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East Berlin, a Pre-Unification Memory

The first steps to break down the Berlin Wall were on November 9th 1989 and an official reunification of two Germanys a year later, but they "Came of Age" in style, in what used to be East Berlin, long before the 25th anniversary of their unification, October 3, 2015, German Unity Day.

For more than forty years before this could take place, from the autumn of 1949, there was an East and a West Germany and in the middle of the Eastern sector, (the German Democratic Republic or GDR), was West Berlin. Part of what used to be the former German Capital, and a small independent area under the protection of the French, British and USA.

After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 Checkpoint Charlie, became one of three Checkpoints, and after 1962 the only place where foreigners visiting Berlin could cross from West to East and back again.

Of course in retrospect crossing into communist East Berlin with my very young son's passport in my handbag was more than a little misguided, but as it was the first of what was to become many trips to East Berlin this particular thought had not even crossed my mind.

Certainly it was the passport's discovery, while he was not with me but had chosen to stay with friends in the Western sector of Berlin as it was "fun", which had led to an intensified checkpoint search, during which several thousand Singapore dollars in unreasonably large denomination notes were found in that large camera bag we used in those days. And left there, unbeknown to me, by the friend who had borrowed it.

A compulsory purchase of DDR (East German) marks and accompanying declaration registering all currencies in my possession had already been filled in, of course with no mention of any Singapore dollars, so their appearance, together with the spare passport, meant that the already officious attitude of the border guards became open hostility.

Interrogation in a small side room, further searches, including through some of my clothes, and, as I later found out, strange anonymous phone calls to several people listed in my diary’s telephone index, permanent confiscation of the dollars, and temporary confiscation of the extra passport followed.

Suddenly after more than two hours the guards were satisfied they were dealing with a tactless tourist not a major child smuggling criminal.

All this time the German friend with whom I was visiting East Berlin, and who as a citizen of Germany had dropped me off at Checkpoint Charlie and then passed through the Heinrich Heine Strasse crossing, had been repeatedly going backwards and forwards through the border asking at Checkpoint Charlie if a British person had gone through, to which the answer on both sides was always "No".

This was basically true of course, as the one who was trying to go through was in fact stuck in the middle. Was later told by a head representative of the UK Embassy in East Berlin that had I been found "guilty" I could simply have disappeared, and there would have been nothing they could have done about it...Yikes.

However nervous, and without the suspicious passport that was returned sometime later, but nevertheless free, it was at last possible to step out into the shadows of the manned watch tower and adjacent bricked up buildings.

Past the people who I later learnt just stood on the East side of the wall there, to watch the traffic and people go through. Their only contact with the West.

Even the haze of Trabant exhaust fumes on that side of the wall could not conceal some cultural and architectural gems, nevertheless the drab apartment blocks, Stalinist architecture, still visible scars of World War Two, countless armed soldiers, poorly stocked shops, unwelcoming cafes and overall greyness, were a conspicuous contrast to the Western Sector of Berlin of the time.

It would have been difficult to visualize a more obvious reminder of a divided city.

That was East Berlin of the not so distant past but somewhere that is now almost impossible to recognize, or even imagine.

Any return journey is made to a city where a dividing wall, the genuine Checkpoint Charlie, watchtowers, smog, and most signs of forty years of communist rule, no longer exist.

Renewed, and almost unrecognizable, what was dour East Berlin is the spirited heart of cosmopolitan and dynamic Berlin Mitte, center of a unified Berlin. A desolate and vast building site during most of the 1990’s but now an active, colorful and popular residential and commercial neighborhood, filled with creative and economic life, a vibrant, eclectic mixture of historical and modern, cultural and artistic, and re-established as the hub of German government.

All those years ago it took only hours to explore what East Berlin could offer, whereas this area alone would now take a very enjoyable, and busy, few weeks.

Under communist rule many of the buildings, those that had survived the general enthusiasm of being torn down and rebuilt as examples of socialist architecture, were uncared for to the point of ruin but nevertheless not destroyed, so beautifully restored they now juxtaposition with stunning contemporary architecture.

Meanwhile innovative theaters, world famous orchestras, opera, ballet, and musical concerts, museums and art galleries, culture that covers all areas of interest, blends seamlessly with the wide ranging diversity and categories of restaurant and hotel, cafes, pubs, clubs, a pulsating nightlife and shopping that rivals London, New York or Paris.

Transformed as it interweaves the present together with its historical past into a charismatic Berlin Mitte, the former East Berlin, capital of the German Democratic Republic, and a bleak neglected shell when exultant Berliners began to "Knock Down the Wall" on November 9, 1989, now thrives in its freedom and renaissance. More work still lies ahead, but the people and the city have accomplished far more in the passing years than simply reclaiming a lost heritage.


1986 photo by Thierry Noir at Bethaniendamm in Berlin-Kreuzberg - Checkpoint Charlie with vehicles entering the Western Zone, photo Bundesarchiv materia, - View Palast der Republik, Berliner Dom and TV tower 1988 by NMMIMAJ, present day Berlin Unter den Linden with TV tower by VollwertBI, all courtesy de.Wikipedia


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