A trip to Berlin in the eighties was a little like stepping in a time machine. The city kept a lot of the atmosphere and even legal apparatus set up at the end of World War Two and the beginning of the cold war. If one was flying there,it was only possible on airlines owned by the British,the USA,or France.This was as a result of the initial access agreements with the Russians,which still held force thirty years later,and so only planes from the Allied Occupying forces were allowed to land at Berlin's airports.The time-warp effect began before you even landed at the airport,because as the plane passed over the border from West Germany to East,it had to fly down to the height specified in the agreements,dating from the 1940's,much lower than planes normally fly in modern times. The difference between east and west could be seen even in the layout of the fields below,those of the big collective farms of the Communist state being obvious from above. Also,once or twice,the captain of the flight drew attention to large barren areas near Berlin,and explained these were Soviet army training grounds. If training manoeuvres were taking place,dust clouds from the tanks would billow upwards. Then everyone would strain to catch the first glimpse of the thin pale strip of the no-man's land at the wall itself. Again,there was the stark contrast in the condition of the buildings and countryside one side of the wall and the other.
Once in Berlin,the west side was like many other thriving western cities. In fact,thriving a good deal more than most,due to heavy support and subsidy by the Federal government,to keep this outpost of the West in a healthy condition. It seems odd,now,that such a strange situation,West Berlin being 'walled-in',could be taken for so many years as 'normality'. But so it was. To us then,that wall was permanent,and the chances of it ever coming down laughably small.
A trip to the East was another step into the time-machine. The politics of the 1940's and 50's shaped everything around. Most crossing points were much like something out of an old movie,even up to the end in 1989. Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous,of course,as it was the only street crossing point for foreigners,and that was built up into a full-scale border control shed in the final years,with jolly 'Welcome to the DDR' signs on it. The other,less well-known crossing points remained mostly the dreary forbidding places they were from the beginning. Each border-crossing was intended for particular people. Chausseestrasse,Invalidenstrasse,and Oberbaumbrücke were for West Berliners only. West Berliners had a special kind of pass instead of a passport,which denoted their rather unique status as citizens of a city which was connected with,but not officially part of the Federal republic. The Prinzenstrasse crossing point was for citizens of West Germany only,and there was another at BornholmerStrasse,where West Germans and Berliners could cross.
When I first went to East Berlin,I went immediately to see the site of the Reich Chancellery,that I had read so much about,where the bunker was,where Hitler died,where 'The last gasp of Hitler's rat pack' took place (quote from Gerald Green,author of 'Holocaust') . There was nothing there but turned-over earth,and the site was cut in half by the Berlin wall itself. For the DDR this was a sensitive area. Not only was the bunker itself still there just below the earth,and the possibility of Neo-Nazis making a shrine of it,but also their own great shame, the wall,ran right through. I began taking pictures,but was very quickly stopped by two young policemen. It took some while to work out what it was I shouldn't have been photographing. It wasn't the site of the Reich Chancellery,they replied to my questions,or even the wall. It was because in the distance,poking up from the other side of the wall,the Reichstag could be seen. That was it. One mustn't photograph buildings on the west side of the wall. The fact that I could go there on the Western side and take as many pictures of it as I liked made no difference. That was the rule which I must obey whilst on DDR soil.
Here is one of the pictures I took. The Reichstag can be seen just above the 'no entry' sign on the right. The road sign says 'Voss Strasse',which was the address of Hitler's Chancellery. They made this area a car park later on,and after that built apartment blocks,which are still there. In the building of these,they needed to lower the ground level,and to do this they had to take the thick concrete roof off the bunker itself. During the period this was being done,a journalist got into the bunker and photographed it for the first time since the 1940's. The frames of the bunk beds slept in by the Goebbels' children were still there.
In the west,the wall was still being patrolled by American,British and French forces,each in their own sector as arranged in 1945. The army bases also seemed very permanent. Each army had it's own TV station,A.F.N. for the Americans,B.F.B.S. for the British,and a French station. They were broadcast in each country's own particular TV system,all of them different. TV shops in West Berlin always sold multi-standard TV's,so the Berliners could tune in to the American or British stations,which had more entertaining programmes on than the rather dull German stations. Many Berlin apartment houses would have a strange collection of aerials pointing in all directions to pick up the various stations. Even the east side stations were worth picking up,though they were in a different TV system again. They often had good films on those,and the Communist news was quite good for a laugh!
As the Cold War eventually petered out,the Allied forces began to lose interest in Berlin. It was no longer the cutting edge of world politics. They ran down their bases,their own TV services to the troops closed down their Berlin studios,and merely piped programmes in from home via satellite. It was another sign amongst many that things were changing.
Return to this site in a month or so,for another instalment of 'Chris De Witt's Berlin Wall'.
Link to the THIRD ESSAY in this series.
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