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We Were All Berliners

OUR hearts leaped over the Wall last week. There has been no shortage of trouble spots in the world in the years since World War II ended - many of them far more miserable than Berlin. But Berlin was always the human face of the cold war.

Berlin was the epitome of ``the West'' as ``our'' side, and ``the East'' as the other side. The touching images of divided Berlin - of Westerners waving forlornly to kinfolk on the other side of the Wall, of an East German soldier leaping to freedom in the West - are etched in thought, part of the iconography we of the postwar era carry around with us.

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And for a child struggling to make sense of the world in the early 1960s, free, democratic West Berlin - half a divided city deep inside half a divided land - was a symbol that captured the imagination. It reflected the duality of a prosperous life lived in the shadow of hatred and war. I didn't have those words with which to articulate my intuition, but I remember the intuition.

As I began to grasp the concepts of countries choosing sides for wars, and of historical events happening in time, I tried to string together the little bits of information I had into some kind of pattern. I spotted a disheartening trend: Every 20 years or so, the grownups messed things up grievously and we had something called a World War. And as I added up the years, I decided we might be due for another one.

For all the comfort and security of my sheltered childhood, the first geopolitical fact I learned was that two opposing teams of grownups had the firepower to scorch the earth.

The technological optimism of Disneyland, of world's fairs, of the space launches was overwhelmed at times by ``crises'' - Berlin, Cuba. We would huddle awkwardly under our school desks during air-raid drills. If the bombers were on their way, those desks wouldn't afford much protection; but if not, couldn't we just go out to recess?

As the 1960s wore on, the sense of danger receded. What happened instead of World War III - Vietnam, urban unrest, Watergate - was often tragic, but at least it wasn't nuclear war.

Berlin faded from the front pages, but remained an unsettled question, like a nagging doubt in the back of our mind.

When I was in college, the East Berlin playwright Ulrich Plenzdorf came for a time as writer in residence - a free spirit in jeans and baggy sweaters, and with an abundance of frizzy hair. Remarkable that such a one could come out of East Germany; more remarkable still that he would go back, and yet that was his announced plan.

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How could he go back? I asked my journal on my first visit to Berlin, East and West, a short time later. I went by train, from G"ottingen via Braunschweig. We crossed the border in the February twilight; and as the train rolled on through a drab landscape that fading light had reduced to shades of gray, I felt I was traveling through film footage from a wartime documentary.

Arrival at the Zoo Station in West Berlin was like Dorothy waking up in the Technicolor Land of Oz.

That first weekend visit was full of that which was quintessentially Western in the broadest sense - Beethoven's Pastorale at the futuristic Philarmonie, and Rembrandt and Botticelli in the art museums. There was that which was distinctively Berlin: the thrill of the riotous tolling of church bells on the Kurf"urstendamm Saturday evening at 6:00, the eerie purple glow of the memorial at the Kaiser Wilhelm Church. There were also the barking dogs on the other side of the wall, the crosses marking where would-be escapees had been shot dead, and the infuriating efficiency with which border guards ran giant mirrors under tour buses to make sure no one was hidden underneath them.

Western leaders who preach caution in our response to the events of the past few days are probably right: If the changes are permanent, there will be plenty of time to savor the blessings of freedom and democracy.

And yet for the moment we can only rejoice that a great barrier has come down - literally. A burden has been lifted, a burden we carried so long we had almost forgotten it wasn't part of us.

``We should have rolled our tanks in'' as the Wall first went up, was my father's assessment some years after the fact.

Instead, President Kennedy stood before the Rathaus and told the Berliners he was one of them, and that helped. (My Berlin friends, too, remember where they were when they first heard the news from Dallas.)

If the Wall remained, so too did West Berlin's independence, despite the Russians' best efforts, and Germans are grateful.

We were all Berliners.

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