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Mind the Trabant: One of the ugly little cars that symbolised East Germany passes through the newly-opened Berlin Wall in November 1989

I will always remember the morning after the Berlin Wall came down because it was the day I almost got run over by a Trabant. That ugly little car made of cardboard in East Germany had got lost in the bourgeois part of West Berlin where my school was, while I was sleepily riding my bicycle through the cold air of an early November morning. Twenty-five years later, I remember the scene exactly: the way the Trabant seemed to have found a life of its own, driving in a mix of excitement and confusion on a road it had clearly never been down before, wildly emitting dirty-smelling fumes.

That morning, my mother had looked at the morning papers and screamed "Die Mauer ist auf!" ("The Wall is open!") and our Polish nanny had reported in tears that the previous night she had seen East German cars on Ku'damm, the main street near our apartment — "on the Ku'damm," she repeated, as if to reassure herself it had indeed happened. In those words lay the same sense of joy, relief and bewilderment that this car in front of me seemed to exude, a sense that I couldn't quite place even though I felt something momentous was going on.

The fall of the Wall and with it the Iron Curtain was the first historic moment I witnessed. Did I understand what was going on?

I had just turned ten, and my days were probably shaped more by learning Latin and skateboarding than by current affairs on television, even though I would watch the news every evening with my parents. But like every child growing up in West Berlin in the 1980s I had an acute sense of history. You couldn't escape it — the Wall would always remind you that the past was an integral part of your present.

Our Sunday walks were confined to parks, because the countryside around Berlin was GDR territory; you couldn't get off at some subway stations because they were in the East. Sometimes we would go to a French-German funfair held in the part of the city that was still formally occupied by the French according to the division of the city among the Allied forces at the end of the Second World War, and occasionally you would witness an Allied military parade, the tanks rattling through the streets. This was, of course, all part of the West Berlin experience — the encounters with the Eastern side were somewhat more grim.

I remember eight-hour drives in our bright red Saab on a grey GDR autobahn on a designated transit lane to get to West Germany to visit our family. Crossing the border was an ordeal — or a clumsily executed form of humiliation (which I would usually get over by starting a fight with my little sister). To my child's eyes, this was a grey, colourless country with grey, colourless people who made you feel uncomfortable because you were the opposite. Of course, therein lay a peculiar appeal, too. The older I got the more I found these encounters with officials at the border thrilling; their greyness seemed to serve some sinister purpose, even though they didn't know it.

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Toad
November 2nd, 2014
7:11 AM
I'm not sure why, but I concede that it may be German history's proudest day. After all, there's much to be ashamed of. For Europe, or at least those peoples valuing their sovereignty, it was an appalling day. We now have a Germany which dominates the EU, and has failed to learn the most important lesson it could have learnt from the preceding century. Not that domination is unacceptable, but that it is absolutely fine, provided it comes about through administrative means. Germany continues to 'mis-learn' her lessons to the detriment of the continent.

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