Berlin is this strange beast that has changed so much and yet stayed so much the same over time. It’s roughly the same size in population now (3.8 million) as it was when central Berlin and the surrounding areas were amalgamated into a city a hundred years ago. Over that span of time there have been many different rulers and governments. There was the Prussian Kaiser who ruled from Sansoucci in nearby Potsdam, the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, post-war occupation by the Allied powers, the divided city and country of the Cold War, and finally reunification. Walking through the streets it isn’t hard to see the touches that each era has left. Arguably the largest impact has been left by the Soviets and their East German comrades (or puppets, as it goes).
Ask anyone about Berlin and they’ll mention the Wall. It has this ominous sound to it and by all accounts it was a dehumanising piece of architecture. From 1961 to 1989 a city and its people were divided. The Iron Curtain was for most purposes a rather abstract line that cut Europe in half, with the democratic West on one side and the communist East on the other. In Berlin it took on a very real and not at all abstract form. In the just over a decade between the liberation of Berlin from the Nazis by the Soviets and the erection of Wall, 2.5 million East Germans fled to the West. The Soviet lifestyle was hardly liberating. To stem the flow of people (workers needed in a command economy), the Wall was put in place, with only one entry, the infamous Checkpoint Charlie. Attached to the Wall were one hundred watchtowers. Alongside the Wall were “dead zones”, open areas not to be trespassed. 136 East Berliners who tried to flee were shot in the dead zones. For the most part, almost the entire Wall is gone. It was torn down in rapturous celebration in November 1989. But there are still reminders everywhere. It becomes an exercise in attention, but it is well worth it. Those who forget our past are destined to repeat history.
The flat that I am renting is actually in the former West Berlin, but just a stone’s throw from where the Wall existed for twenty-eight years. The route of my run that I wrote about a while back, the one straight to the Reichstag and back, actually follows where the Wall used to be. Looking down at the ground you can see in the path two rows of brick. Every now and then, maybe every couple of hundred metres you can look down and read the engravings that read “Berliner Mauer 1961-1989”. When I wrote that the area by the Spree I ran in had a bit of nature and industry, I had no idea that the nature that existed there was actually largely the result of thirty years of neglect. I had been running along a former part of the dead zone. Those watchtowers? Yep, I had been running by one of the remaining three that still stand all along.
I went to Checkpoint Charlie, but for the most part it’s been incorporated into the street. Regular traffic flows right through now. There is a museum, of course, practically everything in Berlin is a museum, and there are some informative historical timelines along a fence (the inside is a beach beer garden called Charlie’s), but mostly the Checkpoint is just an excuse for vendors to hock fake Soviet hats.
If you are looking for something really subtle to impress upon you the impact of the Soviets in Berlin, I recommend Karl-Marx-Allee. Or should I call it Stalinallee? Or maybe Frankfurter Strasse? You see, when the Soviets came marching in to Berlin at the end of the Second World War they didn’t do a great job of being nice about it and ended up destroying Frankfurter Strasse, which was one of the main boulevards in the city. Once the war was over and communism was to be celebrated as the liberator of the East, reconstruction on the boulevard was planned. But instead of it just being the same old street, several years of planning and architectural competitions went into creating something special. The plan was to create a model street to demonstrate the glorious wonders of Soviet life. There were to be large workers’ apartments, promenades for strolling, cafes, a cinema, and department stores. If a foreigner was to visit and wanted to hear about the wonders of communism, this was the street to bring them to. They were even going to name it after the big guy himself (Joe Stalin). By the time that Stalinallee was almost complete, Stalin had to go and die, ruining everything as far as naming goes. Eventually, during the “softer, kinder” de-Stalinization period, the street would be named after everyone’s favourite beard, Karl Marx.
Karl-Marx-Allee still stands as an impressive example of planned architecture, even if the result is somewhat cold. Part of that is that the boulevard has a lot of concrete. The Soviets didn’t do warm and cheery and in any case they wanted to demonstrate in 1953 that they were with it and could deliver all mod cons.
Also still on Karl-Marx-Allee is Café Sybille, the old malt shop where you’d take your sweetie. It’s now a free museum and a functioning coffee shop (not as free).
It was actually kind of charming, in a strange way. Sort of like finding a candy cottage in the woods. You know you shouldn’t want to like it. But, that’s probably me just focusing on the downside of East Germany. I ought to look at the positives. Where better to find inspiration than from official propaganda? What a beautiful mural! Huzzahs all around!
At the epicentre of late night fun, there is a great reminder of how fun the Cold War was. Walking distance from Warschauer Strasse station is the East Side Gallery. It’s not necessarily a traditional gallery; in so much as it is the longest surviving stretch of the Wall that also happens to host an international collection of murals. Some of them are fun, some are poignant, some are stark, and others a hopeful view for the future, while almost all of them cannot avoid the miserable divided past.