Berlin - Life after the Wall
Last November it was 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall. I remember, as most of us do, watching it then on the television, as I rocked my first-born daughter to sleep and contemplated the fact that the wall, which had been erected in 1961, the year of my birth, was now collapsing as the new generation of our family (my daughter was also the first grandchild on both sides) was beginning. She, perhaps, would know a different world; a freer world I hoped, watching those long separated Berliners from different sides reunite. I decided I would visit the city one day to see how this momentous event had unfolded in a future time. Last year as talk began of the 25th anniversary of the opening up of Eastern Europe I realised I’d let a quarter of a century go by before I’d got there, and yet it also seemed a good enough distance to see the effect of the changes. My daughter had grown into a confident, sophisticated young woman and I wondered whether the city had done the same.
Reading up on the history before the trip was fascinating. Berlin was built on industry and manufacturing which brought it wealth. It even had a welfare system that put it decades ahead of the rest of the world. The First World War turned Berlin from booming to blighted, a city of hunger and disease. But with the help of foreign loans it had recovered enough by the mid 1920’s to rival Paris. Artists, writers and scientists flocked to one of the largest and freest cities in Europe. The Cabarets and stage shows were legendary, as were the fashions and shops and a cosmopolitan mix of people from all races and religions, including a large and very wealthy Jewish community. Then the American stock market crash hit hard and the subsequent depression allowed the rise of the Nazi party and of course the Second World War. Berlin was torn apart once more. The inhabitants that survived either deportation or starvation were supressed and depressed and mainly homeless as the city was bombed to within an inch of its life. They scraped an existence for a while; hiding from violent occupying Soviet soldiers and then came division and ‘The Wall’. Erected by the communists to prevent the increasing defections to the West through Berlin. The east of the city was sealed off by troops in a single night and families didn’t even have chance to reconvene on either side. Suddenly loved ones were torn apart and destined for very different lifestyles as West Berlin began their slow recovery and East Berlin disappeared behind a huge barbed-wire wall for the next 28 years until that well documented day in 1989.
On arrival in any city I often take a bus tour. I find it an easy way to orient myself and to make initial acquaintance with the main sights. Berlin was no exception and after checking into the beautiful 19th century Regent Hotel and chatting to the old organ player outside, I was soon viewing the city from an open-topped upper deck. The commentary was fascinating, covering both the old and the new. We viewed the tall iconic TV tower (“This was erected as a symbol of Socialism. You can eat at the top.”), and the Funkturm (“Our version of the Eiffel Tower.”), The Brandenburg Gate, with its famous chariot and four horses driven by the Winged Goddess of Victory (“A symbol of division during the Cold War but now a symbol of German unification.”), the Reichstag with its new glass dome and mirror-clad funnel (“Very eco-friendly; the mirrors reflect light and the rainwater collects at the top”) and the government offices (“Wave to Angela Merkel, she is in today. Did you know she grew up in the East?”). Then on to visit a replica of Checkpoint Charlie (“It’s tacky but there is a good outdoor exhibit.”), the remnants of the wall behind glass (“We never thought we’d have to protect the wall!”), the Victory Column (“A lady with her head in the clouds”) and the magnificent cathedral, Berliner Dom (“Restoration work took 40 years but now it doubles as a concert hall.”).
The rest of the week was spent revisiting these sights on foot or by the efficient underground rail system, history book in hand. I had high tea at a table on the terrace of the famous Adlon Hotel overlooking the Brandenburg Gate where the journalists used to gather in the hope of any excitement from the East and previously the rich and famous used to loiter. Now rebuilt to its old grandeur they are attracted back again – this was the hotel from which Michael Jackson famously dangled his baby over the balcony. I sipped coffee in the revived Alexanderplatz, strolled between the lime trees of the Unter den Linden that Marlene Dietrich once sang about. I browsed the UNESCO Museum Island, a repository for vast amounts of artefacts, sculptures and artworks and saw the beginnings of the controversial reconstruction of the Prussian Berlin Palace, which hopes to reopen in 2018.
One sunny day I took a boat down the River Spree and, beer in hand, saw the city from a different angle, followed by lunch at a riverside restaurant. On a particularly rainy day I was absorbed in the Gemaldegalerie; a gallery and museum that told history from a very balanced perspective explaining the forces that swept up the German people and locked them in so tight they couldn’t escape. There is also a moving monument to the shocking deportations that followed. Then there were floors and floors of precious paintings by famous artists collected together from both East and West. I ended up having both lunch and dinner in their restaurant, as I was unable to tear myself away.
The most moving day was spent in the Jewish Quarter, where the gilded dome of the new synagogue is a place of both worship and remembrance and the Holocaust Memorial - 2711 oblong sarcophagi of various heights - rises up sombrely from undulating ground. It took 17 years to plan and build and is Germany’s main memorial to the genocide victims. The details and letters on make it all very personal.
I met up with Hilde, a Berliner in her late thirties and a friend of a friend. Her family had lived in West Berlin but her mother’s sister and her family had lived in the East. She remembers as a child going through Checkpoint Charlie to visit her aunt and cousins and the wildly different lifestyle they’d had in the 1980’s. “Like stepping back into another time with no technology or machines.”
Of course they hadn’t been able to take much over as searches were always made and the aunt and the family had never been able to visit them. Then just as she was turning into a teenager everything changed.
“It seemed like the city partied for weeks,” she told me, “and the crowds! People poured in from all over the East to cross to the West, from Hungary and Czechoslovakia, all speaking languages we couldn’t understand and we poured champagne over all the cars as they came through. It was eight more months before Germany reunited properly though, which makes 2015 the real Silver Anniversary.”
However Hilde did go to the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the wall’s fall. “The crowds and atmosphere was the same as all those years ago.” She said. “But this time I took white balloons. We have to put that history behind us and move on. We don’t want to be defined by the events of the last century any longer. We lead a new generation who must look forward because we barely remember the old state of affairs.”
Having investigated the past I turned to my quest for the present day Berlin. I found it at Potsdam. Once the oldest part of the city and the main transport intersection, it was here the trains stopped in 1961. There is a brick trail through part of the city showing where the wall once stood. Most of it was taken away for souvenirs and only the protected bit and some pieces in the museum remain now. In its place are the steel and glass walls of concert halls, casinos, restaurants and high-domed shopping centres full of the designs on any western city street. New and modern is the theme for the buildings springing up all over the 30-mile strip of waste-ground that used to be no-mans land. Here is urban renewal at its most frenetic. East is merging with West rapidly to complete the reunion of the city as one. The problems of supporting all the immigrants and poorer cousins from the East that was talked about after the wall’s collapse seem to have vanished from sight as cranes line the horizon and dig and dig and builders work from early morning until the light completely fails. The German work ethic is much in evidence yet everyone is so polite and friendly. They helped me when I was lost, they told me things I should see and recounted their histories if asked. They politely enquired how I found their city in return and were obviously all very proud of it. I felt safe walking around, even by the river after dusk and everywhere was so scrupulously clean.
The bars and restaurants were a mix of western chains and the edgy and eclectic and the young people parked their decorated bicycles outside to gather in them cheerfully and chattily. The girls reminded me of my own daughters; they dressed the same and were passionately interested in life and the future and the new. It seemed Berlin had grown up the same after all and has today become one of the most popular cities in the world to visit. There are still cultural, political and social differences but they don’t seem to be bothering the next generation. To them ‘The Wall’ is just something their parents and grandparents talked about. They seemed much more excited about 2014, which was the year Germany won the World Cup and paraded around Berlin with it. One girl told me that the only way you can tell whether someone is from the East or West now is by his or her accent. That seemed to say it all, no doubt in another 25 years even that won’t be possible.