Thursday, 7 May 2020

Berlin, Before and After

My first visit to Berlin was in 1983, in the depths of the Cold War. It was the Berlin of black-and-white movies, of Michael Caine in Funeral in Berlin and the Len Deighton spy novels. In retrospect it feels like Berlin itself was in black-and-white.

I was there for a standards meeting hosted by the German national standards body, DIN. Their headquarters was at the eastern side of West Berlin, overlooking the Zoo. Oddly the best view, of the Bradenburger Tor, was visible only from the mens' room (and also, I'm told, from the ladies' room).

The centre of Berlin was the Ku-Damm, a shopper's paradise like London's Oxford Street, dominated by the broken, blackened stump of the bombed Kaiser Wilhelm Church. Even then it had a slightly tacky feel to it. The original centre of Berlin, before 1939, was Unter den Linden, but after 1945 this was in the eastern sector, inaccessible and decaying like the rest of the East.

I was with a group of friends and colleagues, as always at these meetings. One, an American, was fascinated by the divided city, but his security clearance made a visit to the East out of the question. We spent our free time getting as close as possible without actually going there. We took the subway (U-Bahn) line that passed under the East, passing at full speed through the barely visible ghosts of stations that had been closed for decades.

One evening we visited a remote truck parking lot by the Wall. It was very spooky, and then afterwards we tried to take the S-Bahn, the surface suburban train which has been a vital part of Berlin's transport system for well over a century. But some twisted part of the agreements over the city meant that even though more than half of it was in the West, it was operated by the East Berlin transport company. As a result it had been boycotted by the westerners for several years, and the services reduced to the point where it was just the phantom of a transport system. Late at night the trains ran about once an hour. We hung around, the only people on the lonely platform, our breath fogging in the chilly night air, until finally someone showed some common sense and we walked back to our hotel.

Another must-see was Checkpoint Charlie, by then the only open road crossing into the East in an undistinguished urban street. It was there that Isabelle, long before I knew her, took a bus tour and had her copy of Le Monde confiscated - it wouldn't do for the liberated people of the German Democratic Republic to see such degenerate filth. But much to her surprise, in a typically German organised way, she was reunited with it when she re-entered the West.

I took a bus tour myself in 1983. We were taken to the Soviet war memorial in Treptower Park, a monument to the twenty million Russians who died during the war with Germany - though many at the hands of their own government. We passed a shop with a long queue outside, which was a cue for the guide to explain to us that there were no shortages of anything in the Democratic Republic.

Even getting to and from Berlin was surreal. The post-1945 treaty decreed that Lufthansa, the German airline, was not permitted to serve Berlin. In fact only three airlines were, one for each of the western powers: British Airways, Air France, and Pan Am. The latter had a fair-sized European operation to serve Berlin, mainly from other airports in Germany. There were very few direct flights from London, and every trip I made to Berlin involved a change in some north German airport - Hannover, Hamburg or Bremen. The official air corridors had been approved in the days of piston airliners like the DC3, so they were at abnormally low altitudes for jets - 11,000 feet or so. They gave spectacular views over the rather dull Prussian countryside.

In 1986 we had a two-week meeting at DIN, with a spare weekend. My friend Peter and I decided to spend an evening in the East. We thought it would be good to see the main railway station (Hauptbahnhof) figuring that it must be a hive of activity.

First though we had to cross the border. We took the S-Bahn to Friedrichstrasse, in the heart of the East but still functionally part of the West. The platforms were divided by high walls, and to cross we had to descend into the bowels of the station to a very unwelcoming customs post. We changed money into Reichsmarks, the currency of the East - far more than we could hope to spend in one evening, which was their idea. And then we continued on another S-Bahn train to the Hauptbahnhof.

It was a huge disappointment. Where we'd expected to see packed trains to any number of exotic and inaccessible destinations, there was just one - going, as I recall, to Prague. None to Moscow, or Warsaw, or indeed anywhere else at all. The only thing to do was to find somewhere for dinner.

Good restaurants in East Berlin didn't exist. We chose what our guidebook (no TripAdvisor in those days) said was one of the best. It was right on Alexanderplatz, the centre of the city, and specialised in Moravian cuisine, which is to say Czech. It was a huge hangar of a place, but even so we had to share a table. Our table partners were what appeared to be - which was later confirmed - a young Czech guy and his mother. During the meal we politely ignored each other, but once we had finished eating things turned a little weird.

Our new friend spoke excellent English even though it was the first time he'd ever spoken to a real native speaker. He started to tell us how much he disliked Berlin, how sad he found it compared to Prague. Back then even travelling between Iron Curtain countries was difficult, but going outside them was essentially impossible. He waxed eloquent on his theme.

"I mean, what right does some Ivan in Moscow have to tell the Germans how to live their lives?" he proclaimed.

My friend was trying to hide under the table. He'd probably had some minor involvement with the security services, and was certainly paranoid about being in the East at all. He was convinced we had been found by an agent provocateur. His relief when we finally left was tempered only by his conviction that we would be seized by Stasi agents and left to rot in a Communist gaol before we could make it back to the West.

Luckily this didn't happen, and I got to spend the weekend with my then-wife. It was the first time i'd ever been in Germany at the weekend. We spent a lazy Saturday morning, and started to wander around the shops on the Ku-Damm after lunch. She was about to try something on, when suddenly we were hurriedly ushered out of the shop. We didn't understand - was there a fire or something? But no, nothing like that - German shops still closed at 2pm on Saturday, as we quickly realised when we saw that everything else was shut too.

On Sunday we visited East Germany itself, with a bus trip to Potsdam. Before 1939, and again now, this was a very upmarket suburb, like Versailles is to Paris. Very much like it, because in 1745 Frederick the Great of Prussia built a palace there, Sans Souci, inspired by Versailles. This was the principal destination of our trip.

Central Potsdam, 1986
But first we had to cross the border, at a truly vast parking lot on the highway. We spent a long time there, and when we finally got to the head of the queue our bus was comprehensively searched, inside and out, including mirrors on long poles underneath. Though it seems very unlikely that anyone would want to be smuggled into the glorious DDR.

The town centre was completely deserted. Only the occasional Trabant pottered smokily through its streets. I haven't been there since but I'm sure it's a very different place now.

On 3rd October 1990 East Germany, and with it East Berlin, ceased to exist. I was at an international meeting at the time, though it happened to be in Sydney, Australia, and coincidentally also on my honeymoon. At midnight, German time - which was 8am for us - the head of the German delegation served sekt to everyone present. It was an emotional moment.

The next meeting had long been scheduled in Berlin, the following June. But instead of meeting at the DIN headquarters, we were hosted at the Academy of Sciences in the heart of the former East. There were still no decent hotels there, and for various reasons I had driven from England. So every morning and evening we made what just one year earlier would have been an inconceivable journey, driving through Potsdamer Platz which until recently had the Wall running through the middle. The roads were still crowded with the "Trabbi", the awful tiny car whose design dated from the early 1950s that was an almost unattainable luxury for the Osties. Being surrounded by them in a traffic jam, with their stinking, erratically noisy two-stroke engines belching unburned fuel and oil, was an unforgettable experience.

Naturally very little had changed in the few months since reunification. East Berlin was a grim, grey place, exactly as in the Cold War era movies. There were no shops, but the Pergamon Museum was fascinating. The German telephone company had made special, urgent arrangements to install a temporary telephone line at the meeting site - in the days of the East, even the Academy of Sciences didn't have a single telephone.

We made the most of the experience. With my friend Peter - this time in no danger of being arrested by the Stasi - we took the S-Bahn to Schönefeld, East Berlin's airport. There wasn't much to see - although it is far larger than Tegel, its western counterpart, there was little going on there. It is the only time I have ever seen a Tupolev 134, the small twin-engine jet that was the mainstay of East Germany's airline, Interflug. Now Schönefeld is the site of Berlin's new airport, Brandenburg, of which more later.

The Harzquerbahn in 1990
We took advantage of a free day, and my car, to visit the Harzquerbahn, a narrow gauge railway about 100 km away. It was still a much-used part of the transport infrastructure, not a preserved line for enthusiasts. It was operated by enormous narrow gauge steam engines with a 2-10-2 wheel arrangement - meaning a lot of wheels. It was extremely impressive to see it in operation.

One afternoon Isabelle and I drove around the East, including a stop at the iconic Bornholmerstrasse Bridge, where hostages were exchanged during Cold War days. Its enormous span covers a huge S-Bahn junction just north of the city centre. We also managed a trip to Potsdam and Sans Souci, by now already waking up from the DDR times.

I thoroughly enjoyed that trip, with fond memories of gemützlich restaurants and bars in the evening and the warm atmosphere that cold climates generate.

A typical grim DDR scene in Halle
When the meeting was over we took a circuitous route home, spending a night in Heidelberg well to the south of Berlin before heading back to England. Our route took us close to Halle, a city then completely unchanged from its DDR days, complete with Czech built trams, the buildings still blackened by soot as they had been in 1945. The visit left us short of time, so I took advantage of my nearly-new VW Golf GTi and the speed-unlimited autobahn. The car handled superbly at 200 km/h but every now and then one Trabbi would pull out to pass another, a barely visible speck almost at the horizon. At a closing speed of 150 km/h I was on top of it almost before my foot hit the brake pedal. It was a salutory experience.

I visited Berlin again nearly 15 years later. By then all memory of the DDR had disappeared, at least from the city centre. Unter den Linden was once again the vibrant heart of the city, with luxury hotels springing up everywhere. Potsdamer Platz, where we had sat in traffic surrounded by stinking Trabbis, is now home to vast modern high-rise offices. Meanwhile the Ku-Damm had become tawdrier than ever, a forgotten monument to shabby 1960s architecture and the Cold War.

I also saw an excellent illustration of the weakness of the German way of doing things. The S-Bahn, historically the most important part of Berlin's transport, was being renovated and rebuilt, reverting to its pre-1939 glory. In Germany things usually work extraordinarily well. But if they don't, they don't work at all. And so it was with the S-Bahn. I planned a journey one evening to travel on stretches which had hitherto been impossible, but it turned into an exercise in frustration and long cold waits on lonely platforms, reminiscent of that first trip twenty years earlier.

Speaking of things that go badly in Germany, it's impossible not to mention Brandenburg Airport. I haven't been back to Berlin since that trip in 2003, but Isabelle was there for a meeting in 2011. She arrived, as always, at the cramped Tegel airport. But just one week later it was to close, and after a miraculous 24-hour move all the airlines would be at Brandenburg, the gleaming new airport to the southeast.

And then, barely a week before it was due to open, it was suddenly declared unsafe. Among the many problems which emerged, the architects had decided that the traditional smoke evacuation scheme via the roof would spoil the appearance of the building. Instead they had devised a complex scheme for evacuating smoke via huge subterranean ducts. Sadly this did not take into account the well known propensity of smoke to rise. Now, over 10 years later, there has been a succession of opening dates which have come and gone. The most recent is later this year, but it remains to be seen whether that happens. In the meantime it has resulted in the premature end of several careers, and even one murder of a whistleblower. When things go badly in Germany, they go very badly indeed.

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