Berlin’s Up’s Downs

Many of us have our downs and our ups, for example: three decades ago, the Springboks were widely viewed as a pawn or a symbol of the white-minority apartheid regime. On 2nd November this year they beat England 32-12 in Japan, earning their third rugby world cup crown. But this team broke new ground, being the most racially-mixed in a national sport which was once the preserve of the white elite.

The Springboks’ final stop on their victory tour pounded home the message of unity in a country still nursing the wounds of apartheid a quarter-century after its end. “Look how we are all different, different races, different backgrounds, and we came together for South Africa and we made it happen,” Siya Kolisi, the Springboks’ first black captain, told thousands of fans.

Last Sunday marked 30 years since the Berlin Wall was torn down, ending years of painful division in the German capital. It had been constructed overnight and on the night of 9 November 1989 it fell, with thousands of East Germans travelling to the barrier to demand the gates be opened.

Wall Art on a section of the wall called the East Side Gallery
There were two walls for escapees to overcome an inner and an outer

As it turns out, the actual fall or opening of the wall was the result of a mistake.

The East German government had announced at a press conference on November 9, 1989 that it planned to loosen restrictions to allow greater free movement of people. A representative read a public pronouncement and took questions. When pressed by a journalist as to when the regulations allowing people to cross into West Berlin would go into effect, the government representative didn’t know the official answer. As it sometimes does, pride got in the way. Fearful of showing ignorance, he made something up: “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.”

With that prompt, East Berliners flocked to the border crossings to see if the news was indeed true. The East German government was unprepared. Without guidance from superiors as to what to do with the crowds, the commander of the now famous Bornholmer Straße border crossing opted against violence, ordered his guards to open the border, and allowed East Berliners to cross.

Another famous incident illustrating the barbarity of the shoot-to-kill order occurred on 17 August 1962 when 18-year-old would-be escapee Peter Fechter was shot and wounded and then left to bleed to death as East German guards looked on. There’s a memorial in his honour on Zimmerstrasse, near Checkpoint Charlie.

Trabants smashed car sales during the DDR era, so I was disappointed not to see any on the streets

We had managed to park our Charlie not at the checkpoint, instead our 5* accommodation in a stellplaz not far from a tube station, but at €27 per night it was our most expensive so far. We’d read mixed reviews of the staff, some reviewers saying they were friendly, others complaining about the grumpiness of the woman on reception. I’d agree with both these sets of opinions and would add my voice to the complaints about the petty charges, (€20 deposit for a gate key and €10 for a 2-pin hook up adaptor. €4 to use their toilet, €2 for fresh water…. ) I guess as a major city site with a 100+ motorhomes they’d probably had issues with campers stealing sheets of toilet paper that had necessitated these Nazi style rules.

The former headquarters of the Stasi now a Museum

At least once we’d settled in we weren’t spied upon unlike those East German’s living with 92,000 Stasi employees plus informal informers in their midst. Our first destination on our two-day whistle stop tour was the Stasi Museum. I had some idea of the activities of the GDR’s secret police from the excellent film ‘The Lives of Others’ whose plot is about the monitoring of East Berlin residents by agents of the Stasi. The Museum is housed in the former headquarters and is full of detail, but for me a bit overwhelming and after 90 mins I’d had enough.

The Reichstag (home of the German parliament) was badly burned during the war.

Although the ruined building above was partially refurbished in the 1960s, it was not until after german reunification in 1990, when it underwent a reconstruction led by architect Norman Foster. After its completion in 1999, it once again became the meeting place of the German parliament: the modern Bundestag.

Behind the Reichstag, the river Spree is a natural dividing line between the two ex-halves of Berlin. On the East bank of the river is an impressive new Parliament Building .

Visible in the image above are six of the seven white crosses on the Western bank of the Spree, put there in 1971 by a group of West Germans in memory of the East Germans who died in their attempt to flee to the West.

Film and TV crews were setting up their equipment as we walked under a flowing net of 100,000 rainbow coloured nylon strips, that moves with the wind in front of Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate. Many of the strips had written messages of love, peace and hope.

A naked protester at the Brandenburg Gate – We had no idea what this guy was ranting on about. Maybe “Meine Bits frieren”?

Arriving up from to subway to a cacophony of noise and finding footage of historic pictures and symbols projected in a multimedia show on the buildings in the Alexanderplatz square, was very powerful and moving.

The Alexanderplatz demonstration (German: Alexanderplatz-Demonstration) was a demonstration for political reforms and against the government of the German Democratic Republic on Alexanderplatz in East Berlin on Saturday 4 November 1989. With between half a million and a million protesters it was one of the largest demonstrations in East German history[A] and a milestone of the peaceful revolution that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification.

To some extent the real history of what people lived through remains apparent in buildings of the former East Germany. It feels that bit poorer, a bit more austere. In the centre of Berlin 30 years of investment has definitely blurred the line, but travelling through from West to East the differences are still there to be seen and felt.

And yet, although the West is in general is a bit prettier, more colourful, the West’s buildings are less plain faced, more individual. Unlike the soviet influenced apartment blocks of the east. These differences are the physical scars of the history that created them. However I would argue, that while East’s image is less attractive to glitz and glamour seeking tourist like us, there is still oddly, a beauty in the historical honesty and truth it tells. Let us hope Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) continues….

Brandenburg Gate symbols etched on the underground carriage windows

Getting about Berlin is really very easy. The city’s network of underground trains, trams and buses are all fully integrated, so single day ticket allows you to hop on and off at any point. Well that’s the theory until you get to Hauptbahnhof!

Berlin Hauptbahnhof station is the German capital’s main station, it’s big, if fact it’s huge, it’s also the most confusing place I have ever been trapped in. The multi-level, open plan design with its impressive arc of curved glass roof and supporting steel structures, sets a trap that once inside the network of multiple lifts and elevators, innocent passengers are caught in a high-tech web of assorted main line train and underground platforms heading in every conceivable directions. The ability to read German is of little use, as the limited number, but bewilderingly numbered signs and illogical colour coding are utterly confusing.

After 45 minutes of utter confusion and for the sake of our sanity, we took the only option, take any train, to anywhere but the Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

Please don’t try this at home – Whilst scratching our heads at the top of an UP escalator, a confused man (we weren’t alone) made to go down (the escalator), realising his error he tripped and deposited most of his carton of 12 beer cans on the downward moving flights. Naturally seeing his plight, we immediately ran over to help him to his feet. I then inexplicably headed off down the moving stairs to collect the man’s remaining run-away cans. I managed to gather them all and turned around to attempt the near-death experience of trying to run up a down escalator whilst trying to keep hold of the subsequently ungrateful man’s alcohol….

I really wish I’d seen this YouTube clip before I embarked on such a misadventure… It’s worth watching this to the end

Tood lep IP

Dave & Lesley

2 thoughts on “Berlin’s Up’s Downs

  1. rayforey

    That hurt watching the utube, then felt very guilty laughing at someone else’s plight. Glad you enjoyed Berlin we went round one of the museums close to Checkpoint Charlie. very interesting but just too much to read and take in.


  2. Dave & Lesley

    Luckily I didn’t trip but I was completely exhausted by the time I got off at the top again, “Such fun”.
    Yes we both felt overwhelmed by the Stasi museum


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