of the Wall still stand.

Early on, after the city and all of Germany was reunited, the authorities decided they would not honor that ugly edifice by allowing it to stand – unlike those who now want to maintain the ruined portion of Marawi in its current state.

Private groups undertook the task of conserving the relics and remnants of the Cold War. Today, these memorials and museums are visited by tourists and students curious about the city’s storied past.

Even the bunker where Adolf Hitler committed suicide as allied forces advanced on Berlin was not conserved – lest it become a site for pilgrimage by neo-Nazis. Today, the bunker lies under a nondescript parking lot.

The headquarters of the dreaded Gestapo was completely destroyed by allied bombing toward the end of the war. Today, a small part of the building’s basement that served as torture chambers during Nazi rule was dug up and converted into a small museum on the horrors of that period.

In the late nineties, Berlin was reinstated as the capital of a reunited Germany. Federal government ministries moved from Bonn to this city. Civil servants relocated. The past few years, 40,000 people a year moved to Berlin. This makes affordable housing an urgent political issue.

With its strong advocacy for using public land in the city for social housing projects, the Green Party emerged dominant in the city-state of Berlin. In a coalition with the Socialist Party, the Greens hold sway over Berlin. That reflects in the extensive use of bicycle land and electric vehicles for sharing.

As a matter of policy, the city privileges bikers and pedestrians over motor vehicles. With its subway and train network built a century ago, Berlin is not congested the way Manila is today.

Social housing projects are located right in the center of the city, reducing the need to commute from far-off settlements. This is probably unique to Berlin and due, over the past few years, to the determined effort of the Greens to mold an urban center according to the needs of ordinary people rather than the dictates of the large corporations.

This pattern of urban development can only be the outcome of the federal arrangement, the political institutions that favors solidarity and the political discourse that enables the Greens to enact policies that defy market forces. The same pattern may be difficult to replicate in Metro Manila where urban development is left largely in the hands of private developers and therefore to the forces of land speculation.

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