Rain crashed on the tin roof of a small caravan dispensing draught beer. Claire and I huddled beneath it, sipping Becks from refundable plastic cups. Dance music thumped from neat piles of speakers lining both sides of Strasse des 17 Juni, played by DJs now frantically trying to cover their equipment. A ray of sunshine escaped from a crack in the black clouds, reflecting gold streaks off the tarmac. The trickle of people gyrating between the intermingling sounds pulled out umbrellas and danced through the downpour.
Less than a week after the World Cup, 1.2 million people thronged their way through the same street, following trucks bearing excessively large, water cooled sound systems, DJs and semi-clad dancers. They left two metric tons of debris in their wake, passed an estimated 750 000 litres of urine into the adjoining Tiergarten Park – damaging the roots of centuries old trees – and consumed an inestimable quantity of drugs, monitored by 50 “love guards” distributing earplugs, ice spray, glucose tablets and contraceptives. The Love Parade had returned to Berlin, after a two year hiatus. The festivities Claire and I watched were a small taste of this bad craziness.
We had arrived in Berlin earlier that afternoon, and made our way to A&O Zoo, our dismal hostel. After edging our way through a queue at reception, we were pointed towards bare mattresses atop aging bunk beds, reserved months in advance. We stowed our packs and went out walking.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was visible just beyond the hostel’s long, grey edifice. It was built by Wilhem II, the Kaiser that led Germany into WWI, as a monument to his grandfather. Bombed during WWII, only a part of the bell tower remains, left standing to remind Berliners, who now refer to it as “der Hohle Zahn” (“the Hollow Tooth”), of war’s inevitable horror and destruction.
The area around us, divided between shops and a sprawling park, took its name from the nearby Zoologischer Garten – the city’s zoo. It became the centre of West Berlin, and a symbol of its capitalist success. An enormous Mercedes logo, once visible from the other side of the Berlin Wall, rotated atop a tall building behind the church.
KaDeWe, the largest department store in continental Europe, was a short walk away, through heavy traffic. Paul Theroux visited, en route to Red China, and wrote about the acres of food that occupy the top two floors. Claire and I ventured up a long stack of escalators into the neatly ordered excess a few days later. I watched her oscillate wide eyed between shelves of colourful pasta, cheese blocks bigger than tractor wheels, champagne stands and sushi bars, and pondered her taste for the finer things.
We skirted the zoo gates, navigated our way over two quietly flowing streams, and unwittingly entered Tiergarten Park. We chanced upon a beer garden, wooden tables scattered around a river’s cul-de-sac, and joined Germans passing a Sunday afternoon in the shade of trees heavy with dark green leaves. Emerging from the park two beers later, we found ourselves on Strasse des 17 Juni, the street alive with beats.
“Intelligence, as we know, decreases in direct proportion to height,” blurted our tour guide Brian. The comment was directed at my slightly over two metre self. I was standing amongst twenty or so other tourists, all laughing, and became very conscious of my head protruding from their ranks. It was, I thought, a rather weak attempt to add humour to a stodgy explanation of Berlin’s pre-unification history.
Friedrich Wilhem I, a four foot King of Prussia, filled his personal regiment, the Potsdam Giants, with tall soldiers (some were seven foot). Known to Berliners as the “Lang Kerls,” the Giants were never used in battle – the king kept them as his plaything. He personally drilled them, daily, liked to paint their portraits from memory, and reportedly told a French ambassador that “the most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers – they are my weakness.” Many were recruited forcefully, or given to Friedrich by foreign rulers as gifts. When his successor, Frederick the Great, disbanded the regiment, the roads to Paris were apparently “littered with half-wit giants trying to find their way home.”
Brian – none too short himself, with a mane of receding yellow hair – had led us from the tour’s meeting point to the banks of the River Spree. “I can’t believe it’s my last tour,” he gushed while striding quickly to the river, despite a pronounced limp. Museum Island stood just across the water, its grand 19th century public buildings obscured occasionally by Brian’s flapping hands.
Berlin rose from a small, swampy fishing village to become the capital of Prussia, then Germany. Prussia was a Duchy until 1657, when Margrave Frederick William was granted independence by the Polish king. His son, Frederick III, crowned himself King in Prussia, not King of Prussia (he feared offending the Holy Roman Emperor) in 1701. Subsequent leaders emphasised military prowess, modelling the new kingdom on Sparta, rather than Athens.
Claire and I had picked up a brochure for Insider Tours at our hostel. Amongst the offerings, listed menu-like, were “The Famous Walk: Hidden Berlin and ALL main sites,” which we joined, “Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp: The Memorial Tour,” and “The Original Bier and Sauerkraut Experience.”
Berlin was the 20th century’s crucible. The origins of WWI and WWII can easily be traced back to the city. The Cold War found its ultimate expression here, in the Berlin Wall. Artefacts as everyday as a parking lot, as mundane as green lights at a pedestrian crossing and logos atop drab skyscrapers, have meaning.
We walked for four hours. Past the city’s synagogue, which survived the Nazis but was damaged by Allied bombs. Behind the remains of a bombed out department store in the East, squatted in by artists when the wall fell, now inhabited for the fixed rent of €1 each year. We crossed the street guided by ampermenschen, chubby green men wearing triangular hats, designed to resemble workers, and stopped at the Reichstag. The cupola on its roof, destroyed during WWII, was rebuilt using glass, an deliberate nod to the new government’s transparency. Behind us, suited parliamentarians and occasional passers by crossed the Spree at the recently built Mierscheid Bridge, named after a fictitious politician. The river once demarcated a part of the border between East and West Berlin. It was filled with nets and mines, to prevent people desperate to rejoin lost families, find work or escape persecution, from leaving communist Germany.
Berlin was divided suddenly, at midnight on August 13, 1961. People who had spent the night with a lover, with their parents or a friend, were separated from homes, jobs and children by the army, a narrow strip of water and a stretch of concrete and barbed wire that would stand for the next 28 years.
Brian led us through the Holocaust Memorial – rectangular charcoal slabs jutting awkwardly from uneven ground – to the parking lot below an apartment building. “This,” he said, beckoning us to sit on a grassy patch near the middle, “is the saddest parking lot in the world.” Below us, he related, were the snarled remains of Hitler’s Bunker, where he spent his last days, killed Eva Braun and committed suicide. Magda Goebels poisoned all of her six children in the bunker, before also committing suicide with her husband Joseph.
The tour finished at Marx Engels Platz. Chinese tourists stood respectfully before a large, strangely proportioned statue of the bearded Karl Marx, sitting next to his much slighter colleague, and had their photo taken. We sat down again, gladly, and Brian launched into an explanation of Germany’s eventual reunification.
In August 1989, communist Hungary started to allow tourists through its border with Austria. By crossing three borders, East Germans could now enter the West. In September, more than 13 000 “tourists” did. In January that year, Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany, had stated that the wall would stand for a “hundred more years.” By the end of October, he had been forced to resign.
Protests had been raging across the country. Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, had visited Berlin during October. Demonstrators were forced to gather in Marx Engels Platz, away from a ceremonial parade passing through a nearby street. Loud chants of “Vryheid!” (“Freedom!”) and “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the People!”) projected through the parade. Gorbachev heard, leaned over to Honecker, and reportedly told him that, “whoever comes too late is punished by life”.
Brian, relating this, uttered a choked final “Vryheid!” and turned away from us, his face crumpling as he held back tears. “I’m sorry,” he said after gathering his composure, “I just… I just love this place so much.”
On December 9, Günter Schabowski, East Germany’s Minister of Propoganda, returned to work after a vacation. During his absence, the government, under the new president Egon Krenz, had decided to allow direct travel to West Germany – after obtaining permission. The new regulations were supposed to be implemented the following day, by which time the border guards would be properly briefed. But Schabowski, handed a piece of paper midway a press conference, which only stated that direct travel would now be allowed, had not been informed of this. A journalist asked him when this new legislation would come into effect. “As far as I know, effective immediately, right now,” he replied.
East Berliners flocked to the wall in their thousands. Confused border guards let them through, paying little or no attention to their identity documents. West Berliners met them on the other side and gave those who needed it money for taxis or a phone call. Brian was, by now, openly crying. He moved his hand to his ear, imitating a phone call. “Mom, it’s me, Heinrich. I’ve crossed the wall, I’m in the West. Where are you? I’m coming home.”
A piece of the wall still stands, not far from Checkpoint Charlie. Small, pockmarked and covered in graffiti, it’s difficult to distinguish from the many other prefabricated walls scattered throughout Berlin. Claire and I went back to it, after walking past with Brian, and found the contents of a dustbin on its east side on fire. I started to pour the meagre contents of my water bottle into the bin and was soon joined by a young woman, her shiny hatchback parked up a road on the wall’s western end. She emptied a bottle of Evian over the flames, black smoke billowed up and, with a hiss, the fire went out.
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