Berlin: 3 snapshots

The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall brings back some personal memories. Three in particular are amusing but illustrative.

The first is from when I hitchhiked to Berlin in 1973 as an 18 year old, getting a lift from inside West Germany and going along the “corridor” road through East Germany to West Berlin. I had intended to stay in a youth hostel, but they were all full. Being skint, I slept in my sleeping bag in some bushes next to the monument to the victims of Stalinism on Reuterplatz until I was woken by some movement just after 3am and opened my eyes to see a rat right in front of my nose!

I gave up on trying to sleep, especially as it was a midsummer’s day and already daylight. I instead decided to wander around West Berlin. I had a dreadful first impression: It was a cloudy and grey morning, and windy enough for litter to be blown down the deserted streets. Since it was still early, everything was shut and hardly anyone was around.

I eventually reached the wall and went along it to Checkpoint Charlie, arriving there just after it opened for the day. As I had a UK passport (i.e. from one of the four occupying powers), I was entitled to go through to the East. With some trepidation, I paid my fee, was interrogated by an armed border guard, and went through.

As it happened, the sun came out just after I crossed. It was the morning rush hour, and everywhere was bustling, lively and even colourful thanks to the sunshine. I remember the showcase area around Alexanderplatz was gleaming.

In other words, I got the exact opposite impressions of West and East Berlin from what I was expecting!

But this favourable impression of the East did not last. Although in the centre there was some impressive new social housing, you didn’t have to go far to find pretty decrepit housing and shops with meagre fare. And above all, there was the wall itself. On the other hand, a bookshop I browsed in had a much wider array of books than I had expected to find.

I returned to the West in the late afternoon to find it now buzzing and full of life as the evening activities got underway. A protest march had just finished, and long-haired hippies smoked hashish in a park. At that time, West Berlin had a very lively youth and student scene, not least because its residents were exempt from military service, which was then obligatory in West Germany proper: many young West Germans, especially of a more radical bent, came to West Berlin to avoid it.

Over the next two days, I discovered the quirks and the anomalies of a divided city. The wall itself was one, following the arbitrary zig-zags of historic district boundaries that sometimes left whole streets cut off for a few yards in the middle, or even a whole derelict block that notionally belonged to the East but was abandoned on the western side of the wall.

The western U-bahn underground route was another. For a few miles, it passed under the East, slowing down past disused and sealed-off stops, eerily lit from the light of the train, where you could see old posters from the 1950s peeling off the walls.

One station, at Friedrichstrasse, was a junction with two East Berlin underground routes, where you could get off and, if you had the appropriate document (i.e. not if you were German) cross the border. Without such a document, you could only stay on the Western side and watch, through a metal grill, passengers in the East — so close yet so far.

Meanwhile the S-Bahn overground rail network was run by the East – even on its western segments. I never puzzled out how that worked in practice.

My second visit was in 1979 after the Helsinki agreement had been signed, and detente and peaceful coexistence were the order of the day.

It made little practical difference for Berliners other than the right for an occasional visit to the East for Westerners who wanted to visit family members. This notably was not the case the other way around, except when they reached retirement age, when the East didn’t mind them leaving to take a West German pension instead.

The Helsinki agreement provided for East-West youth cooperation, and so it came about that Western youth organisations, such as the Scouts, the YMCA, and youth sections of political parties, were from time to time invited to attend youth events in the Communist countries, from festivals to congresses. This was also the case the other way around, though the Easterners allowed to travel west often seemed more like the younger members of their diplomatic staff.

I found myself invited to attend, as an observer, the congress in East Berlin of the “World Federation of Democratic Youth” (WFDY), in reality the Communist youth international.

I had a bit of fun at the border, where I didn’t initially reveal my status as an honoured guest. When asked what the purpose of my visit was, I said “political”. A more senior official was promptly summoned over, who enquired further about what I meant. I said I was hoping to meet young people from across the eastern countries to discuss politics and the prospects for change. The official’s face looked alarmed. An even more senior official was summoned. A couple of extra guards came with him. They eyed me suspiciously and demanded more details. When I eventually revealed that it was for the WFDY Congress, their attitude suddenly changed to fawning and asking if I needed any assistance.

Arriving at the Congress, I was given a room in the Hotel Stadt Berlin, the prestige hotel of East Berlin, where the top brass of WFDY were staying. The top floor had a nice bar with a jazz band, but the meeting room, used by the politburo of the WFDY, was also on the top floor. It met there every evening of the Congress and the band was not allowed to play until the meeting finished.

This became an interesting indicator of the behind-the-scenes internal difficulties of WFDY. Over the years, it had become more difficult for the centre to control the affiliates. The Italian Young Communists were full-on reformists and democrats, well before any sign of perestroika in the USSR. Some of the third world liberation movements that they had eagerly got to affiliate to them over the years had minds of their own. But, appearances had to be kept up. At the Congress, all motions were adopted unanimously. In practice, that meant that they had to be negotiated among the affiliates the night before. That’s why the meetings on the top floor of the Hotel Stadt Berlin dragged on and on. Each night, the band started later: 10:30 pm on the first night, midnight of the second, 2 am on the third. An early sign of — and a great way to measure — the growing disunity of the Communist world.

My  third story is from 1989, the day the wall “fell”.

The European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee happened to be meeting in Berlin that day. One of the Irish MEPs, Pat Cooney, had missed the night’s events, having retired early to bed. The following morning, his hotel had run out of English language newspapers. Still blissfully unaware of what had happened, he got on the coach to the meeting, which was in the Reichstag building, right next to the wall. He wondered why everyone was peering out of the other side of the coach at one stage, but assumed there had been a traffic accident. Taking his seat at the committee meeting, he put his earphones to hear the chairman go on and on about this historic day in Berlin marking a new stage in European history. Realising that he was the only person in the room not to understand the significance of the chairman’s remarks, and not wishing to display his ignorance, he asked a colleague whether there had been much newspaper coverage of what had happened. Hearing that it was on the front page of every newspaper in the world, many of which had special extra editions, he realised that something so important had happened that he could not possibly let on that he did not know what it was. He left the room to phone his wife in Dublin and asked her whether anything had happened that day in Berlin. Once she told him, he phoned every Irish radio station to give an interview; “after all,” he said, “I was there!”

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