Monday, 13 May 2013

The Berlin Wall

Back in 1973 I was given guided tours of both halves of Berlin. We travelled by overnight train from Ostend to West Berlin, and were then taken by coach through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin.

This was our first sight of the Berlin Wall, from the coach.

This is Checkpoint Charlie, seen from the west. It is now a museum of the Wall, including startling exhibits of the lengths people were prepared to go to in order to escape.

Contrary to popular belief, our guide in East Berlin wasn't some appalling old battleaxe, but a pretty young lady dressed in a leather miniskirt. However, she did retail the official propaganda line, explaining that the Wall was necessary to prevent spies getting through from the west.
The only place we were allowed to leave the coach was to look at the Soviet war memorial (which is still there), but we were able to glimpse aspects of East Berlin through the windows, such as this street of housing

and the Berliner Dom church, still in ruins almost 30 years after the end of the war, but now rebuilt after the Reunification
There were also, naturally, the obligatory statues of Lenin.
For our return to the West, we all had to get out as the coach was thoroughly searched, including the luggage compartment and tool-box. There was even a mirror being slid underneath to check for escapees who might be clinging to the drive-rod.

In the afternoon we saw the wall from the western side. I was amazed at how squalid it was. Part of it was simply old houses with their windows filled in with crudely laid breezeblocks. Wreaths were laid where victims had been shot trying to cross, and we saw someone had sprayed “Murder!” on the wall.

 The famous Brandenburg Gate was right on the front line.

The Potsdamerplatz was like a deserted Piccadilly Circus with a wall right across the middle. Here we could climb up scaffolding and look across the wall, or wave at the East German guards. We could see it wasn’t a single wall, but a whole no-man’s-land with barbed wire, tank traps and presumably minefields. This is a now-rather-embarrassing picture of me posing by a scaffolding tower. I wondered whether the rusty marks were bullet holes!

When I returned to Berlin in 2001, I found the centre all glittering new architecture and the Reichstag rebuilt. And the Wall was gone, apart from a few short stretches which displayed graffiti art - some of it very good.
   The Berlin Wall is often confused with the Berlin Airlift of 1948-9. In fact the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 by the East German Communist government (presumably on the instructions of the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev) in order to stem the flight to the west of East Germans - especially skilled and educated people, whom the regime could ill afford to lose.  The Wall actually reduced tension in Berlin, and made it less likely that war might break out there, since there would be no more face-to-face confrontations between the different armed forces, as had happened in the past; but it was undoubtedly a propaganda disaster for the Communists.
   President Kennedy in June 1963 made his famous speech promising to defend Berlin: "Ich bin ein Berliner". It has frequently been pointed out that, to a German, a "Berliner" is actually a kind of doughnut; so he was saying "I am a doughnut". It was as if he had gone to Frankfurt and proclaimed "I am a frankfurter"; or if he was in Hamburg ..... need we say more? In fact, of course, everyone who heard the speech knew exactly what Kennedy meant.  

1 comment:

  1. What a great post, came across it by accident but I am glad I did. Best regards, Michael.