Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Berlin Wall

Several hundred meters of the Berlin Wall still exist. While in much of the city, all traces of the appalling structure have been erased, at the East Side Gallery enough of the original concrete slabs of oppression have been left vertical for the tourist to marvel, the Berliners to remember - and the graffiti artists to paint. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like to live in a city partitioned against the will of the population. This was no 'peace wall' designed to separate warring factions, but a political imposition upon a people who neither liked it, nor wanted it.

As a child of the Cold War era, The Berlin Wall was something I was aware of from very young days. My two-dimensional hero of children's literature, "Biggles" was always fighting against equally two-dimensional villains who were invariably German. In the WWI tales, Biggles nemesis Erich von Stalhein was a nationalistic German flying ace. By the time the second war occurred he was an ideological Nazi, by the 1950s von Stalhein had morphed again into an East German communist, who also was involved in crime (to mirror Biggles postwar move into the police!). My first impression of the Berlin Wall undoubtedly involved Biggles and his team making a daring spying raid over it, under the nose of von Stalhein himself. The unsubtle cliche's of such books presented the land to the East of the wall as a shadowy world of tyranny and oppression - which history has revealed to be uncomfortably close to the truth in many ways.

To Westerners the sombre concrete division was always known as the "Wall". In Eastern political-speak it was the Anti-Fascist Protective Measure, as in Stalinist thinking (and Ulbricht was nothing of not a true Stalinist), the presence of West Berlin was a colonial threat to the peoples State. Two previous blockades of West Berlin and ensuing international crises were formalised in 1961 when during the night of 13th Aug, DDR troops rolled barbed wire and building materials out along the dividing lines between the sectors. The relatively free movement of people and goods between sectors was proving to be a terrible drain on East Germany who lost vast numbers of people in a Western migration in search of the democratic freedom and economic prosperity unavailable in the East.

Ulbricht, his deputy Honecker and his Soviet overseer Nikita Kruschev, decided to seal off West Berlin with a permanent impermeable barrier, that would make the western city imprisoned within walls, an island surrounded by a red sea of Marxism-Leninism. West Berlin would prove to be a very strange kind of prison however, as it was one which people seemed willing to risk their lives breaking into.

"One Day We'll Be In Charge"

On the East side of the wall there were the infamous kill-zones, the searchlights, trip-wires, attack dogs and gun emplacements. Would-be escapees were not allowed up to the wall itself. Not so in many places on the Western side and the squalid concrete panels were consistently targeted by Western graffiti artists who painted their pictures and slogans as fast as the authorities could whitewash them away. This fine tradition of defiance is celebrated at the East Side Gallery where artists can now approach both sides of the wall. The image above of a Trabant smashing through the wall is particularly striking. There was one successful early escape when a vehicle rammed right through the wall from the East - but it involved a digger rather than a Trab - which would undoubtedly have fared less well on impact!

"No More Walls"

An artist sketching out his lines for his panel

This piece of wall may be a bustling tourist trap today, where in summer mounds of sand are dropped to create a beach-party atmosphere by the banks of the River Spree; but in quiet moments it still has the ability to cast a sinister air over the place. It is still possible to imagine desperate people planning a way through these kill-zones in search of freedom, while the more cautious hung back and willed them to succeed.

Having recently read some moving, and disturbing accounts of both successful and failed escapees; standing under the wall and looking up at its 'anti-climb' coving at the top was as remarkable an experience as touching the wall itself. It may be stating the obvious, but this wall, and all that it represents will be mentioned whenever a history of the 20th Century is written. In my childhood world atlas there was a page in which all the western-orientated countries were blue, while all who were orientated around Moscow or Beijing were coloured Red. The whole world it seemed was red or blue for half a century of potentially terminal conflict. The most interesting points on that map were always where the Red and the Blue met, such as where the 39th parallel runs through Korea - or where a grotesque concrete was wall thrown up to keep Berliners apart. The image of the fall of communism, which will endure for centuries to come, will not be some Hungarian dictat which opened the border to Austria (which actually started the final rusting-through of the iron curtain), but of jubilant Berliner's astride this wall.

"Escape is a mighty method to destabilise dominion"

Honecker used to boast that the wall would be there in centuries to come. This was a strange boast, as it somewhat suggested that he knew that the GDR would never gain legitimacy in the eyes of its people and would have to hold them captive for generations. Surely such statements were tacit admissions or failure rather than actual belief in his own bizarre reasoning and Leninist rhetoric? In a remarkably short period of time, both the Eastern State and its appalling wall were gone. The route of the wall is largely obscured in Berlin today. The watchtowers and barbed wire are gone, the dogs and their masters have departed, the bricked-up windows re-opened; while fuelling the building boom has replaced surveillance as the occupation of choice for career-savvy Berliners. The route is marked in many places by a simple row of cobbles, which act as a reminder of the wall which once tore this city apart.

Monday, December 23, 2013


"Of course, you'll have to look at The Reichstag", my friend from Berlin e-mailed me back in the summer when we were planning our trip there. As one of the 'must see' things to do in the city we decided to go there not expecting much, but aware of its active present and turbulent past. The guide books all stress the need to book to get in, and to get there in plenty of time for your allotted slot in the schedule. They are right to as well, in addition to that, the guide books also should mention that bringing the paperwork from your internet booking and photo ID is also necessary. We had left our passports in the safe at the hotel, but thankfully had our EU photo-driving licenses on us, which they accepted despite the fact that one of them has expired!

The old building retains its historic exterior, largely intact or reconstructed after the ravages of war. The four corner towers are meant to symbolise the four main nations who came together in formal union in 1871. The interior however, has been completely rebuilt into an incredibly impressive parliament for the the re-Unified Germany.

While the great chamber of the Bundestag dominates the inside of the building, it the great glass dome which has been added to the roof which catches the attention. Early photos of the building show it with a classical dome, which is entirely absent in Cold-War era pictures, now Norman Foster is the architect responsible for re-crowning the building.

The most extraordinary feature of the dome is a great inverted cone made up of hundreds of mirrors, which appears to hang in the dome without support. Rather than just being a weird feature, it serves the purpose of directing light and heat from the glass dome, down into the chamber below.

 It has a vast sunscreen which rotates to reduce direct glare from the sun dazzling the parliamentarians below.

Visitors can walk their way up a long curving ramp which circles like a helter-skelter, up to a viewing platform at the dome's summit.

While the ramp provides views across the city, and down into the chamber below; it is actually the dome which holds the attention - its is incredible.

At the foot of the dome there is a huge circular window which looks down into the place from which re-unified Germany has been governed since 1999, when central government re-located here from Bonn. Around this there is a photographic display about the history of the Reichstag (now Bundestag). The information about the foundations of Germany is interesting, but the history becomes alarming in the 1930s, when in the face of economic collapse, and the twin threats of Communism and National Socialism; the Reichstag was set on fire. Historians disagree as to whether the Nazis themselves were responsible for the arson attack and the immense damage it caused, or whether they merely used it for their own ends. Either way, it was under the pretence that this fire was the clarion call for a full communist revolt that they were able to pass the notorious 'Enabling Act', which was the legal basis for the Weimar Republic's transformation into The Third Reich. Waverers were frightened enough of communism, or simply bullied into handing Hitler the power to end German democracy for twelve catastrophic years. Again we were struck by the sensitivity with which contemporary Germany addresses the horrors of its past. In the historical and photographic display, there was mention of Hitler, but only one photograph - and even in that his face was partly obscured as he was turned away from the camera towards a group of athletes. Denial of this era would be wrong; providing a platform for any form of veneration would be unthinkable. They have pitched it perfectly, allowing for neither.

Incredibly, this building once the playground of tyrants, is once again a symbol of democracy. The German Democratic Republic (so-called because it wasn't Democratic!), imploded at the end of 1990s, when it became clear that while Kruschev and Brezhnev would act as military guarantors for their allies regimes in Eastern and Central Europe, the new Soviet Premier, Gorbachev would most certainly not. Once this was established, the threat required to permanently allow the failing state to continue was removed and the process of its unravelling was inevitable. East Germany was effectively invited to join the West German democratic system under a formal re-unification presided over by Helmut Kohl. 

This reunification was massively popular at the time - but has not been without its detractors subsequently. There are Western taxpayers who think they are over-burdened to pay for the development of the impoverished East. There are those from the former East, who look nostalgically (Ostalgically, actually) back at the days of equal opportunities, equal incomes and full employment and forget the Stasi; while most disturbingly the last communist ruler of the East, Egon Krenz, described Re-Unification as an "Anschluss". Yet despite these minority voices, and the inevitable hurdles to face, the Re-Unification of two states who for half a century had parallel, but totally different and incompatible systems; has been astonishingly successful. They have also symbolised this process with a quite amazing building.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Berlin: The Miscellaneous Photo Album

Not expensive street furniture, just the trunks of the trees painted white.

So much of Berlin is being developed that there are cranes and huge developments everywhere.

And so marks the spot, almost. This inauspicious car park is the place where the Third Reich ended, as it is the site of Hitler's bunker. There is a sign which marks the location and gives a few cursory notes about the dimensions of the underground network of rooms and passages. Quite properly, there is nothing here which any misguided people could use as a memorial. The place is marked, but is kept as a rather seedy little carpark. Quite right.

It seems that the commercialisation of Christmas is now complete.

I actually can't stand shopping centres. I will go to inordinate lengths to avoid the ghastly places... but even I had to admit that the Christmas decorations in this one were rather spectacular and tasteful.

Of course, you don't need to go to Germany for a German Christmas market, every town in the UK now has one. However, the best and originals are here...

German beer, German Sausage, a splendid night out with my wife...

And a happy New Year.

Friedrichstrasse, where East met West.


Friedrichstrasse Station once sat right on the border between East and West Berlin. Cold War photos of this station show it divided down the centre, with a fortified military checkpoint running down the centre between the platforms. It is alleged that the first person in the West who was alerted to 'something suspicious happening' on the night on which the Berlin wall was initially hastily thrown up under cover of darkness, was a station manager here who realised that through-trains were being turned back. The black-and white image invokes something of that era, and the Le-Carre image of the wall which I grew up.

The very Russian-looking Oberbaum Bridge in Eastern Berlin, viewed through the ubiquitous building site fencing..



"Back in the DDR"


Potsdamerplatz has been described as epitomising the new face of Berlin - and with good reason. A generation ago this sector of the city was a wasteland, a patch of heavily fortified no-man's land between East and West. The collapse of the East German State meant that not only did the State-controlled economy end rather abruptly but it also gifted German capitalism with a rich supply of development land in the heart of the city. 

What has replaced the barbed wire, and attack dogs is office blocks, shopping centres, European head-offices of Japanese multi-nationals and bustling outdoor markets. 

The Sony Centre, with its multi-coloured floodlights and extraordinary roof towers over the crowds below in Potsdamerplatz.