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The country without colour

The other day my friend Roza showed me one of her newspaper articles. It retells her horrific experiences of surviving the war in Iraq when she was only eight years old.

It’s a fascinating story that sends shivers down my spine. At the same time when Roza and her family where struggling to stay alive I was growing up completely protected and oblivious to the war only a few thousand kilometres away. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a war – of a very different nature – happening right where I was.

Let’s travel back in time. We’re going back 24 years in the past to a small German town watching a primary school teacher at work educating her students in geography. At the front of the room the teacher has put a gigantic map on display.

The shape of the German state is outlined with a big red border, the eleven little states in it each have a different colour and a red dot inside each marks the location of the individual state capital.

Diligently the teacher goes through all of the eleven names and capitals. She is satisfied with the student’s responses. Most know all of the names, she’s doing a good job.

Peculiarly one section of the shape on the map is retained in grey. Although it seems to be part of the country – the big red line includes it – there is also a finer border separating the colourful from the grey states. Only one pink spot sits inside the grey and the students all know this is Berlin. The other grey spots have no names.

One little hand is lifted, there is a question.


“What are those grey states on the map?” a little boy asks. He is pointing at the obvious part of the map that looks like the colour monster has bitten a chunk out of Germany.

“Do they not have any colour there?”

The teacher bites her lip and looks around the classroom. Silence is an unexpected response from her. The students feel there is something wrong; a secret that she is not sharing. They stare at her in anticipation.

“Well, you will have to go home and ask your parents,” the teacher says. Disappointment replaces tension. Without awaiting further comments the teacher skips to the next part of her lesson. Only the scent of mystery lingers in the class room.

Did many of the students remember to ask their parents about the map at home? Perhaps they did. Maybe I did, but I can’t remember my mum’s answer. It probably was a convoluted reply that left no or little excitement about the strange map.

I’m not surprised because how was I to understand the intricacies of German ‘domestic policies’ that occurred before the end of the cold war? I imagine me going in my head “so, there are two German countries almost sounding the same – the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany – but one of them isn’t actually all that democratic and the other doesn’t recognise the first’s existence…and what is a democracy anyway?”

I don’t recall when I found out why my primary school teacher gave such an evasive answer, but I know today that it was official policy in the 80’s that dictated teachers to say nothing.

A few years later I remember seeing people on TV climbing overjoyed on top of crumbling walls. David Hasselhoff was there singing about freedom in a black leather jacket that had little light bulbs flashing. I didn’t know why (and still have no answer to this).  There were fireworks, tears of joy and a spirit of change.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. A good read. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Interesting the teacher could not discuss it. I have crazy memories of the cold war, albeit within the US… in October, 1962, us students brought into the halls at school and drilled on how to drop to our knees, head forward, hands clasped over our heads. That was the Cuban missile crisis, and our nun actually told us we might be nuked by noon that day. It was pretty wild.

    I think back on it now, and picture how incredibly helpful covering my head would be in the wake of a nuke explosion. Saved my head, but my arse… got to chase that down some.

    • That must have been an extraordinary atmosphere too. Do you remember whether you understood the gravity of it all at the time?

  3. History with less blood but with a heart, thanks for sharing!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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