The last time I was in Berlin was 1975. I was a fairly fresh faced fifteen year old on a school trip. A day trip to Berlin was the wonderful excuse for skipping lessons for the day. We flew from Gatwick with Freddie Laker at the crack of dawn and arrived in Templehoff in pouring rain.
We were driven around West Berlin in a coach while the terribly eager tour guide told us how many more trees there were in the West than the East. She even claimed ideological superiority on the basis that West Berlin has more dogs than East Berlin.
This reminded me of a meeting I attended at SHAPE where a US Army colonel explained the mineshaft theory, claiming the Soviets would ‘win’ because they could hide more of their population in mineshafts than the US to avoid nuclear armageddon .
Eventually we were dropped at Checkpoint Charlie and literally moved from a world of colour and neon to black and white. East Berlin was all grey concrete and most of the shops were closed. I remember going into a book store that seemed to only carry every word written by Marx or Lenin in every language known to man. I bought a hard backed copy of Das Capital in English for about 20p.
A gang of us school boys went into a foreigners store with visions of cut price caviar and vodka on our minds. Strangely the only things they had was picked cucumbers and Cadbury Dairy Milk.
Despite the gloom there were no street lights on and the whole of Unter Den Linden looked like a set from a spy movie. Which in many ways in was.
We came back through Checkpoint Charlie and as the only kid with an American passport mine was held back for checking. I made some quip about them not having to worry because I was a spy. That went down like a bacon sandwich at an ISIS convention. But I was 15.
Then back to West Berlin and the lights came on. Neon spewed from every bar and shop front. Our teachers foolishly gave us an hour to explore so a bunch of chums found the nearest bar where the staff were only too happy to sell us high tar German cigarettes, Rott Hande, from memory and we fired up these super cheap gaspers while guzzling our beer.
So Berlin was part artificial capitalist shop window and part hideous endorsement of the failure of the Eastern Block. Both sides maintained a high state of tension secure in the fact that West Berlin was capable of being over run by the East in about fifteen minutes.
Fast forward thirty five years and I’m back in Berlin staying in the fabulous Hotel Adlon in Unter den Linden by the Brandenburg Gate in what was East Berlin.
Yes it’s changed out of all recognition but the reason for this post isn’t the physical changes it is a salute to the politicians and people of Berlin.
Most cities suffer catastrophic upheaval maybe once in a century. Berlin had it twice, in 1941-45 and 1961-1989. However, it’s not the destruction that I want to focus on but the spirit of the city.
Germany as a whole has been very upfront about acknowledging it’s Nazi past. Hard not to. Berlin has many powerful memorials to the Jews of Europe who died.
The Holocaust Memorial is particularly powerful as you walk between concrete blocks all of different heights symbolising the individuals who died. The unnerving bit is that you hear voices in other rows rather like the voices of ghosts. Go. And take your time.
I was expecting the Nazi past was going to be the most central theme in Berlin but of course it couldn’t be. The division of the country from 1961-1990 was the greatest wound the country suffered in many ways and the supreme act of political will in reunification it’s greatest triumph. The sensitivity in which the city has both commemorated and celebrated the wall and it’s fall is an object lesson to cities everywhere.
The path the wall took is remembered by a double row of bricks that snakes around the city pavements in a seemly never ending band. In places single sections of the wall remain with plaques explaining the history. It is a remarkable and powerful reminder of the division that effected not only city but the country.
So visit Berlin but understand that this is a special city with a unique history and set of challenges. But the effort required in reunification was immense and I applaud them for their success.
Now onto the political bit. I am by nature a glass-half-full person so the idea of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union depresses me beyond belief. If you want to effect change then roll your sleeves up and try and change things from within rather than stand on the sidelines chucking rocks. Or come to Berlin and see how politicians with vision and people with courage can effect change.