Berlin Impressions, 29 Years Later

This summer 2018, I travelled to Berlin, Germany, for a conference. The last time I had been in Berlin was about two months before the Berlin Wall came down. My friend Brennan Novak, now a resident of Berlin, encouraged to write down my impressions, so here I am.

My last trip, so many years ago, has a little bit of a story to it. It was summer 1989. My girlfriend at the time and I had just broken up, and I decided to withdraw to Erlangen, the city in which I went to college at the time. For lack of anything better to do and to earn some money, I had taken a reasonably-paid summer job analyzing and repairing faulty printed circuit boards at the end of the production line for a local automotive supplier.

It occurred to me one day at work that I had nothing particular to do on the next weekend, and that an overnight train passed by Erlangen on the way to Berlin. So I decided to have some fun, go straight from work to the train on Friday afternoon, spend Saturday night in the Jugendherberge (“youth hostel”) in Berlin, and return the same way Sunday night, arriving back in Erlangen just in time to go to work Monday morning. And off I went.

The train was an overnight train, only arriving in Berlin in the morning and using one of the few corridors for West Germany-to-Berlin traffic. (Now you can do the same trip in 3 hours via ICE.)

For you youngsters reading this who don’t remember, after the Soviet/East German blockade of West Berlin had failed due to the Berlin Airlift (side note: hard to imagine that politicians these days would have the iron will to force the connection to a hopelessly locked-in place like Berlin open with thousands of airplanes, day in and day out, in the face of determined resistance from the Soviet Bloc), East Germany opened car and rail corridors between West Germany and West Berlin, accessible only to transit traffic, and without any exits into East Germany on the entire way. Of course, mostly financed with West German money. So my night train traveled through one of those corridors.

In practice, this meant fences, walls, concertina wire, and plenty of watch towers with machine guns on top along the route. It meant repeated stops waking you up in the middle of the night with disconcerting, and sometimes frightening passport controls and interviews. And, we were all sure, close monitoring of anything that was said in and around the train by the Stasi and East German border police.

So here we are in a full train compartment, six people, and the conductor comes by one more time to check on tickets. And one of the people in the compartment, a guy in his twenties, who probably had had a few drinks, decides he was going to start a conversation about politics with the conductor. Actually, he didn’t quite start a conversation but needled and bamboozled him into a conversation.

At that time, in September 1989, East Germany and a big part of the Eastern Block was already in turmoil. Specifically, it was the end of the summer, and many East Germans (who of course weren’t allowed to travel to the West, but could vacation in communist brother states like Hungary or Czecheslovakia) were on the way back from vacation. Somebody had stopped in Prague, now the Czech capital, and dared to ask for asylum at the West German embassy there. While waiting for a decision, they were permitted to stay on embassy grounds. Soon, word spread.

Gradually, more East Germans showed up at the West German embassy in Prague and asked for asylum. They were also permitted to stay. I vividly recall TV coverage from that time of the West German embassy compound in Prague, with a big garden behind solid walls, and people scaling the walls to get in. Most succeeded, and the embassy grounds filled up. The situation became a humanitarian disaster, as the embassy wasn’t prepared to host 100’s of refugees (if memory serves, it might have been even more) and the only room was in the open air in the yard. (Later, they were all permitted to leave for the West — arguably a significant defeat for the East German regime in the battle to keep their state — I will always recall the scream that went through the masses when the decision was announced by the German Foreign Secretary Hans-Dietrich Genscher via PA system — but at the time of my train ride, that hadn’t happened yet, and it was a much safer bet that the situation would end up in tragedy, like so many other insurrections in the Eastern Bloc had before. Some more background in the English Wikipedia, much more detail in the German Wikipedia. And pictures.)

So this dude in my train compartment keeps needling the conductor: “Did you hear about the embassy in Prague? So many of your compatriots are climbing the walls to get out. What do you think about that? Isn’t it great? Would you do that?” Poor conductor. Of course, given that he was permitted to work on this train with all of its western enemies of state in it, I’m sure he was triply vetted for regime loyalty, and a Stasi officer was never far, which kept his incentive to say something down to zero. But crisis lay in the air.

We made it to Berlin unscathed (I hadn’t been sure about that, given my fellow traveler). I don’t remember too much of what I did in Berlin, except for visiting the West German-created observation platforms from where you could see the wall cutting straight through what had obviously once beeen a thriving metropolis, maintained well on the West, with bullet holes from World War II still visible in the walls on the East forty years later; the “Todesstreifen” (“the strip [of land] of death” prior to the actual wall), and the plaques for so many — far too many — mostly young men who had died or been severely wounded in the attempt to cross it.

But unlike so many other plaques of young men who died too early in somebody’s senseless conflict, as one can find in so many war memorials around the world, this situation was live. The watchtowers were manned. The guns were pointing. The mines in the Todesstreifen were active. The patrols were patrolling right in front of my eyes, ready to create another dead body and the need for putting up another plaque. All for the unbelievably criminal “crime” of wanting to walk from one part of the city to the other, like all of their ancestors had done over centuries.

I didn’t go to East Berlin during this trip. But West Berlin itself also left an impression. It felt like a jail to which the inmates had gotten used, for lack of an alternative. Into which some inmates had been born, knowing nothing else. But a jail that they could not escape, and only somehow cope with by pretending it didn’t exist and making the best of the limited life they had. The city felt psychologically sick.

In the evening on my last day, right around the Gedächtniskirche in the center of West Berlin, police and soccer fans (I think) played a bit of a cat and mouse game which I watched, beer in hand, until it was time to get back on the train. While soccer and police cat-and-mouse games are nothing new in Germany, or Europe, it only enhanced my impression of a sick city, where the powerless inhabitants rise, alcohol-fuelled, in rage against the police, a proxy enemy, because the real enemy was somebody else and too scary to fight.

The ride back home was uneventful, except for a chance encounter, right there on the platform while I was waiting for the train, that did have great impact on the next years of my life, but that’s a different story for a different day.

So here I am, 29 years later, and Berlin is unrecognizable in character and in its people. The first thing to notice is how diverse it has become. It feels like Berlin is now effectively bilingual: I heard just as much English as I heard German, and much of the German came with very bad accents, implying many non-native speakers. There are tons of other tongues, too, speaking confidently in public, such as Arabic, Turkish or Italian. Next time you hear about second-class status or violence against foreigners in Germany — something I definitely do not wish to play down — also think that many people speaking up in a foreign language with confidence implies something much more positive, about the default state of acceptance of foreigners and foreign cultures in a place.

Then, it seems everybody has opened up a corner store or restaurant with seats outside. While perhaps not as diverse as Silicon Valley in terms of food, it’s about as international in cuisine as I can imagine.

The border between East and West has disappeared so thoroughly that I had major difficulties determining where it used to be. It has been 29 years — longer than the wall was up! — but still. Billions and billions of Euros must have flown into construction and renovation all over town.

On some level, the most unexpected part is the “Regierungsviertel”, aka the part of town that’s seat of the federal government. Lots of new buildings, but they are unlike other government buildings in other countries. The Chancellery, for example, which is the seat of executive power, has been designed to be covered in ivy. Why? I’m not sure. However, it does not come across as a place that feels like it needs to impress others, or somehow convince the world that it is powerful and to be feared, or at least be reckoned with.

Walking across the former border has become a non-event. You don’t even know you did. And last time I was there, if I had, I would have been dead and just another plaque. It is a strange feeling.

Documenting history in Berlin is difficult, because it necessarily has to span so many different regimes and ruling systems, most of which we disagree with today: from Wilhelmian Prussian Emperors bent on territorial conquest, to the Nazis and their thirst for racist mass murder, to the dictatorial East German regime with its “Schussbefehl” (shoot first, ask questions later when somebody looks like they want to escape the German Democratic Republic), to the Soviets under Stalin whose efforts shortened World War II considerably, but also killed millions.

I walked through many memorials and remembrances, from the reconstruction of the wall and its fortifications (ha! last time I was there it was live, now it’s a museum!) to rounding up Jews and politically “undesirables” under the Nazis, to gays under the Nazis, to the war memorial of the Soviet soldiers who died in the battle for Berlin, and more. All I saw are tastefully done, impactful, accurate, without preaching, showing how it was and what the consequences were.

You read through them, and you don’t need anybody’s speech or convincing to become a pacifist. In spite of the violent history, and in spite of being the seat of arguably the most powerful nation in Europe, Berlin now comes across as a place that’s vibrant, that’s welcoming, that’s multi-cultural, that has come to peace with itself. And, perhaps, that has something to tell the world, if it is willing to start telling, and the world is willing to start listening.

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