Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ich bin ein Berliner

Last week we took a little trip to Berlin. Of course we took Easyjet from Barcelona and it was some trip. After a major delay thanks to the French air traffic controllers being on strike we finally were on our way sitting in one of the most uncomfortable seats that I have yet to encounter on a plane. We were happy to arrive at our hotel in Berlin near Potsdamer Platz even though it was two in the morning.

How different Potsdamer Platz was from the last time I was here more than forty years ago. My recollection is of climbing up to a platform that overlooked the Berlin Wall and looking down on the no man's land with barbed wire and dogs patrolling. The whole area, which was the hub of Berlin until bombed by the Allies, was a mass of rubble and shells of buildings with Russian soldiers stationed in some of them pointing their guns in our direction. It was a pretty grim picture.

Everything today is shiny and new. Since the Wall came down in 1989 the rubble is gone and most of the buildings are modern and new. We passed the beautiful Sony Centre with its many restaurants, cinemas and movie museum. The square itself has lots of space and in the centre sits the U bahn station.

We passed the old Reich Air Ministry building, which was massive. It was one of the older buildings built in the 1930s. Outside was a photographic display commemorating the June 1953 strike and uprising by the people against the Russians and the DDR government. Many people lost their lives, were injured or sent to penal colonies before it was over.

Our next stop was the Topography of Terrors display on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters and SS Central Command, the principal instruments of Nazi oppression. Both of these were bombed and the remaining ruins have been demolished. The cellar of the Gestapo headquarters, where many political prisoners were tortured and executed, were found and excavated. The site was then turned into a memorial and museum, in the open air but protected from the elements by a canopy, detailing Hitler's rise to power.

Inside the new building the displays show graphic images of the Nazis' years in power and crimes they perpetrated against Jews, gypsies and homosexuals. There were the original Gestapo cards with photos of captured gypsies and their particulars. A library holds police and SS files. It was a pretty grim place.

Outside once again we continued our walk ending up at Checkpoint Charlie. I had crossed from the American sector into the Russian sector in a taxi on my previous visit. It was the only way you could go. Of course Checkpoint Charlie was familiar through Len Deighton and John Le Carre books and movies. It was the first time I had ever seen a mirror rolled under a car. Both the Americans and the VOPOS were armed with machine guns. Perhaps these scenes are more commonplace now but back then it was exciting and very scary. You had to surrender your passport to the VOPOS for about 45 minutes. It was returned and you had to buy 5 or 10 DDR marks. I toured East Berlin and always remember the grim contrast with the West. There were no flower boxes and everything was drab. Where new buildings had been constructed it was in true Soviet bloc style.

On the return journey you had to again surrender your passport and return any unspent marks or show what you had spent them on. While sitting there two VOPOS dragged in a roughed up man, his feet trailing behind him into a back room. This was no movie. I was relieved to get my passport back and return to the Western Zone.

Today there are no East German watchtowers at Checkpoint Charlie just the old American border crossing in the middle of the street with a couple of actors portraying American army personnel. You can even have your picture taken with them. The old sign of "You are now leaving the American sector," stands to one side. This is a huge tourist attraction and the area is all new buildings with McDonald's, Burger King and Starbucks. What would Michael Caine's Harry Palmer make of this today?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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