Back in the late 1970s, when we were both rising stars in IT in the Ministry of Defence, my friend was posted to Berlin to run the Army’s computer centre there. Being a good mate, once he was settled in, he invited me and my family over for a few days. I of course jumped at the chance.
This being 1979 and with still ten years to go before the Wall came down. Berlin was a very different place from what it is now. The MoD certainly thought so and insisted I go for a security briefing before I went (and a debrief when I got back). All I can remember of the meeting now is that it was impressed on me the importance of not getting involved in either currency changing or “overly friendly” ladies – advice to which I adhere to this day.
Not knowing what it was possible possible to do in a semi-occupied city several mile behind the Iron Curtain, I had no real plan of things to do and resolved to do as much as the Authorities allowed in the time available. It turned out that West Berlin was much like most European cities but with everything turned up a notch – there was always the feeling amongst residents and visitors alike that this could be the day the tanks rolled over the border and therefore every day was lived to the full.
East Berlin, however, was a very different place. I was lucky enough to get on one of the tours of East Berlin laid on by the army and reported to the NAAFI in Theodor Heuss Platz for a security briefing given by an RAOC Captain before setting off in a dark green army coach. The briefing repeated the advice about money and ladies and went on to explain that we would never be far from East German soldiers and that we were to ignore them at all times, which is sometimes easier said than done. Sure enough we encountered them as soon as we arrived at Checkpoint Charlie.
At the Checkpoint, the Captain was the only person on the coach that could have any dealings with the guards and explained that we should hold our passports up against the coach window for them to see. He also explained that they would signal for us to turn the pages so they could see what stamps we had and that we were to ignore this. Some members of our party, when asked, chose to gesticulate to the guards to emphasise that they did not intend to do so! Our Captain got off the coach to show the senior guard the list of passengers and, having done so, got back on the coach. Unfortunately, the driver pulled off too quickly and the Captain’s clipboard flew out of his hands and hit the road scattering the list and all his tour notes everywhere. A tense couple of minutes ensued as he scrabbled around on hands and knees gathering everything up, attracting increasing levels of interest from the guards.
We next saw the East German guards at the Neue Wache, the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism. We arrived in time to see the regular changing of the guards ceremony, which was a good chance to see them up close. Their drill was impecable and it was the only time I’ve seen goose stepping for real – I suppose they’d had a fair bit of practice over the years.
Inside the memorial it was very moving – an eternal flame, inscriptions on the wall and daylight coming in through a multicoloured skylight. Photography was frowned so these two snatched photos don’t really do it justice.
The Captain moved us on to Soviet War Memorial in Treptow Park. Nobody does memorials quite like the Soviets and this was an excellent example of their craft. It was created to to commemorate 7,000 of the 80,000 who fell in the Battle of Berlin and consists of five lawns, each one said to contain the remains of 1,000 soldiers, and several massive statues.
The tour over, we went back through Checkpoint Charlie without incident. I thought back to that moment years later when I watched the thousands of people and Trabants flooding through to freedom.
The overwhelming impression that East Berlin left on me was one of sadness for what had obviously once been a great city but was now a soulless ruin – where it wasn’t literally a bomb site it was blocks of uniform, monochrome apartments. And so it was a relief to get back to the more colourful, slightly hyperactive West Berlin. Even here, though, the most interesting places were relics of the past and, of course, the Berlin Wall.
The Wall was everywhere and it was strange to see it running down the middle of streets a cutting communities in half. It even cut the city’s main thoroughfare in half at the Brandenberg Gate.
The frequent armed observation posts were a chilling reminder that this was not a game,
but what was even more chilling was the mined death strip that ran along the East’s side of the Wall.
and the poignant ad hoc memorials to those that had died trying to cross were heartbreaking.
I hadn’t realised that the Wall extended out from the city into the countryside and it was sobering to see that it had already started to blend in with the scenery.
Although there was a lot of new development and much of the West Berlin was much like any other European city,
there were still many ruined buildings, the most impressive of which were the major symbols of the Nazi regime, the Headquarters of the Air Ministry
and the SS and Gestapo Headquarters.
Even in their ruined state they looked forbidding. They are still standing largely untouched and are now rightly incorporated in the excellent Topography of Terror museum. Also still standing is the “Lipstick and Powderpuff”, or the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, adjacent to the scene of the atrocity at the Christmas Market,
and the Reichstag, although it now has a modern glass dome.
Away from the centre is the 1936 Olympic Stadium.
This was still largely unchanged and it was quite an experience to stand on the famous track,
and on the even more famous rostrum where Jesse Owens’ achievements were greeted with less than unbridled enthusiasm.
Other attractions were the beach on Lake Tegel,
the pleasure boats that went up and down the Lake,
and the American listening post on Teufelsberg.
I feel very lucky to have had a chance to experience a place that played so large a part in the history of the 20th Century and in the consciousness of those of us alive at that time. It was a striking example of the severe differences between East and West, Communism and Capitalism. That it had just ten years left makes my memories all the more poignant.
Before I left I promised my self that, if it was ever possible, I would walk through the Brandenberg Gate. This more than anything else would prove to me that Berlin was once again free. Knowing this, for my birthday in 2014 my son booked us a weekend in the city. As it happened, it was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall and the Gate was closed for a concert!
© Jerry F 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file