Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Her Boyfriend’s Bones, the fourth book in the series, is in bookstores now and Where the Bones Are Buried will be out in January 2015. You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.
I first visited Berlin in 1968 and, in my naïveté, was shocked when a grim-faced East German soldier confiscated my Time Magazine at the border. A lot has changed since then. Nowadays you don’t have to surrender your decadent Western magazines or present your passport to go anywhere in the reunified city of Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie has been turned into a museum and the “soldiers” standing outside are actors, smiling and happy to pose for a souvenir photo. With capitalism’s triumph over communism, Berlin has become the financial and cultural capital of Europe. I returned to the city in September 2013 and found it so fascinating that I decided to set my next Dinah Pelerin mystery there. The futuristic architecture dazzles the eye and the energy in the streets is electric. But the most poignant sights, and the most haunting, are the memorials. Memorials to the dead are thick on the ground – memorials commemorating those persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, memorials to the victims of war and tyranny, memorials honoring the casualties of the two World Wars, and memorials to those who died trying to escape across the hated Berlin Wall.
Built in 1961 by the German Democratic Republic to prevent a flood of emigration from the communist-controlled East into the West, the Wall divided the war-ravaged city and completely surrounded the Western sector. Eighty-seven miles long, twelve feet high and four feet wide, this concrete monstrosity was reinforced with barbed wire and topped by slippery-smooth pipe to make climbing nearly impossible. A parallel wall and fence was erected on the Eastern side and the area between the barriers quickly became known as the Death Strip. Armed guards standing watch in over a hundred towers along the length of the Wall had orders to shoot to kill anyone who tried to escape.
Amazingly, 5,000 people managed to slip through to the West, including over a thousand guards who casually strolled across in uniform, confusing their colleagues who hesitated or simply refused to shoot a comrade in arms. Some escapees engineered false compartments in automobiles and furniture and machinery and were smuggled across the border hidden inside. One man scaled the wall using meat hooks. An entire family escaped in a refrigerated truck by concealing themselves under the carcasses of freshly slaughtered pigs. A few bold fellows flashed their Munich Playboy Club membership cards, which looked so much like diplomatic passports that the guards let them breeze right through. Tightropes, ziplines, tunnels, hot-air balloons – the ingenuity and bravery in pursuit of freedom can’t help but stir the emotions, and stories of how these daring souls outsmarted the Stasi inspire admiration. But not all who tried succeeded. Approximately two hundred would-be escapees died in the attempt.
There is a row of white metal crosses nailed to a fence across the street from the Brandenburg Gate. In Where the Bones Are Buried, Dinah finds herself particularly affected by the cross that bears the name Chris Gueffroy. In early 1989, a series of political incidents rattled the Eastern Bloc countries and civil unrest gave rise to wild rumors. An East German guard told Gueffroy that the GDR had revoked its shoot-to-kill order. Emboldened, the young man made a run for it on the fifth of February and earned for himself the distinction of being the last person shot going over the Wall. Dinah felt a special empathy and sadness. In her experience, you can’t believe half of what people tell you.
On November 9th, the leader of the GDR announced that East German citizens could visit the West whenever they liked, essentially nullifying the Wall. Could the news be trusted? There must have been some doubters who remembered the lesson of Chris Gueffroy and held back. But within hours, tens of thousands of ecstatic East Germans streamed through the checkpoints or threw up ladders and climbed the Wall in euphoric celebration. West Berliners joined in the party and during the next days and weeks, both sides chipped away at the concrete barrier that had divided them for nearly thirty years, tearing it down in bits and pieces. The West German government eventually bulldozed what was left.
Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Wall and the beginning of a phoenix-like renewal. In observance of the occasion, the city has devised a special light installation made of thousands of illuminated helium-filled balloons strung along the former course of the Wall “as a symbol of hope for a world without walls.” If skies are clear, the spectacle can be seen from outer space. The planners urge Berliners and visitors to walk the trail of lights and remember. With so many memorials along the route, remembering will be inevitable. Modern Berlin teems with art and innovation and commerce, but it can never forget its ghosts. Nor, apparently, does it want to.