Monday, October 4, 2010

Time for a little respect

My visit to the Berlin Wall 2005
Freedom is something that most of us take for granted. Here in Australia we are free to express our opinion, free to associate with who we want to, free to vote and free to travel. There are and have been parts of the world where these simple freedoms are simply not allowed.

I came across this story during the week and my first reaction was how insensitive and then how sad. According to the Daily Telegraph story, a new virtual game is set in 1976 in Germany and allows players to take on the role of an East German border guard or an East German refugee trying to escape.

Have we as a world really forgotten about the awful events experienced by ordinary people as little as 25 years ago? Did we not learn anything from the Cold War when basic freedoms were denied to people in countries a lot of us visit today? A little bit of background.

My mum has a friend in Germany, a friend she has had for 40 years. At the age of 15 my mum as a young girl living in country NSW started a friendship with a young German girl living in the eastern or communist half of Germany. The Berlin Wall was erected by the German Democratic Republic in 1961 and momentously torn down in 1989.

They wrote for a number of years before my mum at the age of 18 visited Europe and bravely crossed Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin in order to visit her friend. For me, I still find that incredible. A young country girl crossing into a communist country at the height of the Cold War to visit a friend she knew only through letters and had never met. That trip was a great success and both my sister and I have visited with my mum on two separate occasions. However, we were nowhere near as brave and our visits in recent years have been to a united Germany. My mum’s friend and her family have also visited us on their first visit out of Europe.

I find this period of history incredibly interesting, partly because of this personal connection. I asked a lot of questions of our friends in Germany; sometimes to the point where Mum at times felt she needed to ask me to ease up. I wanted to know what life was like in a communist country, did you want to leave, did you wonder about the rest of the world, what did you know about the rest of the world, do you miss it?

There are a few stories our friends have shared with us about life in eastern Germany during this time. Many of them are private and very personal. They do include tales of letters and parcels being opened and inspected before continuing onto Mum in Australia and vice versa. Innocent letters and parcels between teenage girls.

Around the time of my visit to Germany, I read a book by Anna Funder, Stasiland, which shared some of the experiences of Germans during this period. Files and investigations were conducted into citizens that had aroused the suspicions of the Stasi or Security Police. Did such a file exist on my Mum’s friend, or even my Mum? As a foreigner entering Eastern Germany she attracted attention. Was her friend ever in danger because of a friendship with someone in the West?

So getting back to the story I read this week, did the people who created this video game stop and think about the people in Eastern Germany for whom this experience was more than a video game, it was a reality. For those behind the Berlin Wall who made the decision to risk all for freedom? For some it was a success, but for others it was met with imprisonment or worse, death. Many of those who attempted to cross were young people struggling to cope with life under communism or socialism as our friends refer to it as.

What about the young guards, for many the time spent guarding the wall was part of national service. Imagine being faced with the prospect of being ordered to shoot someone attempting to cross the wall or being imprisoned yourself? Such a decision may still haunt people alive today. The game was due to be released today - October 3; the day Germany celebrates 20 years since reunification.

I guess this all comes back to respect. Respect for those who have suffered and how this is not the appropriate content for a video game. The stories behind the Berlin Wall are too real. They have an important place in the world’s modern history - to serve as a reminder of what war and fear can do to the lives of innocent people. These are the stories of real people and for that they deserve our utmost respect.

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