Archive for category Berlin
I recall the interview in the summer of 1995. I was in Dresden, and had an interview with an elderly member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to discuss the difficulties of German unification.
In Berlin there was a controversy brewing about the above shown “Ampelmaennchen.” The icons of East German traffic lights showed a little man with a hate, green and walking to indicate “walk,” and read with hands spread apart to indicate “don’t walk.” In Berlin the goal of unification meant standardizing traffic lights, which meant doing away with the Ampelmaennchen in favor of the more modern West Berlin figures.
In 1995 this emerged as a full blown controversy, with groups protesting in favor of the Ampelmaennchen and pressuring the Berlin government to back down. At first it refused, and the Ampelmaennchen became a symbol of a growing East German resentment for what they felt was a take over by the West. Not that they wanted communism back – only a few aging stalwarts wanted that – but they wanted a new Germany that could be shaped by them alongside the “Wessis,” rather than simply having the West shove a new system down their throat.
As I chatted with the man whose name I forget (I’ve got it written down somewhere if I dug through my records), I told him about how it seems like the “wall in the head” was dividing Germans with as much power as the original wall had divided them physical. It was Ossi vs. Wessi. You could tell an “Ossi” (easterner) by their clothes and dental work; it was clear almost all the time which Germany one was from.
Moreover, the former Communist party (SED, now renamed PDS – Party of Democratic Socialism) was rebounding quickly in the East. Most thought it would vanish as Communism was discredited; instead, as East Germans felt alienated in the new system, it quickly became the most powerful political force in many parts of the East. Was unification failing?
The gentleman had been part of the Ost-CDU, one of the “block parties” which offered symbolic opposition yet had to promise to support the SED (Socialist Unity Party – the Communists) in East German politics. Many Ost-CDU politicians were distrusted because they had collaborated; others saw it as a way to raise different voices. Angela Merkel, the most famous Christian Democrat from the East, was not a member of the Ost-CDU, she joined Democratic Awakening (DA) after the wall fell. The DA later merged with the CDU.
“It’s just a matter of generational change,” he told me. ” This generation will never accept it completely, their world has changed too much. As much as they hate communism, they don’t know anything else, and resent demands from the West. They aren’t used to having to work hard because in communism there wasn’t enough work – ten people did the job one person could do. That was to avoid unemployment. Come back in 25 years, you’ll see.”
It is now 25 years since the wall came down. Perhaps most obvious of the change is the Berlin public transportation system. The idiosyncrasies and annoying detours caused by the wall are gone. When we went to Potsdam I tried to go the old route via Wannsee. We got there, but then I found out that the S-Bahn cuts through the city now, the system is efficient and unified.
I thought of that conversation in Dresden as I walked through Berlin two weeks ago, noting that it was now virtually impossible to distinguish Wessi from Ossi, or to see where the wall had been. A top the television tower in old East Berlin it was clearer – the ugly architecture of “real existing socialism” distinguished itself from the more vibrant West. The S-Bahn stations also showed the difference; in 25 years the infrastructure rebuilding remains an on going project. Berlin is still a “city of cranes,” as construction vehicles dot the city, rebuilding train stations, neighborhoods and homes.
With “Ossi” Angela Merkel now in her ninth year as Chancellor, her reputation and success has led to a point that she no longer is distinguished by the fact she’s the first woman and first ex-East German Chancellor. Rather she is Angie, perhaps the most powerful woman on the planet. She’s compared with Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer. When Kohl plucked her from the young DA party to become Family Minister on his cabinet, most thought it was purely symbolic – he just needed an Eastern woman. She’s shown herself to be much more.
The notion of generational change is powerful. The differences have blurred. The West clearly dominated the change, but not completely. The old PDS ultimately linked up with disenchanted Social Democrats in the West, who thought their party had drifted too much to the center. That allowed the creation of the leftist “Linke” party, altering the German political landscape.
Perhaps most symbolic is the survival of the Ampelmaennchen. Not only did the Berlin city government give up on its effort to standardize all traffic lights to the modern sleek figures of West Berlin, but they decided that as they replace or add new signals in the West, the old Ampelmaennchen figure will be preferred. Thus the Ampelmaennchen are no longer East Berlin phenomena, they are all over in the West, helping blur the distinctions between east and west.
Generational change yields new politics; one sees that in the US as well. A generation ago gay marriage and a black President named Barack Hussein Obama would have been unthinkable. In Berlin, however, it is profound and communism is very quickly becoming an historical oddity, a short lived failure.
One fascinating museum in Berlin is the “Berlin Story” Museum on the Ku’damm. It traces Berlin’s history back to the 1200s, sketching out how the city became one of the most open and tolerant cities in Europe — a rather ironic distinction given the reputation it has for being the capital of Nazi Germany. But even the Nazis never really had Berlin under their control until the war started and they could impose martial law. It’s a fascinating story, and the descent into the Nazi era is symbolized by climbing down four flights of stairs into a cellar with a dark atmosphere as we follow the Nazi seizure of power.
That quickly morphs into the Cold War and the divided city, looking at everyday life in each “side” of Berlin as well as politics and culture. This includes stories of how East German agents managed to sneak into the West, whether through a secret “hole” in the wall or a hidden entrance to the Friedrichstrasse train station. A highlight is a tour of of one of the four remaining bunkers designed to protect Berliners in case of nuclear war.
During the Cold War Berliners knew that they’d be at risk if war broke out. Recognizing that neither side would likely bomb the city directly, they worried primarily about fallout and radiation. They decided to set up a series of bunkers to house as much of the population as possible for two weeks, betting (hoping) that after the initial launch people would find a way to quickly end the war. Almost all of those bunkers have been decommissioned, only four remain.
When I first visited Germany NATO was divided by the decision to modernize NATO’s nuclear force — installing Cruise and Pershing II intermediate range missiles in Europe to counter the Soviet introduction of the SS-20 in the late seventies. This led to the rise of the Green party in Germany and a massive peace movement with protests sometimes in the hundreds of thousands against the missile plan.
Although supported by the German government, the modernization was opposed by average Germans across the political spectrum. The reason was obvious. In the US the Reagan Administration was talking about a “winnable” nuclear war, one that could be limited to the European continent. US Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger stated the US was no longer in a post-war era but a “pre-war era.”
The rationale for this was to make extended deterrence credible. In order to provide a nuclear deterrent against a Soviet attack on Western Europe the Soviets had to believe the US would actually escalate to a nuclear war to defend Europe. Since a nuclear war meant the destruction of the entire planet, the rational US response would have been to let Europe go. As Charles DeGaulle asked, would the US sacrifice Chicago for Paris?
To convince the Soviets that was not the case the US had to act as though it believed a war could be both won and limited in scope. Even in the US almost nobody believed that was the case. But it was a bluff the Soviets couldn’t call since if they were wrong, it would lead to their destruction. So under this Damocles sword the Cold War balance of power was maintained.
The problem with that is if you were European it seemed the US was saying “we can limit the nuclear holocaust to Europe” and come out on top. The Germans saw Ronald Reagan as an anti-Communist Cowboy who wanted to destroy the Soviets and feared that the US could drag them into a war that would assure the destruction of Germany. The crisis could have torn apart NATO, had not Gorbachev come to power in 1985 and then negotiate with Ronald Reagan a removal of both the SS-20s and the new NATO missiles with the 1987 INF Treaty.
The bunker we visited was below ground and the first 3600 to arrive after the war broke out would be admitted. They’d each have a bunk and would eat dry food, barely enough to survive. Water was stored, but there would also be a pump. Air filters would keep the air breathable, but would be less than 1/20th as fresh as air in a modern office building. It would be damp and stale — but would sustain life.
The lack of privacy would be immense, there would be no showers, little water for personal hygiene, and toilets had curtains instead of doors to prevent people from seeking refuge in the toilet — a bit of space all alone. There would only be 8 people who “worked” there, they would rely on self-governance. Any medical help would be provided voluntarily by doctors who happened to be among the 3600 admitted. They’d have minimal medical supplies on hand — the most plentiful drug would be valium.
Their fear was that if people got aggressive and panicked it would be over — mass hysteria could lead to violence and horror. They even had tasks, some unnecessary, to try to provide a sense of community. Although it wasn’t necessary to pump up water from the well, people would be assigned to do that — or if someone was starting to panic, that activity might give them a release. The goal would be to strive for a sense of community to trump fear and panic.
After two weeks the supplies would be gone and they’d be forced to leave the bunker, hoping that radiation levels had gone down and that those on top would have a plan to save the population.
Leaving the bunker and breathing the fresh, open, tolerant atmosphere of Berlin today, it’s easy to forget how different things were before 1989. It was a divided city and travel from West Berlin to anywhere else was difficult — though the city compensated with lots of immense parks to give its population an escape. To keep West Berlin populated required incentives, including the fact that males in West Berlin could avoid mandatory conscription.
The Berlin story is one that meanders from Prussian militarism, enlightenment rationality, the interwar Cabaret scene and the post-war division. The Berlin Story museum is worth a visit – it captures the essence of that story with fun and informative displays. The bunker tour reminds us that during the Cold War West Berlin was the front line – a piece of the West 300 kilometers behind the Iron Curtain.
I remember the first time I visited Berlin. It was late July 1989. The talk in Germany was of change in the USSR, Poland and Hungary. I had spent the summer interviewing politicians and academics about inter-German relations, and they all agreed: unification would not come soon if at all, and that East Germany would not reform. Thus when I made my first and only venture into East Berlin, there was no sense that within a month East Germany would be in crisis, and in just over three months the wall would come down.
Americans sometimes like to take credit for what happened, but the fall of Communism was driven by internal economics — the system couldn’t work and was in collapse all over the eastern bloc. It ended the way it did because East Germans and then other East Europeans took to the streets. You can’t credit Gorbachev, Reagan or Bush — if anything their ability to cooperate made it so the big powers did nothing to halt the collapse.
While traveling Germany that summer I bought a Sony Discman at Kaufhof in Munich for 290 DM. The CDs I bought to accompany me were Billy Joel Live in the USSR, Jackson Browne’s World in Motion, and Udo Lindenberg’s Gänsehaut. I had become a fan of Lindenberg since getting his album Odysee the first time I was in Europe, and remember sitting in a West Berlin hotel room and listening to Mädchen aus Ostberlin the night after I visited the east side of the city. I had never really felt what the division of Germany meant.
But on that day, July 29, 1989, I realized how absurd the situation was. I got off the train at Friedrichstrasse, walked to Unter den Linden and went down to the Brandenburg Gate. It was blocked by the east side of the wall, unapproachable. I could see people on a platform in the West looking over into the east the same way I had done the day before. I turned around and walked to Alexanderplatz, going by the Marx-Engels statue, the television tower and city hall. A couple of guys tried to convince me to exchange money, offering me a great rate (compared to the official 1 DM = 1 Ostmark), but there was nothing to buy.
At Alexanderplatz I got lunch at a cafeteria, bought some ice cream and then went in the central store. It was the main store of East Berlin meaning it had the best consumer goods East Germany could muster. It had nothing worth buying. I roamed the city all day, covering probably 12 to 15 miles on foot, taking in all I could about this “other world” of Communism. I was awed by the beauty of the historic center of East Berlin, and realized that while it wasn’t a torturous hell hole, it was clearly dying. “Das kann nicht so weiter gehen,” I thought — it can’t go on like this. This is absurd.
Lindenberg’s song was about a love affair between a West German and a “girl from East Berlin.” It was also a metaphor for a country. “We simply want to be together,” was the plea as the couple — and the German people — were separated due to political machinations beyond their control. The song was poignant to me having been in the East that day, at some point listening to it a third or forth time and thinking about the division I suddenly had tears running down my cheeks. Now I felt the division.
The video below has some (very poorly translated) English subtitles, but gives an inside look at the moment the wall opened, how East Berliners pressured the guards who finally gave in – it is a moment where history was made. It’s ten minutes, but it captures the moment communism broke and freedom expanded:
Walking around Berlin in 2012 is surreal in some ways. I’ve been back here many times in the last twenty years, watching the city transform itself dramatically. On this trip students kept asking if they were in the East or West, and wondered how different it had been. Lacking a camera in 1989 I only have the photos in my head of how things looked, but I walked many of those same stretches and compared now and then, as best I could.
When I was in Berlin for four months in late 1991 it was still obvious who was from the East and who was from the West, the wall’s location was clear, and the early difficulties of bringing the two sides together had become undeniable. Now the city is whole. Construction continues, but former West Berlin is getting a facelift, as the Ku’damm pales in comparison to Friedrichstrasse and Potsdamer Platz.
As I thought about the changes and my time there in 1989 I came across this:
Udo Lindenberg. A musical built on his songs tells the story of the the division of Berlin and the coming together of the city in terms of a love affair. I thought of myself in that hotel room in late July 1989 and wished I could go to the musical. Alas, the demands of teaching the course and working with the students kept me busy. I tried to create an image for them of what I experienced in 1989 and even 1991. But now the everyday of that era is captured in museums like the DDR Museum (a great hands on experience) and the “Berlin Story Museum.” Still, knowing that Udo Lindenberg’s music is now used to tell that story is satisfying. Someday I will see that musical.
I have been to Berlin in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2010 and now 2012. Though I am a foreigner there, the city means a lot to me, it fascinates me, its tradition of tolerance/openness dating back to Friedrich the Great intrigues me, and no visit there seems long enough. Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin.
In 1991 while living briefly in Berlin I received a message to pick up a package at the post office located at “Gelehrter Stadtbahnhof,” the final S-Bahn (light rail transit) in West Berlin before crossing to the East. I went there and found an old sleepy station with two tracks in a quiet neighborhood. Alas, all the pictures I took that year, including many rolls of film from old East Berlin (still mostly unchanged a year after unification) were lost when I stupidly shipped home 27 rolls of film because I wanted to develop them more cheaply in the US. The box went missing and never arrived. However, I found a photo online of that old station:
That sight is now the home of the Hauptbahnhof. Lehrter Bahnhof has gone from an old sleep S-Bahn station to a modern marvel. Most train stations in Europe have a similar design, coming out of the late 19th and early 20th Century. Because train stations are necessary and can’t be easily relocated like airports (due to track layout), they get refurbished or upgraded, but keep the same basic design. In Berlin the new territory gained from the wall (which in most places was two walls with a good chunk of space between them) allowed them to design a completely modern train station, with multiple levels, shopping and an open glass theme.
The design of the train station is as unique as the city. Regional traffic departs from the lowest level, while S-bahn trains serving the Berlin area and high speed trains going to destinations all over Europe and Germany depart from the upper level. Inbetween are three levels of shops, food and services.
The Lehrter Stadtbahnhof served the city from 1871 on, originally as a terminal station for traffic from Hamburg and Lehrte, then after World War II simply as an S-bahn stop. Renaming it Hauptbahnhof was controversial. There had been a Hauptbahnhof in East Berlin, but that station had no historical claim to the name. It had only been called that since 1987 and had gone by a number of previous names. It is now called Ostbahnhof (East train station), the name it during most of the Cold War and is the third largest station in the city.
Most people wanted to keep Lehrter as part of the name, but fearing that would confuse people, it gets referred to simply as the main train station – though the signs do give homage to the past.
The station is perfectly located; it is within a short walk of the Reichstag building and Brandenburg Gate.
The area was sparsely populated because of the wall, and thus building new track connections and expanding the station was no problem. It is now part of a stretch running to the Potsdamer Platz that demonstrates the core of new Berlin – the Chancellery, Bundestag, Brandenburg gate, and Unter den Linden.
Over the coming days or weeks I’ll be blogging about my recently finished Germany trip, including reflections on other ways Berlin has changed, my view that the sovereign state is becoming obsolete, and how the Euro crisis is going to get solved — and create a stronger, more united Europe. But to start, I think the Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a real symbol of how the city has changed — and the process of transformation continues!