In this assembly Brian Radcliffe invites students to consider the 20th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall that began in November 1989
Leader: Walls can be useful.
Walls can give support. There are walls holding up the roof above our heads in this hall. Without those walls the roof wouldn’t stay up.
Walls can be a background for display. On the corridor walls of this school [mention other areas if appropriate] we have displays of artwork, photographs and information posters. The walls provide a large surface that makes them visible at just the right height.
Walls keep the prisoners inside a prison. Without a wall they’d simply stroll out.
Walls keep the cold weather out of our houses. Winds can’t blow through a barrier of brick and stone.
Walls mark the boundary between our garden and that of our neighbour. If the ball goes over the wall we know we have to go round and politely ask if we can get it. It’s on their territory.
Walls can be useful.
Reader 1: Between 1961 and 1989 the Berlin Wall marked the boundary between West Berlin, which was part of the democratic country of West Germany, and East Berlin, part of the Russian dominated communist country of East Germany. What was the purpose of this wall?
Reader 2: The Berlin Wall was built primarily to keep the population of East Germany in. Decades of state ownership, secret police and oppressive economic and political conditions following the end of the Second World War had created an atmosphere of disillusion and frustration in the East. Those who had contacts in the West began to defect; to illegally cross the border and set up home in West Berlin. By 1960 approximately 1500 people per day were making the journey from East to West.
Leader: The problem for the East German authorities was that the majority of those who defected were the educated and trained members of the population. East Germany was suffering a ‘Brain Drain’, and so the decision was taken to build the Wall. Soon the cry was heard from frustrated East Berliners ‘Wir wollen raus’ which means ‘We want out’. They were kept unwillingly in their homeland by the barrier of the wall and they wanted to cross over.
1989 was the year that changed all this. First, Communist governments in Russia, Hungary and Bulgaria began to totter. East Germany followed shortly after and from November 10th 1989, exactly 20 years ago, one of the first decisions of the new, liberal East German government was to allow people to cross the boundary wall in complete freedom.
You’d probably expect there to be a sudden surge of East Berliners through the Wall, exercising their new freedom of choice, with years of frustration coming to an end. In fact the opposite happened. People began to say ‘Wir wollen bleiben’ which means ‘We want to stay’. Why was this?
Leader: The wall had been built to prevent the citizens of East Berlin from escaping a repressive regime and enjoying the benefits of the far more affluent West. They didn’t necessarily want to leave their home towns and villages to start again in a foreign land, but it seemed there was little hope or opportunity in remaining there. The wall had become a symbol of all they hated and couldn’t escape. However, the new East German government promised that from now on East Germany would be a country of equal opportunity for its citizens. There was no longer any need to escape. It was if a prison had overnight been transformed into the Promised Land.
Can you identify any walls that face you? I don’t mean physical walls – there’s no-one here that’s actually imprisoned – but you may recognise a barrier that separates you from an opportunity you want to take up, or a barrier that prevents you from escaping a stressful situation. It may be a barrier that excludes you from a friendship group or an obligation that you can’t break free from. Similarly to the East Berliners, you may be tempted to say ‘Wir wollen raus’ – ‘We want out’. You may simply want the barrier to disappear and to be free to change your experience.
Yet the change for them came initially not because the wall was demolished but because the situation changed on their side of the Wall. The new government created opportunities for change that allowed everyone the freedom to develop. There’s an old saying ‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’. East Berliners realised that green grass could grow on their own side of the wall as well.
I want to suggest today that, rather than concentrating on bringing down the walls that face us, we consider changing the situation on our own side. Here are a few examples:
Reader 1: I’m not skilful enough as a footballer to make the team, but I’m tall so I’m going to focus on excelling at basketball.
Reader 2: I’ve tried for ages to be friends with those girls in school. Instead I’m going to volunteer to be a mentor for younger students.
Reader 1: I keep on having rows with mum and dad about the usual issues – staying out late, tidying my room, spending money. I’m going to volunteer to cook tea every Thursday night to impress them.
Reader 2: I can’t afford any new clothes so I’m going to set a trend for retro fashion by raiding my mum’s wardrobe from the 80s.
Leader: Walls can be demolished. The Berlin Wall was, and now only symbolic sections remain as reminders of history. Some walls remain forever, they may even prove quite useful. What matters most is that we take a positive attitude to our situation, on our ‘side’; we must work for change there and make it as attractive and welcoming as the other.
Meanwhile, think about the words of this prayer. Make it your own if you wish.
Dear GodMay I build only walls that are to protect and shelter.May I not build walls that divide, imprison or exclude.When I face a wall help me to look at it from both sides.Grant me the imagination to create change on my side then welcome visitors from the other side.
This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2009
About the author: Brian Radcliffe