It was my first day in the new home of my daughter. It was in a quiet street, in a leafy suburb in a German city, in the province of Franken in Bavaria.
In the grey light of dawn, the quietness was shattered and my sleep disturbed by sounds that I had only ever experienced in films. It was a loud and menacing rumble, with more than a whiff of danger. Looking through the window, I saw a procession of tanks, followed by armoured personnel carriers and huge vehicles which, I learned subsequently, were called “tank recovery vehicles.” Then came several ambulances.
As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I saw that all were manned by men in the uniforms of the United States Army, some were black, all were very young. In the equally leafy suburb in which I live in Clonmel, a passing car is sufficient to awaken me from a deep sleep, and so I could not wait until breakfast to find out why tanks were at the front door at dawn. Had I had a nightmare? Watched too many films? Was I going gaga? Or had some terrible new war broken out overnight? And if so, get me out of here. Fast!
But I was reassured. Daughter said she had forgotten to warn me that there was a very large United States barracks nearby, and every few days, and nights, there would be military exercises. In fact, army vehicles, coming and going, were a prominent part of the traffic pattern of the street. This pattern I became familiar with, as indeed I became accustomed to the sometimes thunderous rumble of the machines of war in the early morning.
The young men, soldiers of the United States, were very far from home, although they brought much of the pre-requisites of home with them, re-creating in their barracks an American town, with stores, shops, schools and cinemas. And althought they were in the community, they did not seem to be of the community, and were, apparently a community in themselves. They were part of the huge NATO forces standing between two conflicting ideologies, then simply identified as East (Communist) and West (Democratic) Europe.
It was that half-century when, after a devastating war, large areas of Eastern Europe had fallen under Soviet control, and had exchanged one despotic form of government for another. It was a time which did not seem to impinge on us in Ireland, surrounded as were were by water, non participating in any European defence, uninvolved in then raging so-called Cold War.
Europe, much of which is now re-united in the Eastern Community, had been divided by what Winston Churchill foresaw in a speech in 1946 and described as “an iron curtain.” It extended from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and incongrously ran through farms and small towns and rivers and forests.
Perhaps its most iconic manifestation was the Berlin Wall, built in 1961, torn brick from brick in 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated. The half-century of its construction was marked last week in a ceremony in Berlin. The deaths of the many hundreds who died while trying to climb from East to West over it, or tunnel under it, were mourned.
The electrified fences, the land-mines, the sinister military-manned towers which marked the borders, were even more deadly than “the wall.” Some of these no-man areas have, surprisingly, revealed an unexpected environmental bonus when the iron curtain was finally dismantled. Untouched by human foot and hand, they facilitated the growth of rare wild flowers and shrubs, and a breeding ground for rare butterflies, and have now been preserved as “areas of special interest.”
But the division of Europe in the second half of the 20th century, was much more than physical, much more than the impediments of walls and mines and electrified fences: it was division of philosophies and politics. It was spiritual and it was social. It separated families. Babies were born, marriages took place, grandparents died, cousins never met each other because they lived on the “wrong side” of a fabricated border.
This week, I heard of the death of a 93 year-old woman who was widowed at the age of 40. Her husband died in a Communist prison, because he, a university professor, was declared “a dissident.” In a week or two, I hope to meet the six month-old great-grandchild of a couple who, anticipating by a few days, the final drawing down of “the curtain” escaped through woodlands tracks into the “west.” Other than the clothes on their backs, the only thing they were able to carry with them was a small “hand” sewing machine.
The unification of Europe in peace is not, it seems to me, unconnected with those scary military machines which I saw, as if in a nightmare, in a German street a few decades ago. The military procession drove to the nearby railway station and then embarked on specially constructed trains which transported men and machines southwards to the borders of the then Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia. There, in full view of their putative enemies on the eastern side, the Soviet satellite controlled armies, they carried out their exercises, played their deadly war games. And the other side reacted in kind.
These exercises were extensively conducted by NATO forces. “This is what we’ve got; the most up-to-date killer machines! Anything you can do, we can do better!”
Experts on the Soviet Union claim that the resources invested in armaments to keep pace with the perceived military threat from the West, and particularly the so-called Star Wars of Ronald Reagan, led directly to the collapse of the economy and the disintegration of the system in 1991.
Now, we, who are members of the European Union, can safely cross and re-cross borders in a free and democratic Continent. In the prevention of a Third World War, how much of that freedom is attributable to those very young men and their tanks and war games in a Europe threatened by yet another sinister despotism in the second half of the last century?
Although it may not now be trendy to say so, it seems to me that we owe them one!