Passing through Check Point Charlie into East Berlin prior to 1990 was like Dorothy waking up back in Kansas in the final scene from the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.”
West Berlin, like most western liberal democracies, was like “Oz” without the flying monkeys, thriving and vibrant. Nearly everything was available. It was “half a city” in the middle of Russian-controlled and influenced East Germany and Berlin. By contrast, East Berlin seemed only muted, gritty shades of black and white. The economy was repressed and commodities were scarce. Late in 1989 that all changed.
In November of that year, I was a junior Air Force officer stationed in Germany. My mother and brother came to visit. Driving to Berlin, we stopped at a small West German town near the border with East Germany. The Berlin Wall was being dismantled and East Germans were coming to West Germany for the first time since Russia gained control of the East in 1949.
The small town was having a market festival. I’ll never forget seeing an older man carrying bananas and other fruit, drool and juice dripping from his sparsely-toothed mouth as he tasted pineapple — likely for the first time in at least 50 years. He was laughing, looking around and talking to himself like a toddler stealing candy or ice cream. He was wearing a well-worn, dark gray suit jacket. We watched in amused awe as he loaded his new-found treasure into his two-door Trabant, happily jabbering away.
The westbound lanes were thick with cars from East-bloc car companies, mostly Škodas or Trabants, nearly all with identical body styles. Most were a dingy-cream or tan color. In my mind, that man with the pineapple was a living version of the black and white East Germany receiving the first brush strokes of full color.
In addition to the gray tones of the buildings in East Berlin, the store shelves were not fully stocked. I remember seeing a tea kettle and dishware in a store-front window. I asked a store clerk where I could find them in the store. She replied that even though the items were displayed, that didn’t mean they had any to sell.
Why East Germany felt so cold and gray even though it touched the West is beyond me. It likely had to do with a stagnant economy and repressive government painting life in black and white. Fast forward to today.
I find it odd “The Wizard of Oz” came out the same year Hitler invaded Poland. I find it frightening that in 2022, the cycle of state-run media supporting false narratives is being used to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s chillingly ironic Putin is calling Ukrainian officials “Nazis.” Russia’s state-run disinformation networks are effective. They have the capability of building unshakable foundations of false, alternative realities. Russians believe the propaganda over their children in Ukraine when being told of Russian bombing.
Within a media bubble, objective facts and reality are being overpowered by the volume of disinformation. Ukrainians are bravely fighting back; not only militarily, but also with information. The Ukrainian people, along with intelligent, open-minded Russians, are hungry for the complete depiction of the cause, reality and brutality of the war. Ukraine is desperately trying to preserve the full-color of a fledgling democracy in which open, objective, supportable information thrives
While Ukrainians are fighting and dying to protect their democracy, I worry we’ve become complacent about protecting our own. We’re far too quick to lock into narratives we’d like to believe are true — despite the evidence undermining them. Our information should have objective support. If it doesn’t — if it demonstrates a reckless disregard for the truth — we have the freedom and really the obligation to question the source.
In the infancy of unlimited, easily-accessible information and disinformation, I feel the very least I can do to preserve our democracy is keep an open mind, a watchful eye for unsupported fabrications and change the channel once in a while. After all, I like the taste of pineapple and life here in Oz.
Mark Michel is a commercial airline pilot and Key Pen Parks commissioner. He lives in Lakebay.
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