No, not that 9/11! Dates in this country begin with the day and then the month, so I’m going with my more natural reading of 9/11 as 9th November – in other words, today!
In the UK today, it’s Remembrance Sunday – the Sunday nearest to 11/11 – Armistice Day – the date when World War I officially came to end back in 1918. Like most, if not all, of my Church of England vicar colleagues, I’ve just come back from our annual Remembrance Day service. Our regular church family was joined by representatives of the Royal British Legion and young uniformed organisations, all present and correct in the smartest uniforms with standards, wreaths and poppies galore.
We remembered – we observed the two-minutes silence at 11am with a live bugler playing the Last Post and Reveille to signal the beginning and the end – poignant music and a deeply reflective time of quiet.
The children made paper poppies and stuck them onto a large paper cross while I spoke about the loss of life, the destruction and horror of war, and the need for us all to go on working for peace in our time so as to truly honour the memory of those we were remembering. I spoke about the many Bibles and copies of the New Testament carried onto the battlefields of the First World War and of the comfort and hope the words we had been reading would have brought to those facing unimaginable horrors and even death. While the brass band played ‘Abide with Me’, we all added more poppies to the cross as we remembered not only the loss of life in war but the hope we have through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. We listened to the seemingly never-ending list of names of those who never came back home to our community 100 years ago. By all accounts it was a good Remembrance service.
But I’m also remembering another 9/11 a quarter of a century ago: the event locals know as Der Mauerfall – the fall of the wall – in Berlin on 9 November 1989. I remember it so well – I was not long out of college with a joint degree in German and Russian and had spent time in several former Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union. I still find myself looking at photos of central Berlin today, particularly with the Lichtgrenze line of balloons to light up the former border along a 15km stretch through the city centre, and being amazed at how open and ‘normal’ it all looks.
Of course remembering this 9/11 is an even bigger deal for Germans than it is for me – their blogs will be the ones to read today. But it’s a tricky date for Germans because there are other 9/11s in their history books too: Kristallnacht in Berlin in 1938, and the Kaiser’s abdication in 1918.
But the thought that is actually most on my mind today is remembering 10 November 1989. It was a normal Friday morning in the office, a job I’d only been doing for a month at that point. Like many of my colleagues, I’d stayed up late watching the Berlin TV footage the night before, so there was a real buzz to our conversations that morning. Suddenly the buzz escalated even more. The guy at the workstation next to me came dashing across our 1980s state-of-the-art open plan office and began frantically tapping the divert code into the cumbersome phone sitting on his desk so that calls would go through to the department secretary. And then, as quickly as he’d arrived, he was off, calling over his shoulder as he went: ‘See you guys! Having the afternoon off. Driving to Berlin. Back in on Tuesday. Have a good weekend!’ Seems he’d negotiated a day or so of annual leave on an impulse and was off for the most amazing weekend city break. In the days before budget airlines, and with the channel tunnel still be being dug out, his journey meant a drive to Dover, ferry over the Channel to France, and a very long drive on to Berlin.
I sat for ages after he’d gone – the whirlwind he’d created was still whirling in my mind. I was forced to admit my main feeling in that moment was jealousy, but after barely a month in my new job I was in no position to try and do what he had just done. Imagine being there! Imagine being in Berlin in those incredible days in the city’s history! He came back – buzzing even more – and regaled the office with stories of climbing on the wall, drinking celebratory Sekt (German bubbly) and chipping bits out of it. And he proudly paraded his concrete booty for us all to see.
His experience showed me that there are some moments in our lives when an impulsive decision means we can be eyewitnesses to the most amazing times. And, as for me – a quarter of a century on – I’m still waiting to re-visit Berlin and see the city undivided at last.