Reflections on recent Czech history in Berlin

24-04-2004

In around a week's time - on May 1st - Czechs, as new citizens of the European Union, will be able to cross their borders at any point without a passport. Their Czech ID, or obcansky prukaz, will be enough to get them into Germany, Poland, Austria and Slovakia. That is surely something few could have imagined just 15 years ago.

Borders, photo: European CommissionBorders, photo: European Commission The idea of Czechs crossing borders was on my mind recently when I made my first visit to Berlin. Like all tourists, I wanted to see where the Wall had been and to compare both sides of the once-divided city. I saw bits and pieces of the Wall here and there, and the architecture in former East Berlin was rather different, but many traces of the past have now been removed.

One thing that captured my attention in Berlin was a statement - on a display at the Checkpoint Charlie museum - from a former East German border guard who had himself jumped the Wall. The guards are all conscripts he said, they earn higher bonuses and more leave if they shoot or capture would-be escapees, but most of them choose not to do so. Look at the man behind the uniform, he said.

I don't know if this country had any relatively decent border guards who shot to miss or failed to carry out orders to the letter, but I do know that over 250 people were killed trying to escape from Czechoslovakia, with the last of them dying in 1985.

Berlin WallBerlin Wall The Checkpoint Charlie museum also houses an exhibition entitled From Gandhi to Walesa: Non-Violent Struggle for Human Rights, with one corner dedicated to Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution. A lot of the information was familiar to me, but it was still wonderful to see a collection of Civic Forum and Vaclav Havel badges and other materials.

There was a photo I felt sure I'd seen before, of Alexander Dubcek, Vaclav Havel and another man beaming with joy on what appeared to be a theatre stage. The other man was Jiri Cerny, the Czech Republic's best known music critic and a truly lovely person. By coincidence I found myself having a beer with Mr Cerny at a concert a few weeks ago. I had known that he was a friend of Mr Havel's but seeing him in that photo and realising he had played a part in such an historic occasion made me simultaneously even gladder to have met him, and embarrassed that I did not know more about him, and Czech history in general.

Also on display at the museum was the typewriter used by Vaclav Havel and his rock musician friend Michael Kocab to write the first draft of the historic Charter 77 human rights document. The front of the typewriter had an address on Prague's Wenceslas Square - number 23, I believe. And given the fact that Mr Havel and Michael Kocab are such big fans of 1960s rock music, the make of the typewriter seemed curiously appropriate: it was made by a company called Woodstock.

24-04-2004