Fifty years with Berlin

Had the scrambled egg at my Copenhagen hotel been just a bit runnier, I would have agreed with the reviewer’s “awesome” . It was all in all a pleasant surprise after an increasingly Dickensian walk through the tatty surroundings of the station.

I appreciated the breakfast as I was too tired last night to go out and eat after tussling with the most difficult part of my journey from Berlin to Uppsala, the underdimensioned Danish railcars from Hamburg to Fredericia, where every vestibule brought associations with the Grapes of Wrath with its uncomfortable heaps of humanity and piles of possessions.

My head is still full of images and memories of Berlin. I realised the other day that it’s 50 years since I first visited the city, arriving somewhere along Ku’damm between Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten and the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtnis church, bleary eyed after hitchhiking all night from the Ruhr, part of the journey made as helmetless pillion passenger on a fast motorcycle (this must have been before I reached Helmstedt). Once in Berlin, I went to Bernauerstrasse in Wedding early in the day to look over the wall and wonder at the strangeness of it all.

I spent the night at a commune in West Berlin although I don’t remember how I made the contact. I remember lying on the floor in my sleeping bag, half awake when the police banged on the door in the middle of the night purportedly in search of some mislaid teen. And rattling away on the S-bahn the following day somewhere around Westkreuz  in eager discussion with one of the commune dwellers.

I don’t remember where I slept after that but the next day I went to GDR Berlin, walking in some ordinary residential district close to the centre.

There have been many more trips since then. I often made a detour when I travelled overland from the UK to Sweden, to visit Berlin. I was fascinated by being able to move from one social system to another by a short journey on the S-bahn from Zoo bahnhof to Friedrichstrasse. I was depressed by the heritage of Stalinism which eventually crushed the hopes for a new Germany but relieved by the virtual absence of advertising, the feeling of natural adequacy when objects were products for use and not for profit, the serious bookshops full of classics (I had no problems with shortage of things I wanted to buy, only a shortage of GDR marks).

And fascinated by the quirks arising from making borders between municipal districts into a national frontier. I walked long distances along the border, inspected it more closely from the West as visual access from the east was often shielded. And visited semi-exclaves like Steinstücken where you could wave at people in the East who waved back, as you looked down on the border which was in a ditch at one point. However, I never travelled with the farmer whose tractor was apparently accompanied by the border police to some isolated field in the GDR that belonged to west Berlin. Or with allotment owners whose plots were in the east and who had to ring on a bell on a gate in the wall to be let through, safe in the knowledge that their cucumbers were protected from filchers by umpteen divisions of the Soviet army.

And amusing episodes such as standing on Friedrichstrasse after leaving the border facility when a border guard came running towards me at full speed. Even though I take the little songs about stone faced border guards with a lorryload rather than a pinch of salt, it was still unnerving. The border guard came to a halt before me and handed over various papers and whatever else it was that I had forgotten on his shelf when searching unsystematically for my passport. And then left me with a shy smile.

And another time when a car stalled and wouldn’t start in a street with administrative buildings but few people in central Berlin. And I helped the driver push start his vehicle. I liked the idea of me getting the machinery of the GDR into motion – it’s not often that I feel like Hercules so I have to savour and preserve these moments well.

Later there were more trips to Berlin when I was pretending to do a PhD and even more when one of my children lived there and now again to see friends.

I enjoy the freedom to visit Berlin’s surroundings (just recently to Greifswald) and the city still interests and attracts me but I am nostalgic for what has been lost as well as gained. I felt closer to the old working class Germany in the GDR, the Germany before the horrors of the 1930s and the Nazis and before the American veneer. I was also fascinated by the glimpses of a life that could be organised differently from our western dance around the golden calf or rather timeless dance around the black hole of capital, glimpses of an everyday life without the profit motive that could be seen despite all the distortions of Stalinism.

It’s increasingly hard to see the physical differences between the former West Germany and the GDR. The tone felt different in smaller, less affluent towns like Wolgast on the Baltic but the shops in Greifswald and even more in Potsdam are as plush as those in the old West. An architect could see the still abundant prefabricated buildings, the “plattenbau”, but the tell-tale semi-ruined buildings where ownership is disputed are becoming fewer and fewer in number. And now you have to be in your thirties to have any memory of life in the GDR.

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