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Wed 20 November 2019
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Otto English recalls what it was like growing up in a world where the threat of the Cold War loomed large – and the surprise and optimism when, one day, this came to an end.


The great ugly wall stretched away, across the River Spree, and off in the direction of the Brandenburg Gate. The December wind cut through my poorly thought through outfit of Topshop summer T-shirt, linen trousers and grey ankle boots. It was the height of the Cold War and, as I stood by the Berlin Wall, I was in danger of freezing to an ironic death.

From the viewing platform in West Berlin, me and my schoolmates looked East. No Man’s Land was dotted with tank traps, barbed wire and observation posts. Guards from the East – the German Democratic Republican (DDR) – studied us through binoculars.

We took photos by the wall, trying to look like members of Duran Duran in a Cold War chic video. One of us had a felt-tip pen and we tried to leave our mark in amongst the dense graffiti. But it didn’t work. Later that day, we took the U-Bahn to a boarded up East Berlin station where you could buy contraband from a little kiosk for hard currency, no questions asked. We got cigarettes and vodka and tried to chat up German girls.

Later still, I remember lying in my youth hostel bunk and feeling more than a little afraid. Here we were on a little Western spit of land in the middle of Soviet East Germany. What if the Russians chose this moment to come through the Wall? Who would stop them? And how would all of this play out anyway in the coming years of life? Surely there was only one possible outcome.  

This was the winter of 1984. Do They Know It’s Christmas and the Frog Chorus were riding high in the charts and I had just come face-to-face with the brutal, nihilistic, political reality of my teenage years. 

It’s easy to forget the black cloud that hung above us all in the early 1980s.

The Cold War had gone hot. Brezhnev’s death after years in power had been followed, in quick succession, by two USSR leaders – Andropov and Chernenko – who were unknown quantities. These were anxious times. The nine o’clock news nightly carried reports of the arms race. Both sides were re-arming and Ronald Reagan seemed happy to engage in an ongoing game of nuclear brinkmanship. We didn’t know it at the time but, in September 1983, the escalating tension had taken us within a hair’s breadth of annihilation during the Petrov incident.

The fear of pending evisceration infused everything. 

That summer of 1984 Frankie Goes to Hollywood had released Two Tribes, its negativistic paean to the threat of nuclear war. The track included samples of the actor Patrick Allen, recreating his voiceover from the Protect and Survive public information films, and – shortly afterwards in September of the same year – the BBC broadcast Threads. That film, telling the story in documentary style, of a northern British city getting hit by a nuclear strike, put the fear of God into millions. It felt very possible – very real.

So I was having nightmares about mushroom clouds even before I went to Berlin on that winter school trip. And, by the time I returned to England, I was coming to the unpleasant conclusion that I might be dead before I ever had a meaningful relationship with a girl. A prevailing conversation at the time was: “What would you do if the sirens went and you knew you only had four minutes to live?” I knew the answer to that, courtesy of Threads. I’d panic, most probably wet myself, and sit crying by a wall as my skin peeled off. 

And then, very slowly, things improved.

The decade wore on, Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and glasnost and perestroika followed. Of course, nobody thought it would actually come to an end, that we would ever be out of the woods, but the Cold War at least began to thaw and I – and no doubt many others of my generation – stopped dreaming of mushroom clouds in the nightmare sky.

By November 1989, I was a university student in Canterbury, trying and failing to make it into any seminars and lectures. We lived a simple life. No phones, no TV, too much smoking and drinking and a lot of dreaming and reading and lying about in bed. 

One day the silence of this was shattered by the arrival of my friend at my bedroom door shouting: “They’re tearing down the Berlin Wall.” 

It was one of those rare moments in life when the brain can’t compute what is being said. It didn’t make sense. How could this be? That thing I had witnessed, so permanent and intransigent. What did it mean? It was much like receiving the news of that first jet hitting the World Trade Centre a decade later. But in complete reverse – because none of us who heard that news that day could do anything but react with astonished joy.

All those teenage fears of annihilation were suddenly gone. The Cold War was over and we would live out our lives.

I haven’t been back to Berlin since 1984. I’m told that Checkpoint Charlie is now a kitsch tourist attraction and that you can pose with an actor dressed up as an American GI. Nowadays, there is almost a nostalgia for the Wall and the era, but that’s not what we should be celebrating as we mark the 30th anniversary of the wall falling.

The end of the Berlin Wall signified a moment of supreme optimism and hope. It was a moment when the future burned bright with possibility and the chance to build a better world. There’s no reason why we can’t go back there again.


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