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And your bird can sing…

April 17, 2010

For some time now it has seemed that my holiday destinations have been foretold by BBC newscasts of the 1960s. In the past few years I’ve visited  Hanoi, Da Nang, Washington DC, Paris, and Belfast, all of them newsworthy in the sixties, and all, to a greater or lesser extent, stored in my mind as grainy black and white footage or just a name on a newsroom map.

Last week, the latest addition was Berlin: about as political a destination as you could get, I suppose. As had been the case with several of the other destinations, I realised my impression of the place was limited to three or four well remembered stills and a few minutes of newsworthy film. When I arrived in the city, then, with all the trepidation that a completely new and unknown destination brings, I was a mass of contradictory ideas and expectations.

In a mindset  that must be highly annoying for Berliners, I immediately found myself navigating by means of wondering (or should that be wandering?) ‘East or West’? It’s two decades, more or less, since the fall of the Wall and reunification, and the citizens of this city must be desperate to move on, but, as the preponderance of cranes and the many vacant lots in the city testify, this place is, in so many ways, defined by its past, and the need to reinvent itself.  And, apparently it was always thus. Mark Twain, visiting in 1892, wrote: The bulk of the Berlin of today has about it no suggestion of a former period. The site it stands on has traditions and a history, but the city itself has no traditions and no history. It is a new city; the newest I have ever seen.

For all that, the first buildings I saw on the first evening, on our mile long walk from hotel down the Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate, were vaguely familiar. Museums, universities, churches, state Opera House, all lined along the broad and imposing boulevard, belonged to that period when imposing governmental architecture was de rigeur in capital cities. Beautiful as they were, they could have been in Paris, Dublin, Washington DC, London’s Kensington or Edinburgh’s old Parliament Square. The difference here, of course, was that, almost without exception they had been rebuilt or massively renovated in the past 60 years or so, a process which has several times led to city bankruptcy but has been carried out with meticulous care and to stunning effect. I was surprised but gratified to learn that much renovation had been carried out by the former East German regime, latterly with support from the West, not the last scrap of information that was to add to my knowledge over the ensuing days.

The one exception to this rebuild mania was the large empty site of the former Schloss, or Palace, which happened to be directly opposite our hotel. An imposing and iconic building, it had been gutted during the War and eventually demolished, presumably for its imperial connections, by the East Berlin authorities. In the 1970s, the GDR built  The Palace of the Republic on the site, as proof that a Communist people could enjoy themselves. It was a fairly brutalist modern construction, no surprise there, but the East Berliners loved it and flocked there for all manner of entertainment, including some bourgeois rock concerts, including a visit from Bruce Springsteen. After reunification, asbestos was found throughout the building, and this gave the authorities the excuse to mimic their predecessors and demolish the building, on grounds of safety, if not previous political associations. Some Berliners felt this was a denial of a legitimate part of the city’s political history.  In many ways this  echoed the perennial Berlin dilemma: to rebuild the past, to forget the past, or to try and bury it?  Meanwhile a decision has now been taken to rebuild the Schloss on the same site. The new building, on which construction is just starting, will have three of its facades as a copy of the original, but will have a modern interior, to be used for cultural and business events. Naturally, the Berliners are divided on this course of action as well, with some feeling it’s an awful lot of money to spend on a pastiche, while others suggest, at least visually, it will complete the regeneration of this area of the city in its original, or at least 18th Century, style.

We took one of the highly recommended walking tours, which lived up to expectations, and I learned a  lot about the history of Berlin, previous to the 1930s and the Wall, but, if I was honest, those latter eras were the  focus of my interest, and they didn’t disappoint.

Starting with the Wall: an ever present part of my political upbringing, from its building in 1961 through the visits of Kennedy and Reagan, to its eventual and astonishing collapse in 1988. From 9 years of age till well into my thirties, it had been a news focal point:  a spy handed over, a border guards run for it, an escapee shot, an east/west confrontation. My first port of call was the Brandenburg Gate, forever fixed in my mind’s eye with a wall and barbed wire coils running across its plaza. When we approached it on the first evening of our stay, I was still working out that this was a view I had never seen before, even in pictures, as we came down the Unter den Linden and came to the Gate from the eastern sector. Walking through it was  a strange sensation: of course I knew about reunification and the fall of the Wall, but it was almost as if this physical experience proved it to me. I thought of Kennedy looking from the west, standing on a specially constructed platform and facing a huriedly erected East German sign, in English, listing the 5 Principles from Yalta and Potsdam which they claimed the East had progressed. Behind, the Gate itself was hung with red banners and the GDR flag, preventing Kennedy from seeing the East, or maybe the East from seeing JFK. Near here, too, Ronald Reagan, in true Hollywood style had drawled: “Mr Gorbachev, Tear down this Wall!”

The next day we started our ‘wall tour’ with a visit to Checkpoint Charlie, in Fredrichstrasse, a stone’s throw from the city centre. Strangely, I suppose, this was the most famous of the checkpoints, as it was used by the military and diplomats to cross the border, but it was of least importance to every day Berliners. Today there is a reconstructed version of the original US Cabin checkpoint, which was deliberately a temporary construction to emphasise the non- permanent nature of the city’s division in the eyes of the west. There are actors dressed as US troops and lots of photo opportunities, as well as the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which seems to be a cross between right wing propaganda machine and tourist trap merchandise. However, you still can’t fail to be moved by the famous site, especially when you come to realise how the Wall was built through here, overnight and across the middle of the city’s most popular shopping area. A street exhibition gives an excellent (and free!) account of the development of the Wall and this Checkpoint with many illuminating photographs, some of which show the surprising size of the actual crossing here, on the East side, which resembles nothing so much as a railway station in its size and build. When you look at the pictures of tanks facing each other on this very street, and view the top floor of the former Alten Hotel, used as a spy position by the CIA, it’s a reminder that this is one of the places where you are standing on stones of history.

Leaving the crowds behind, we  walked along Wilhelmstrasse, gap sites reflecting the fact that this had been no man’s land for the years of the Wall’s existence, then there was a parking lot with line after line of Trabants for hire and, ahead of us, unfeasibly large, the looming grey bulk of the current German Finance Ministry, originally built in the 30s as the Third Reich’s ‘Aviation Ministry’, at a time when Germany was allowed no air force, and on completion the biggest office building in the world. We paused at the junction with Niederkirchnerstrasse, and there to our left was the familiar sight of the Berlin Wall: grey concrete slabs, the tubular round top and the cobblestoned street. It was a surprise and a shock to see these remains, familiar though they were from the many pictures.

Today this section is fenced off to  preserve the stonework, but it’s long enough to summon up memories and, behind us, the brooding Air Ministry which provided part of the integral border defences at this spot, simply adds to the atmosphere. Behind the Wall, on the western side,  at this spot, there is building going on: a permanent site for the exhibition termed the Topography of Terror, which is at present a series of photographs  and information plaques in the open air. It turns out that Niederkirchnerstrasse was originally named  Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, the infamous address of both the Gestapo and SS Headquarters. Both buildings were gutted towards the end of the war and flattened shortly afterwards, when the site was to become part of the death strip of the Wall. The exhibition is detailed and the photographs of the headquarters buildings and the Nazis who operated out of them are still chilling. Again, standing in the footsteps of such grim history is a difficult experience, and it’s people you think of, individuals and their families, rather than great historical events.

Returning to Wilhelmstrasse we walk the amazing 250m length of the Aviation Ministry, with its nearly 3000 rooms and 7km of corridors. At the far end, the original Air Warriors mural was replaced in the fifties by a GDR Socialist propaganda mural which has remained, frozen in the style of its times, with happy factory workers and farmers and dancing girls and children with flowers.  Inlet into the ground in front of this wall painting is a glass case with a blown up photograph of those who  rebelled against the GDR here in 1953    for a workers’ republic, an effective illustration of Berlin’s ever shifting political priorities.

During our walking tour, our guide continued on from here, as the main street became more and more drab in sixties style East German blocks of flats. At a Chinese Restaurant he turned left into a car park, and when we were gathered round him, overlooked by the flats of ordinary Berliners, he announced we were at the site of Hitler’s Bunker. I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t this.

He gave us a brief history of the site: Hitler’s final days, the botched attempts to burn the bodies, the arrival of the Russians and the recently discovered details of final disposal of the Nazi leader’s remains. Wonderfully, his talk was hard to hear because of the volume of evening birdsong from the trees around. It was the most affirming statement of humanity’s ability to overcome evil that you could have hoped for, though it was still hard to take in that such an epoch defining site had become the anonymity of a residential car park; I suppose that in itself was reassuring. The Russians, of course, had more reason than most to despise all that the Third Reich stood for and were quite determined in their destruction of all its remains, particularly wanting to avoid the spectre of  right wing fanatics appropriating various sites or graves as shrines to the Nazi era. Latterly, before the flats were constructed, they had uncovered the remains of the bunker and dynamited the 8 foot thick ceiling, causing it to crash down on the rooms below and  effectively seal the construction below.

There was a small noticeboard explaining what the site had been, but most visitors to Berlin would struggle to find this place without a guide. Maybe this is a good thing, as I struggled with my emotions during our time there. Should we be there at all? Why was I taking photos? How did it feel to live in these flats, overlooking this spot? I felt I should do something to mark my reaction. Almost laughably, I ended up, as we walked over the spot where our guide indicated Hitler’s personal quarters had been, performing a small jig of acknowledgment – probably the only time in my life I will dance on somebody’s grave.

A five minute walk further on took us to  the  memorial to Murdered Jews. Covering nearly five acres and containing just under 3000 grey plinths of differing sizes, this work by  Peter Eisenmann has provoked thought, confusion and controversy in equal parts since its opening in 2005. It is built on the site of an SS Barracks, some German firms with Third Reich links were involved in its construction and there are those who question the need for a monument to the country’s ignominy on this scale. In addition, the artist has refused to explain its symbolism, preferring instead that the hundreds of thousands who visit the site form their own thoughts and reflections.

On our arrival, the sun was setting in the trees on the far side of the memorial, lending shadows to the blue grey of the stone; on the far side the newly constructed US Embassy fluttered its Stars and Stripes and, a little strangely, along the road on one side was a line of around 40 imposing Audi limousines and their drivers, awaiting the end of some official function. Visitors were dotted about the site, individuals pausing, families navigating the long narrow tunnels, and, inevitably, some children, chasing and laughing. I found a spot where the dying sun was staining the blocks a horribly poignant red and took a moment for my own reflections.

Looking back across the site were the utilititarian flats surrounding the car park that covered the Fuhrerbunker. Residents were arriving home from work, claiming their parking spots, looking forward to an evening with TV and family. Around me was some kind of reminder that 6 million had lost their lives and their futures due to the final solution. The Berlin question wouldn’t go away: do we celebrate the fact that humanity has survived or does burying the past really lead to the repeat of its mistakes and horrors?

Certainly much had been buried as we made our way along  Wilhelmstrasse towards the Brandenburg Gate. Discreet notices told of the street’s history as a centre of governmental buildings and offices and its development during Nazi times as a centre of administration – but the imposing buildings were all gone, replaced by more flats and shops, affordable housing for East Berlin’s citizens in the sixties and seventies. It was eerie to walk down a street that had, in different eras, been the centre of political power and find it had been converted into a residential suburban district: almost unknown elsewhere I would have thought.

Our other significant visit was to the Wall’s Documentation Centre in Bernauerstrasse, an area which saw a number of escapes, and deaths near the Nordbahnoff in the Wedding district. This involved a trip on the excellent s-bahn underground and sampling stations in east Berlin, which, during the Cold war  had been ghost stations, where the trains slowed and East German soldiers ensured they didn’t stop. The Underground, of course, served all parts of the city, and till measures were taken, some escapees sought freedom through the train tunnels. I hadn’t previously realised that throughout the post war period, the trains continued to be run and operated by the East Berlin authorities, and, as a result, many West Berliners refused to use the system. Another realisation was that, because the whole of Berlin was situated in East Germany, the Wall didn’t merely run across the centre of the city but surrounded the whole of the allied sector, meaning the trains, rather like border roads in Ireland, ran in and out of each jurisdiction during various journeys.

If our original view of a stretch of the Wall  at  Niederkirchnerstrasse had been a shock, our experience at Bernauerstrasse was much more reflective. Here was a Documentation centre, video loops, photographs and detailed accounts of the Wall’s history and the events in this particular area through the years.

The 200m walk from the U-bahn station had been along a stretch of the Wall. In the pavement were discs commemorating escapes. However, from the high viewing tower at the Centre what we saw was this stretch of Wall complete with the death strip, a watchtower and memorials on the raked sand recording where escapees had been killed. This brought history back down to the level of individuals, as did the list of those who had died in attempting to escape. Reading the names and dates, it was easy to extrapolate where brothers or sisters, friends or families, had attempted the impossible: to climb the outer wall, make it across the raked sand and hidden spikes, past the sensored fence and over the inner wall – all within sight of the watchtower. At other points, some tried to swim the river, jump out of windows, crawl through tunnels; and some sacrificed themselves without much effort to escape, making the point about freedom. In the list of the dead, one line stands out, a child only months old with incomplete details. You could only wonder if a desperate mother tried to get her baby across the Wall in some way; it wasn’t a speculation that was easy to dwell upon.

On the western side, flush against  the Wall at this point, was a cemetery,well kept,  lush green, and long established; almost in the shadow of the watchtower a man lay asleep at the foot of a tree amongst the graves. The Wall ran past cemeteries at several points in its 100+ mile journey round west Berlin, and one can only imagine the black humour this must have engendered among those who sought to flee.  After leaving the Centre, we crossed the road,  from East to West, and looked at yet another excellent street exhibition of photographs and information concerning the local area, including details of what it took to continue living in the flats closest to the Wall, with constant checks, passes and searches. Then, in the cemetery itself, we gained a view from West to East across the death strip, closer now to the crosses and memorials:   short in distance but long in risk, Three or four couples were sitting on the grass of the cemetery in the shadow of the wall: picnic or remembrance, it was hard to tell, but certainly they matched the age range of those who  once  sought to cover the fifty yards or so behind them, nearly all from late teens to late twenties.

I hadn’t intended to write so much about Berlin, but there seems to be a lot to write about; and I hadn’t intended to reflect to such a great degree, but reflection seems inescapably called for.

There were many attractive and interesting places in the city which had little or nothing to do with War or Wall: the Dome atop the Reichstag, placing people above parliamentarians, was impressive, the parkland, the renovations, and many museums and places of entertainment that we never got around to visiting. In fact, at the end of our five days, it became clear that we had spent virtually all our time in the former ‘east’ of the city. We will need to return, once there’s been time to reflect on all the other ramifications of war and division, freedom and captivity.

My generation grew up in the shadow of war. As a child, the seven years that had passed between the end of World War 2 and my birth seemed like a generation; from the perspective of my fifty odd years, they seem like a pause for breath. My mother’s tales of the Liverpool Blitz, finding my unused but issued ration card in her belongings, and a childhood of switching off lights, saving string, and prudence, place me squarely in the generation of youngsters whose childhood was the result of, and a reaction to, world war. School jotters had drawings of RAF planes shooting down Germans, our teachers had served in action, the Russians were coming, America was in Vietnam, bombs were exploding in Aden and Cyprus, then in the streets of the north of Ireland.

At first, soldiers were heroes, POW camp escapers the bravest of the brave, the RAF dashing, and the enemy evil. But life, as it progresses, tells you different. A friend’s dad, a former POW, tells you that the escapees were hated because they selfishly made life more harsh for those they left behind, biographies reveal details about Churchill that your parents never mentioned, freedom fighters turn politician and make the deals that were available before all the killing started, governments talk to their enemies, keep secrets from their  people, and act out of pragmatism at best and self interest at worst. You inner voice asks, more and more insistently, whenever you visit a military graveyard or a young person’s grave: what was it for? Was it all worth it?

Here in Berlin the questions are deafening: surrounded by old buildings made new, and demolition sites containing bricks, earth and shattered lives and dreams, nothing seems concrete, everything is transient, black and white merge to grey.

Prussian and German, Fascist and Communist, socialist and capitalist – all were so certain, all made their mark and all, eventually, were ‘changed utterly’. The young have the dreams, the old have the power, and the rest of us pay.

‘When will they ever learn?’ went the song’s refrain, and I swear I recognised its notes as the blackbirds of twilight, perched in blossomed trees of spring, drowned out our guide, in  a car park, by a rubbish bin, in a German backstreet.

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