A WEEK IN BERLIN

My first visit to Germany was in 1952 and the devastation of the Allied bombing raids was still to be seen all around; but reconstruction had started, and noticeable was the orderly and methodical manner in which the work was being carried out.
One small example of this was, when I observed on a building site, the grooves on the heads of all the screws in woodwork were in absolute alignment; all flush with the wood and pointing vertically due north to south. I pointed this out as being a remarkable co-incidence, but was told ‘that is no co-incidence. That is how German workers are trained to do their work. Nothing less would have been acceptable.’

That journey in 1952 brought me a bride from Hamburg and many subsequent pleasant visits to Germany. One place we would have liked to visit but were never able to, was Berlin. And going to Berlin became a wish for me, set right at the back of my mind. A sort of vague date in a diary of unspecified year saying ‘visit Berlin.’

It is said that the time and the event come together in due course if one is only patient. And it seemed to me that the time had come when the world awoke to the astounding news on November 9th of last year (1989) that the Berlin Wall was open and thousands of East Berliners were streaming through to the western side of the divided City. ‘We should go to Berlin,’ I said to Ursula. ‘Alright, but not before Christmas.’ That left me plenty of time to arrange the timing and the travel details. We decided to go by train, leaving London on Friday, 5th January, crossing to Hoek van Holland by ferry from Harwich, and taking a through train to Berlin. This meant spending 10 hours on the train, but would give us an opportunity to gather some local impressions on the way.

The ss Koningn Beatrix Stena Line ferry which carried us to Holland was a pleasant surprise and an example, we hoped, of how other ferry operators would cater for their passengers in the future. Before boarding the train at the Hoek van Holland, we entered the tearoom and had a morning coffee as a nostalgic reminder of our previous passages through this  timeless cafeteria. It scarcely seemed to have changed since I was first here in 1952 when making the journey to Hamburg in June to propose to Ursula. As we drank  we savoured this link in our lives.

The train and crew were East German. The train not over-luxurious, but clean and punctual. There were litter boxes in each compartment, and these were emptied regularly. The usual parade of ticket inspectors and border guards made their ways down the train as it headed east via Rotterdam, Utrecht, Osnabruck and Hanover. Then through East Germany to the territorially isolated West Berlin. In subtle ways the buoyant sense of flourishing plenty was transformed when the train crossed into East Germany. The prosperity evident in the Dutch and West German towns contrasted with the run-down, almost dilapidated condition of those across the border. Our destination was the Zoologischer Garten Station which, although in West Berlin, was run by the East German DDR railway authorities. Here, we left the train which carried on to Warsaw.

The tourist office on the station was closed, but there was a board on the wall nearby with the names and telephone numbers of all the principal hotels in West Berlin. By the side of each name was an illuminated light showing ‘red’ for ‘no vacancies’ and ‘green’ for ‘still have vacancies.’ We booked accommodation at the Hotel Savigny by using the telephone by the side of this board. It was apparent by the number of red lights showing on the board that we didn’t have too much choice and although our hotel was further away from the City Centre than we hoped for, it was close to the bus routes and an underground station. We reached it by the U7 underground to Konstanzer Strasse station and walked from there down the Brandenberge Strasse. In a short time we found ourselves in an old fashioned but comfortable hotel. Our room was spacious with two low box type double beds set waving distance apart. These were modern, all the other furniture or fittings seemed to be early century. Four great iron radiators kept us warm and there was a sizeable sitting room extension with chairs and tables. There was no television, radio or drinks cabinet.

The temperature outside was below freezing and the air crisp and dry. Snow lay on the rooftops, but had been cleared away from the streets. It was dusk as we walked along Kurfurstendamm, the main shopping street. The Christmas lights were still up, spanning the two rows of trees lining either side of the wide avenue. The shops were brightly lit and well stocked with good quality, artistically arranged articles. The traffic was well regulated and disciplined and people walking on the streets seemed to be relaxed and well dressed. We were in fact receiving the first impression that tourists are meant to get.

Berlin, both East and West, has been a political pawn in the Cold War. The West has put money into West Berlin. Even today, over 50% of its budget is met by the Bonn Government which, theoretically, has no rights over it. These rights are invested in the Allies – UK, USA, and France – until such time that a peace treaty unlocks this anachronism. So, the money put into West Berlin is to maintain it as a show-piece for the West. And viewing it at its centre, the down-town area, it is a show-piece; a little overdone in parts perhaps, but on the surface it shows all the signs of having been a successful experiment. Unemployment however, we learned, is high and on the outskirts conditions are not quite as good. This initially positive impression that we gained was to be tested the following day when we proposed going to East Berlin in the Russian Sector, and would have an opportunity to make comparisons.

It was still crisp and freezing when we set off the next morning by the U bahn underground to Kochstrasse, the station nearest to the border called ‘Check Point Charlie.’ The approach from there gave us our first glimpse of the notorious Berlin Wall. It was covered with paintings and graffiti. people were chipping away at it from the western side. Bits of the masonry were set out on pieces of cloth on the ground, selling for between DM1 to DM4, according to size. Hammers and cold chisels were for hire at DM5. There was a viewing platform nearby, where visiting foreign politicians were taken, and temporary toilets had been set up, no doubt at the time that the hundreds of thousands of East Berliners had surged through on that November day. The scene we saw now was of people like ourselves hurrying towards the crossing and pausing to view this last bit of the west, where the activities by the wall gave the impression of light-hearted relaxation, amidst a near festival atmosphere. The crowd became more dense as we approached the first control barrier, a military post manned by a solitary British soldier. This seemed to be a purely symbolic presence. There were delays going through the control post on the other side. The mass of people moved slowly forward, diverging through numerous checking desks, each one administered by a civilian and a guard or policeman, wearing Russian-type fur hats. We had been told what to expect at this stage. Passports, a DM5 entry fee, compulsory exchange of DM25 to East German Marks on a 1 to 1 basis and completing a one day visa form. This information was evidently now out of date and all we had to do was to show our passports and pay the DM5 fee, whereupon a one day entry permit was given. Simple as was this routine, there were problems and a certain mass confusion prevailed. It was evidently the first crossing of the border for most of us and hardly a routine. The novelty and expectation of what lay ahead showed itself in the easy, almost compulsive way that strangers talked to strangers in whatever language they found in common. I heard a voice, persistent and rising from the hubbub all around. A young Irish girl was speaking in English to an uncomprehending guard and at the same time I felt the eyes of another guard on me, waiting for my passport.

Beyond the control desk we walked along wide corridors, under surveillance all the way through Immigration and Customs’ Control like any airport. But these seemed now to be cosmetic and meaninglessly intermediary. Perhaps they had  a purpose once, but now they were defunct. This led us outside again to a darkish yard where , in a high wall we perceived a small doorway round which were clustered four more  guards armed with automatic guns.  As we stepped through the doorway out on to the road a young man approached us, evidently distressed. he spoke in a jumble of mixed German and English. At first it was difficult to understand him but, bit by bit, we learned that he had arranged to meet his Irish girl friend at ‘Check Point Charlie’ on the western side. The guards had told him that as an East German he could not use this check point; there were other check points for East Germans elsewhere along the wall. Amazing, I thought as we listened. In November half a million East Berliners had gone through this sector when their government had ordered it open, and now it is forbidden them. An American girl had told us yesterday that ‘the rules change every day in the eastern sector.’

It was fortunate he had picked out the person who had heard an Irish girl’s voice on the other side. ‘What is her name?’ I asked. ‘Ruth Draper.’ ‘You stay with him,’ I said to Ursula, ‘I’ll go back to see if I can find her.’ It was no easy matter. The flow of the people was all against me and from their looks I could see that the guards had me under observation. ‘Is Ruth Draper here?’ I shouted through cupped hands, ‘Ruth Draper, Ruth Draper’ going back along the lines of people queuing at the separate aisles. It was a blank. I went over to the control desk where I thought the girl had been. ‘Where did the Irish girl go?’ ‘What Irish girl?’ ‘She was here ten minutes ago and was very…..’ my German faltered over the word ‘upset.’ ‘She was nearly crying’ came out as a free translation. ‘She went back to West Berlin,’ the guard said shortly.

The young man seemed about to cry when I returned with the news. Ursula had been talking with him. ‘She has just come all the way from Ireland,’ she explained to me. ‘We must get hold of her. I’ll go back and you stay with him.’ And was gone before I could say a word. As we waited I could see all around the dreary and in some cases, shabby apartment buildings some distance from the wall, and the constant movement of people coming through the doorway, as stepping from one world to another. All the strange, different imagery made it difficult for me to concentrate on the mixed English and German words coming from the highly strung and tense young man. ‘One moment’ I said to him and went to put my head round the doorway. Coming towards me was a rather triumphant Ursula walking alongside a young woman. They were talking animately. Ursula smiled at me as their momentum took – swept, is hardly an exaggeration – past me. I turned in time to see a sight of true love re-united. The two were into one another’s arms, hugging and alternatively kissing and exchanging shorthand words of endearment.

Ursula and I stood at a distance, feeling superfluous but very satisfied. It was some time before the two young lovers could bring themselves to disengage from their idyll and still longer before we could disengage ourselves from their profuse thanks. In an interlude from this euphoric reunion, they broke off to thank us and wanted to ‘do something for us.’ There was nothing they could do, of course, so we politely excused ourselves, beaming and patting them in a demonstration of our mutual participation in their happiness. When we had said goodbye we started walking towards the Brandenberg Gate, the mood of elation subsiding as we made our way through deserted back streets with forlorn blocks of flats. There was neglect in up-keep where ever we looked. From the east side the Wall was untouched by paint or graffiti, looking even more sinister in its isolation. It was not difficult to imagine the scenes of the despair of failed escape attempts that must have taken place over the years. And less than a mile away, over the wall lay the show piece antithesis of this grey drabness.

The side streets led us eventually to Unten den Linden and here the impressions changed. This most imposing thoroughfare was set off by the soaring Brandenberg Gate at one end. It is an imposing monument, built in 1789 as a copy of the Propyloss of the Acropolis in Athens. Its situation once crowned the meeting of Unten den Linden with the beautiful Tiergarten Park but is now a symbol marking the division of these two landmarks as the Wall runs a few metres from the Gate. As we looked at this I wondered if many English people could envisage a wall dividing Hyde Park and Park Lane from Hyde Park Corner and Buckingham Palace, with armed guards on one side with orders to shoot at anyone rash enough to try and scale the wall? Impossible. There was an impressive publicity coup in evidence facing us as we looked through the Brandenberg Gate with the Wall just behind it. The focal point for every Western camera man or woman these days; a banner had been erected dozens of metres long, reading, ‘SAACHI & SAACHI – THE FIRST TO REACH BERLIN.’

As we walked down Unten den Linden we came to the  fine buildings of the museums, the National library and the Cathedral grouped about squares and gardens at the other. This is the true heart of old Berlin and there is a sense of grandeur about it, even though these great buildings are not maintained as they deserve to be. Passers-by could easily be categorised into locals and visitors by the quality of their clothes.

We had been told in London that the exchange rate is DM1 for 1 East German Mark, and not to deal in black market currency. But the information was now out of date like so much else in this fast changing world. We were told at the Hotel Savigny that the rate, official or black market, was now 3 to 1. Outside a fish restaurant we met our first money changer. ‘You want to change money?’ ‘Yes, at what rate?’ ‘4 to 1.’ ‘Right.’ We changed swiftly DM20 for starters.Then  some fellow-tourists we talked to said it was possible to get 6 to 1. This was inflation developing under our noses, likely to turn the East German currency into Monopoly money and bring their economy to a terminal decline. This meant that we could eat at restaurants favoured by the Russian officers and foreign diplomats at a quarter of the cost or less. We had meals in restaurants offering excellent food, much of the decor giving me the odd impression of a flash back to the 1950’s in Britain. Here, an atmosphere of genteel decline prevailed; the china was of the best quality but spoiled by having small chips here and there, the brocade had been expensive once but was now scuffed and worn. Were we visitors helping the local economy or capitalists taking advantage of their condition was a thought that crossed my mind more than once.

One afternoon we went to a large hall called the Peoples’ Palace where the fledgling political parties were laying out their policies, like market stalls offering wares for sale. There were parties called the ‘new Forum,’ ‘Social Union,’ ‘Christian Social Union,’ and many others. People stood around openly debating the policies on offer. It seemed a remarkable exercise in grass-roots democracy by people talking first principles like philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. But these participating had been virtually de-politized over the past forty years, and we were told that the neo-Nazi, National Front Party was trying to recruit in East Germany, but its members were being turned back at the check points. Leaving this political market place we found ourselves in a district where both the British and American consulates are situated. We could see cameras fixed to outside walls and focussed on the main entrances. This was presumably to photograph everyone going in and coming out of these buildings. Were these still being used? We wondered.

We were in the midst of what must have been one of the most impressive cities in Europe and it still bore signs of a certain grandeur; but Berlin has been severely bombed during the last war and nearly 75% of it had been destroyed. The re-built parts were not always in harmony with the whole and the great Cathedral which had been fire-bombed in 1943 was still far from being fully restored. The traffic on the roads was light by Western standards and the ubiquitous two stroke cars looked like 1950’s models. What shops there were did not have anything like the Western sophistication in finish or lay-out, let alone variety of choice. The administrative buildings, the museums, libraries were of a scale to adorn any Capital city, but many were in poor and neglected condition. Even though  one could see that the upkeep was not of a high standard, it seemed that when the distribution of insufficient resources had been prioritised, these public buildings had received proportionally more than the apartment buildings in the side streets.

Berlin is the second largest city in the world, in area; it comes after Los Angeles. A third of its 320 square miles are lakes and forests. So one day we went by train to Wannsee, where pleasure boats sail on the two lakes in the summer months, but now there was only snow on the ground and thick woodland circling the lakes. It was here that senior Nazi officials had met on 20th January 1942 to plan the ‘Final Solution.’ But we did not talk about that and, after a walk around we found a restaurant in the woods that served us a good meal by a great wood fire.

Another day we went on a conducted tour of Potsdam in East Germany. This included a visit to the Palace and grounds of Frederick the Great’s ‘Sans Souci.’ There was no heating in the palace which speeded up the viewing. At Ursula’s request we were allowed 30 minutes to go shopping in the nearby town, but there was very little of interest, the goods on sale were quite basic and of robust but unsophisticated designs. Consumerism as we know it was non-existent. The tour organisers had arranged lunch at a hill-top restaurant overlooking the town called the Minsk restaurant. It is a favourite watering hole of the Russians who seem to know how to make themselves comfortable in other people’s countries. The decor was pleasant and the food excellent. There were big portions of steak which I left on my plate; something that must have bemused the waitress. We had good quality wine , tasty soup and a delicious ice cream dessert with coffee to follow. Our table companions were  a young French diplomat, an Italian woman wearing expensive clothes, an American with his West German wife and we got on to very easy terms with them all.

For the final part of the tour we went to the Schloss Cecilia which was built by Kaiser Wilhelm 11 in 1913 for his English wife, in the style of an English country house. It was here that the Allied leaders met after the war to settle the details of the post-war European boundaries and we were shown the room where Stalin, Attlee and Truman had sat round the table to make these decisions. The place is magnificent; in my view, the highlight of the tour. A West German member of our group began an argument with the East German guide, Trum, about the errors of East Germany, over Berlin. This was ill advised as she had done her best to be ideologically neutral amongst her group of westerners from possibly a dozen countries. The attack was not appropriate and the group showed sympathy with the east German woman, at which the man desisted. When the coach let Trum down at her simple country house on the way back to Berlin I ensured she was richer, by organising a whip round  from an appreciative group and, in Deutsch Marks.

There were many more visits to be made and episodes experienced until our week in this extraordinary divided city came to an end. Our last evening was spent in a cafe in East Berlin. We went in because it looked so animated from the outside, even though dimly lit as most places were. The cafe was crowded, mainly with young people many of them smoking what smelled like cheap tobacco, whilst talking and consuming soft beverages. We sat at a table with two girls. They said they were au pairs working in West Berlin. One was Polish, the other Hungarian, and it was their first visit to East Berlin. It was dark as we strolled back along the streets, and while this covered the shabbiness of the imposing buildings it also contrasted starkly with the main streets across the wall where night was competing with day.

Our train left the Zoologischer Garten Station at 1119 hours and settled in once more for the ten hour return journey, I began to wonder about the future and where the events of the past months would lead. Last year 350,000 East Germans left for the West and even now there is an average of 2,000 people leaving every day; most of them are young and skilled. Surely no society can survive such a haemorrhaging.

Elections were to be held on March 18th, and the seminal event of 9th November would receive a further impulse towards change. But change to what? Only our children or their children would be around to see things more clearly. As it was, the whole of Eastern Europe was in flux, with Russia likely to follow. Would we in the West benefit from these changes or be dragged down by them?  This question was unknowingly posed by another passenger in our compartment. A well built, formidable lady returning to her home in West Germany. She told us about her large house and place in the country, her Mercedes, her boat. She was worried that she would have to pay higher taxes to support the East Germans. Another passenger, a businessman joined in saying that the train we were travelling in was much inferior to the West German trains. Some of the East German trains even smelled strange. Together, he and the lady ‘put the boot in’ to things East German, They left the train at Minden, the lady putting on her fur coat to face the elements outside.

We were alone in the compartment. Ursula got out a book. I stretched, comfortably weary. We had been on the move continually for a week and I was looking forward to getting home. Gazing out of the window into the darkness of the night, my eyes absently noticed a screw in the door and, travelling further down, I observed that all the screw-heads had their grooves absolutely vertical. An attendant came in to empty the litter bin. So, had anything really changed?

Written February 1990