The Berlin I lived in in 1978 and '79 is gone now, I am sure. It's been almost 30 years since I was last there, but the place I rode out of is sure to be as deep-buried in history as ante-bellum Atlanta.
West Berlin was an artificial child of the Cold War. You take a big, sprawling capital, smash it flat in a war, then split it in two, and isolate one of the halves -- cut it off from its outer suburbs and garden farms. Then you build a huge concrete wall around that half.
But it wasn't a circular wall; it zig-zagged along ward lines and alleys, and you would run into it where you didn't expect it to be. Some places it looked like what you'd expect: a 30-foot-tall concrete thing, with barbed wire and a killing zone of tank traps. But in others, especially up in the French Sector, it ran through what had been blue-collar apartment blocks, and in some cases they simply bricked up the backs of those buildings, and that was the wall, too.
The old center of Berlin, with the main street of Unter den Linden, was in the East zone, and so West Berlin evolved its own glittering center, along the Kurfurstendam (universally known as the Ku-dam). It had all the shopping meccas that were built to showcase Western prosperity -- Ka-de-We, Europa Center -- and the Gedachtneskirche, about which more later.
Yet the shadow of a whole city remained over the fragments; in the transportation system, for instance. The entire U-bahn (Untergrundbahn = subway) system, east and west, was run by the West; and the S-bahn (stadtsbahn = elevated railway) for the whole city was run by the East. The S-bahn was a line of clattering old orange flying coffins of pre-war vintage. The U-bahn was gleaming, yellow, ultramodern.
My main U-bahn stop was Wittenbergplatz; on the north end of the downtown Ku-dam district. To get there from where I lived, the U-bahn traveled a long curve route that took it back and forth under the wall. There was only one subway stop where you could disembark in the East from any of the lines that originated in the West. That was Friedrichstrasse, and it was a rat-maze of customs and currency exchanges and all of that.
There were other stations along the lines that passed under the wall, and they were empty, abandoned, underground ghosts. The trains slowed, but never stopped, at Potsdamer Platz. Before the war it was one of the busiest intersections in Europe, but when I was there it was dead brownfields above ground and a hollow shell beneath. And it crept through Anhalter Hauptbahnhof, where in the last days of the war Hitler's troops, desperate to stop the Red Army, blew up the locks on the Landwehrkanal and in the process drowned the civilians and wounded soldiers who were sheltering in the bowels of the station.
I lived with friends in Zehlendorf, an old suburb in the southwest, near Potsdam, that had been spared the war's destruction. It was a glimpse of how the leafier parts of the city might once have looked, with high-ceilinged old rowhouses on streets named for Prussian generals. Other friends I had there lived in Kreuzburg, in big warrens of old apartments, and, I now realize, they were all squatters. The civic code of West Berlin at that time made it beneficial for people who owned old property to let it deteriorate, then tear it down and build something new and high-rent. But because the city had a chronic housing shortage, the average folk fought back by taking over the big empty buildings and living in them.
It was a volatile place; all old people and teen-agers. The elderly were too poor to pick up and go west, and they had seen everything (Soviet war memorial in East Berlin known to the older women of the city as "Tomb of the Unknown Rapist"); and many of the young had come in from the West, hippie dropouts disaffected with consumer culture and drawn to West Berlin as a sort of enclave, with an easy university and a haven from the draft.
The Allies had done a lot for the city, overall, and they were not as aggressive or intrusive a presence as they were in other German cities near U.S. bases. But they were widely despised anyhow.
It seemed to be a German habit to establish one's distance from the Nazis, and it's not hard to understand why. The idea that Nazi=German is a silly one, of course, but few places in Germany were less Nazi-friendly than Berlin. William Shirer (I had the honor to interview him before he died) chronicled the contempt with which the city and the party regarded one another. One Nazi publication summed up Berlin "A melting pot of everything that is evil -- prostitutes, drinking-houses, cinema, Marxism, Jews, Strippers, negroes dancing, and all the vile offshoots of so-called 'modern art.' "
There was very little of pre-war Berlin to see when I was there: The Weimar Republic Berlin of cabarets and coffee-houses and Bauhaus. I did have one utterly unforgettable "old Berlin" experience, though, in a kino somewhere near Steglitz that showed "Rocky Horror" at midnight. The place was packed with Germans, all reciting the lines and throwing toilet paper. The campy homosexuality of the film was somehow just right for Berlin. Berliners also have a sense of humor about themselves ["If the Alps were in Berlin, they'd be bigger"] that is not really evident in most other parts of Germany.
Out in one of the big parks in the district of Schöneberg is a high hill, almost the only eminence in flat, sandy Berlin. High enough to ski down, high enough to put a star observatory at the top. It's the Trümmerberg -- "rubble mountain." That's the old Berlin under there; swept off the streets by gangs of women (there were no men) and piled up in an out-of-the-way spot. It took 12 years. And there are two others in the city.
In the East, more than 30 years after the war's end, there were still many buildings in ruins, especially a big cathedral I'd see from the railway as it ran along the wall. The Reichstag was still in ruins, too, and in the "no-man's land" near the wall.
One of the features of the landscape along the west side of the Wall was the white wooden crosses, lettered in black with the names of people who had died there trying to make it across, or under, or through the wall. Many were simply inscribed unbekant -- "unknown." There were a lot of them around the Reichstag, because the River Spree was the boundary between East and West there, and the wall was on the east side of the river, but the actual boundary was the high tide mark on the west side. So people would get over the wall, swim the river, then get shot on the other side.
The Gedachtneskirche was one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen anywhere. A big fortress of a church from the 1890s (Berliners sarcastically say it's the only building in history to be improved by being bombed), the broken, blackened fang of its spire was the only thing standing more than a few meters above ground in central Berlin in 1945. So they left it standing, and built West Berlin around it, as a permanent reminder of the awful price of making war.
Technically West Berlin was a front-line in the superpower war. But it felt like a forgotten city. After the airlift (1948) and the Wall crisis and the Kennedy visit (1961) the world pretty much forgot about Berlin. Most of the World War III scenarios had the Soviets bypassing it, as not worth the trouble to conquer. In fact, it was only useful to the West insofar as it could present a bright showroom window of commercial success in the heart of the drab east. Considering how the Cold War turned out, however, that was the essential thing.
So the prevailing feel of the city was benign neglect, slow decay, and a laid-back pace of life amid the stumps and scars left in the infernal last days of a horrible war. Who knew, all along, we were winning the battle right there? Especially after the Helsinki Accords in 1976, which made it easier for Berliners to cross over to the other side for a day and showed the Easterners the full measure of what they were missing.
I have heard stories from the post-1989 city, including some from the guy who recently redesigned our newspaper. He talked of a city full of construction cranes, as thick as oil rig derricks in Texas. They'd working all day, and at sunset, by some odd ritual, all turned their dinosaur necks to face the east.
Two generations have eaten most of the gold plating off the JFK idol, but there's one moment in his movie-life I'll always revere.
When I was in West Berlin in the '70s I made sure to visit the big Rathaus Shoneberg, down in the southeast suburbs, where Kennedy stood on the balcony in 1963 and looked out over a crowd of 150,000 rattled citizens -- it seemed like everyone left in the city was there -- and spoke words that had welled up in his head just hours before:
There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that Communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that Communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen!
By God it was great! Even in the old newsreels, you can feel the force of fury and euphoria. It was real -- There aren't many moments anymore when you get to see an American political figure being himself and being great all at once: When George W. Bush is real, I cringe. I don't think John Kerry remembers what real was.
But there was Kennedy, jabbing at the podium and not so much working the crowd as letting it be lifted up by the tailwind of the electric force he couldn't keep inside.
Because he might have stifled it if he'd had another hour before he spoke. Here's an account of the speech in American Heritage that emphasizes just how spontaneous it was.
Kennedy's stop in West Berlin came during the mutual walk back from the brink of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He and Khrushchev had privately and publicly discussed nuclear test bans. His public speeches that year had been tempered, conciliatory, delivered on a bed of olive branches.
It was in this spirit that he left on the 10-day European trip that would take him not only to West Germany but to Ireland, Britain, Italy, and the Vatican. He intended to deliver a conciliatory speech in Berlin meant for the ears of the Soviets and East Germans.
But then he saw the place. He climbed up one of the platforms on the west side and peered over the concrete and barbed wire. The platforms were still there 15 years later when I stood on one. The view in 1977 was the same. The newsreel narrator in 1963 had said Kennedy looked down on “the symbol of man’s degradation under a dictatorship.”
“I once heard McGeorge Bundy [Kennedy’s director of the National Security Council] say that in Berlin President Kennedy was affected by the brute fact of the Berlin Wall,” recalls Frank Rigg, a curator at the Kennedy library. “He was affronted in a very direct way by the wall, the reason for it and by what it symbolized.”
When the time came to speak, Kennedy blew through the diplomatic pleasantries, and threw down a white-hot 600-word gauntlet the Soviets never dared pick up. And when he stepped down he'd just turned six months of careful detente-work on its head.
“Oh, Christ,” the President exclaimed, when he realized what he had done.
The Cold War involved America and its leaders in a global lie of the legitimacy of the Soviet system. To do otherwise was to risk burning the entire human race. In time, many people in the West came to really believe in that sham legitimacy. Yet every now and then, in some time and place, the lie broke apart. Even if JFK's words that day strayed from the path of security and safety and peace, he had cause. He had stared at an irrefutable fact, and then he had told the truth about it.
Joerg Wolf, a German journalist who is interested in engaging Americans in dialogue, has a piece on the anniversary of the end of the Berlin Wall. The peg on the story this year is that it's been 18 years since that dramatic event. A whole generation -- my son is one of them -- has grown to the brink of adulthood in a world without the Berlin Wall -- and all that it symbolized.
Wolf links to a few of the German publications that have written about this in the past week. Most, unfortunately, did not bother to translate these articles into English, perhaps presuming they were too homey to be interesting to an international audience.
What struck me in skimming them in German, though, was how focused they were on the leaders, the men in power at the time, who, these young people believe, created the post-1989 world in which they now live.
And Wolf notes:
Some US observers have criticized Germany’s previous Chancellor Schroeder for an adolescent behaviour. One think tanker wrote that “German foreign policy needs to grow up.”
I think perhaps those two things are connected.
First, I wish all Germans had a clear idea of who brought down the Berlin Wall.
They did. The German people. Not Kohl, not Reagan, not Gorbachev, not Bush I. They did; the insolent Berliners, east and west. The people of faith in Leipzig and Magdeburg. And the German soldiers and guards who had the guns but did not use them.
Erich Honecker's repressive communist government, like Castro's and Kim's, seemed likely to endure even as the Soviet Union faded. It won the May 1989 election with a ludicrous 98.95 percent vote. The state had big plans for its 40th birthday in October. State-run television was broadcasting a Chinese-produced documentary on the Tiananmen Square slaughter, praising "the heroic response of the Chinese army and police to the perfidious inhumanity of the student demonstrators."
Then, that summer, Hungarian authorities opened their border with Austria, intending to let their own citizens travel more easily. Instead, what poured through were East Germans, chugging into Hungary in their rattletrap Trabis and then walking across into Austria. They refused to go home. By September, 130,000 of them were in Hungary, many claiming asylum or bound for the West. Another 3,000 had crammed into the West German embassy in Prague.
The 40th anniversary came, and the Warsaw Pact leaders -- Gorbachev chief among them -- turned out in Berlin, only to see the crowds chosen for the parade abandon their prescribed slogans and start chanting "Gorby, help us! Gorby, stay here!" Gorbachev recalled:
These were specially chosen young people, strong and good-looking ... [Jaruzelski], the Polish leader, came up to us and said, "Do you understand German?" I said, "I do, a little bit." "Can you hear?" I said, "I can." He said, "This is the end." And that was the end. The regime was doomed.
On Nov. 9, the East German government, maneuvering for survival, took a step to ease tensions, relaxing rules for travel to the west. But in its haste, the government's order got misread to the media as saying GDR citizens were free to leave to the West "through any of the border crossings." Like lightning, word went out on the streets that the Wall was open. It was not. It was never meant to be. But the citizens marched to the border. The guards had no instructions about this. Crowds swelled. The guards in one place yielded and opened the gates, and the flood poured through, and back again. German people from both sides tumbled across that once-deadly space and reveled. They danced on the wall. Then they brought out hammers and beat it to rubble.
And that was the end. By the end of the year, the remaining communist regimes in Eastern Europe had fallen.
The German people. Not Kohl, not Reagan, not Gorbachev, not Bush I. They did; the rude Berliners, east and west. The Christians of Leipzig and Magdeburg. And the German soldiers and guards who had the guns but did not use them.
They redeemed so much of Germany's 20th century history in that one day. They paid a debt by dancing and walking and tearing down the symbol of ruthless, mindless, government authority. They all behaved like Bad Germans, and it was the exact right response.
Americans would be celebrating themselves for that till the end of time. Magdeburg Cathedral would be a national monument.
It is a tendency of written German to use passive constructions, but there is still something unjust in Wolf's wording: "1989: The Berlin Wall fell." As though it collapsed like a rotten, vacant building, or got blown over by an act of nature. It is typically German, perhaps, to have a moment of heroism and redemption, and somehow not notice it.
Germans perhaps have a collective tendency to think they are non-players in the world now, red-carded by the fouls of 1940-45. That has perhaps become a convenient situation for many of them, perhaps. Whatever happens now is not their fault, no?
An acknowledged redemption would bring back responsibility.
INDEX - AUTHOR