Taking in Berlin

Susan Flanagan
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The wall is long gone, but pieces of the past are everywhere

A mural painted on East Side Gallery called Der Bruder Kiss shows fellow communists Erich Honecker and Leonid Breznev kissing. Submitted photo

It's hard to believe the wall that divided a city for nearly 30 years has already been gone for 20 years.
When my husband and I took our five children to Berlin this summer, we were surprised to find that spray-painted concrete pieces of the wall are still sold in most souvenir shops. For as little as five euros you can take home your very own piece of history. Or is it just a chunk of some demolished apartment block?
Berlin is, after all, the European capital of graffiti. Every conceivable surface has been spray-painted. If the graffiti artists can't reach high enough with a small crane, they lower themselves by ropes from rooftops. Trains are "bombed" on a regular basis by artists disguised as after-hours maintenance workers wearing orange safety vests, carrying kit bags full of spray cans.
Within an hour of arriving at Berlin's Schonefeld Airport, as we neared the section of the city called Kreuzberg, where our friends and hosts, Thomas and Tim Luis, live, we were bombarded by huge murals covering the sides of buildings. One particularly big one - I'm talking at least seven storeys tall - showed a headless man wearing a shirt and tie with his wrists bound by a chain between two watches. "Hey, I've seen the video of the guy, Blu, painting that on YouTube," said my computer-addicted son, Liam.
It says something about a place when the only image a visitor has seen prior to visiting is one of its graffiti. But it's not surprising. Ever since the wall went up surrounding West Berlin in 1961, people have been at the ready with spray cans.

Before and after
Although most of the wall is long gone, a 1.3-kilometre stretch has been left standing near Thomas's apartment along the Spree River, on the East side of the Oberbaum Bridge. It is known as East Side Gallery and on it, artists from all over the world have painted 105 murals, that are far classier than the messy haphazard graffiti of 20 years ago.
Where the wall no longer stands, a double row of cobblestones built into the ground marks where the wall used to be - all 150 kilometres of it. Trains and buses ride over the cobblestones as if there was never a wall, but it was not like that when the it first opened. The first time I went to Berlin in August 1987, it was weird and sort of eerie seeing the streetcar tracks come to a dead stop at the wall. But it was probably even weirder when the wall opened up and people realized there were no transportation links between the two halves of the city. In fact, the subway station closest to Thomas's apartment was only built recently to link the East subway system to the West.
To grasp what a mess things must have been, you have to understand that Berlin is a city with a population of 3.4 million and has, for over a century, relied heavily on public transit. No one ever imagined that, after the Second World War, the U.S.S.R., the U.S.A., France and the U.K. would not only divide Germany into four zones, but also Berlin, the sprawling metropolis that lay smack dab in the middle of East Germany.
I don't envy the post-Wall urban planner who had to straighten things out. Now though, everything runs as precisely as clockwork. Berlin's transit system is efficient, extensive and diverse - much to the delight of our third child, Ryan, who considered getting to the zoo, for example, to be more exciting than actually being at the zoo. In one outing we might take a streetcar, train and subway. And, joy oh joy, a double-decker bus that you pay an arm and a leg for in London is the same price as a regular bus in Berlin. Luckily for us, we didn't have to figure out how much to pay every time we jumped on board a moving vehicle; our friends helped us buy a five-day unlimited tourist pass that relieved any travel-related stress. Except, of course, when the baby threw up on the double-decker train. Twice. In one afternoon.
Sometimes, it was nice to go under our own power and rent bicycles (my husband still marvels at the fact you could rent one for four hours for the same price as a beer, and beer, by the way is cheaper than water, which is almost always sparkling and served lukewarm). It was nice, too, to actually see where we were going sometimes rather than be dipping into tunnels and coming out totally turned around. Whenever I emerged from underground I would never know if we had come out in the East or the West.
One day I asked Thomas which side we were on. He looked at me incredulously. "The East, of course. Look at the buildings. They are all grey."

Wrong side of the tracks
And indeed they were. Everything in the East is pretty dull, colourwise. Twenty-nine years of Communist rule is hard to erase. The people in the East were housed in huge, grey apartment blocks that were always dirty from the soot that built up from the cheap coal used to heat everything.
And, we all know, at least on paper, what life meant under a communist regime. No one had the right to own their own business or land. Travel restrictions prevented people in Eastern Germany from travelling to the West to see what was happening in the world.
Special jamming towers even broadcast loud noise and prevented stations in the East from picking up Western transmissions. The Communist government wanted to keep its people ignorant of advances in the West so they wouldn't complain.
This worked everywhere except Berlin where East and West mingled, and the people in East Berlin quickly realized what they were missing. While they drove cheap Trabants and Skodas, people in West Berlin had expensive Mercedes and BMWs. While the people in the West could go to fancy restaurants and discos and enjoy movies and TV shows from Hollywood, the people in the East had to be satisfied with government broadcasts.
The residents of the East were so dissatisfied with their living conditions that they started to flee to the West. The only way the Communists could keep their inhabitants from escaping was by putting up a wall to keep their people in. So, although the wall surrounded West Berlin, it was the Easterners who were imprisoned.

Piece by piece
The wall didn't just spring up in one day. There were other blockades long before the idea of a wall was born. The first blockade went up around West Berlin on June 24, 1948, when Stalin, fed up with his people being lured to the corruption of the West, tried to starve out the Westerners by preventing supplies, cars and trains from entering West Berlin.
Stalin's plan did not work, however, because the U.S. immediately began airlifting supplies in to their people. Realizing they were fighting a losing battle, the Soviets lifted the barrier less than a year later, but the Cold War had begun. Soon after, the U.S., France and Britain got together and formed the Federal Republic of Germany and three months after that NATO was formed. It was in 1946 that Winston Churchill first used the term "Iron Curtain."
The Communists had no way of preventing their professionals from fleeing to the West via Berlin. In the first half of 1961, more than 200,000 East Germans had fled to West Germany.
Soon, the East German economy was on the brink of collapse. The East German leader pleaded with Krushchev, who had replaced Stalin, to do something. So on Aug. 17, 1961, residents of Berlin awoke to find the Western part of the city had been encircled with barbed wire and armed guards.
I remember on my first visit to Berlin, back in 1987, you could only climb up on a platform near the wall to look over into the East. It was like a human zoo. People on the East side were on their platforms looking back at us. Parents held up newborns so their own parents could see their new grandchildren. Best friends could come once a day to wave at each other.
Two years later, Mikhail Gorbachev, talking of perestroika and glasnost, allowed satellite countries like Hungary to open their borders. This resulted in Easterners once again escaping to the West.
On Nov. 9, 1989, Gorbachev begged East Germans not to flee, promising that travel restrictions would be lifted. When journalist Tom Brokaw asked an East German politician if the wall was open, the answer came back affirmative. The broadcast was picked up in West Berlin, and within minutes, radio and TV stations in the West reported that the wall was open.
Millions of people rushed outside and pressed against all the crossings. One border guard, fearing that thousands of people would be trampled to death if something wasn't done, ordered the barriers open and, for the first time in 29 years, people poured through. On that first night, Easterners walked to West Berlin.
In the following days, East Germans began driving their cheap cars over to the West to line up at banks to take advantage of the West's one-time welcome money of 55 marks.
People in the East were desperate to get their hands on Western money as East Deutschmarks were practically worthless. When the East German economy was dissolved, 15,000 distribution centres were been set up so East Germans could change East German marks one for one for West Deutschmarks. Thomas still has some East German marks in a jam jar.
Once people got their finances sorted, it wasn't long before they began tearing down the wall, chipping away at it piece by piece. Hardware stores quickly sold out of hammers and chisels. Soon, shops realized money could be made renting tools to tourists.
And 20 years later, tourists are still buying up the pieces.
It doesn't really matter if it's authentic or not, it's what it represents that's important.

Susan Flanagan is a freelance journalist
who recommends Serge Schmemann's book,
"When the Wall Came Down"
(2006, New York Times).

Organizations: Schonefeld Airport, The East, NATO New York Times

Geographic location: Federal Republic of Germany, France, U.K. Spree River London U.S. Hollywood Hungary

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