A Picture Of Myself In Berlin


Chris De Witt.

I first saw Berlin in the winter, early 1979. It was Easter, and spring was just around the corner, though there was nothing to show for it yet. My interest had zeroed in on the city some years before, and I had done a lot of reading. Why? I still ask myself that. I just know that I still find the place endlessly fascinating. I knew the street names and the outline of the city centre street map years before I set foot there. The only connection I had with Berlin then, though, was through my father, who had been there as a British soldier at the end of the war. He hadn't said much about it, just that he had been one of the ones who had had to clear up Spandau Prison after taking it over from the Russians. 'Dirty Devils, they were', he said.

Back then I wasn't all that interested in the Berlin Wall itself. I wanted to see the places, or what was left of them, that had figured in the books I had read about pre-war Berlin. Where a certain author had lived, where that famous politician had died. One of the things about Berlin is that there's hardly a corner where something hasn't happened. Assassinations...lots of them. Arrests...too many of those. Riots, street fights, a build up to a regime and a war that had done their best to kill my parents before I was even born. That sounds a bit dramatic, but Berlin is a dramatic place, the pivot point of a pretty dramatic century.

I didn't take many pictures of the Wall in my first few visits. As I say, it didn't concern me much then. Above is a rare example of this early period for me. It is of a section as it runs east to Checkpoint Charlie, which is just out of sight beyond the nearer buildings that are visible either side of the wall. The more distant building on the left, is on the further side of Checkpoint Charlie. It was a printing works for a Communist newspaper. One could often hear the presses clanking away from the western side of the wall. Not long after this picture was taken, two printers who worked in this building made their escape to the west from a ground floor window. Their route was barred by extra defences immediately after.

There can be no doubt the East German authorities were quite proud of their handiwork in building the wall. They even issued stamps celebrating its anniversaries.

It did after all solve some pretty sticky problems for them. It stemmed the flow of their own population to the West, and forced the West to take them seriously. There followed a period of stability, and even a degree of prosperity, which eventually led to the much longed-for recognition of the East German State by the Western powers. Up to then, many West German newspapers had put inverted commas round the name of the East German State, like this -"DDR"- as though to constantly question its legitimacy. In the 1980's, these commas disappeared. East Germany had indeed become another country. It looked different, its people looked different. It even smelled different, due to the many dirty-engined Trabant cars that sputtered along the roads, in contrast to the Mercedes of the West. After a few visits to Berlin, I began making friends there, mainly among the Americans from the military garrison. They were amused by this crazy Brit, for whom Berlin was the centre of his mental universe. To me and my friends it seemed like the way things were then were how they would be for ever, and I would never lose 'my' Berlin. In next month's essay I'll go on to tell more about my experiences there, and the first straws in the wind which presaged the recent historical and political earthquake.

In writing this I've presumed a good deal of previous knowledge in the reader. If you're puzzled,and want to find out more, try the links which you will find on my homepage.

Link to the SECOND ESSAY in this series.