East and West Reunified. Berlin Germany
It’s the start of my annual whirlwind trip across countries. My first stop is Berlin via Frankfurt on Qatar Airways. Within an hour after landing I’m on a DB ICE train bound for Berlin. Just over four hours later I’m at my destination, my first trip to Berlin and I check into the Allegra Hotel (located in East Berlin).
Like most of Europe, Germany too has seen its fair share of division, destruction, heartbreak and reunification. Since the 13th century, Germany’s capital, Berlin has gone through tough times and is, today, a monument to history. I’ve read books on the horrors that took place in Germany, the sorrow that created generations of scars, the brutal massacres, the mass murders, absolute suffering and unsolved mysteries.
Today, the city is calm because of the start to the Easter weekend and there are so few tourists around. The outside temperature is a chilly 6C. A perfect day to explore.
After World War II, Berlin was divided into Soviet, French, British and American sectors. Then in 1948, the Soviets tried to annex the whole city and cut all road and rail access to the allied sectors in West Berlin. However, less than a year later, the Soviets backed off and ended the blockade. But in 1961, the communists surrounded West Berlin with a wall, shooting anyone trying to cross borders.
Twenty eight long years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall was demolished with the collapse of communism and Berlin became the capital of a united Germany. An interesting fact is that four times in the 20th century, the date November 9 has marked important events in the history of Germany and Berlin. In 1918, Berlin became the capital of the first German republic. Five years later Hitler’s putsch was put down in Munich. In 1938 Nazi storm troopers vandalized Jewish synagogues, shops, and other properties in the night of violence known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). And on November 9, 1989, East German authorities opened the wall that had divided the city for all those years. Because of the associations attached to this date, October 3, rather than November 9, became the country’s new national holiday (Unity Day).
One of most visited landmarks in Berlin is the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of division during the Cold War. This imposing structure epitomizes the reunification of Germany and stands sentinel over Pariser Platz, a square that is and once was used by banks, a hotel and the US, British and French embassies. The Gate was designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans who was inspired by the Acropolis in Athens.
Walking towards the city centre, I pass by another symbolic landmark, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe also known as the Holocaust Memorial. Located between the Brandenburg Gate and the Bunker where Hitler committed suicide, this massive sloping field of 2,711 concrete slabs or “stelae” is a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
The slabs are 2.38 m long and 0.95 m wide and vary in height from 0.2 to 4.7 m. They are arranged in rows- 54 going North to South and 87 heading East to West. The underground Place of Information (unfortunately closed due to Easter weekend) has the names of approximately three million Holocaust victims.
A short walk from there is the Potsdamer Platz an important public square and traffic intersection in the centre of Berlin. There is a public display of sections of the Berlin Wall in the middle of this intersection. Again a stark reminder of the untold suffering caused by this 106 km 3.6 meter high divider that was destroyed when crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the Wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. The Wall has long since disappeared from reunified Berlin and traces of it can be found in places like Potsdamer Platz and other exhibition areas.
Another popular attraction is Checkpoint Charlie set up in 1961 when communist East Germany put up the Berlin Wall to prevent citizens from fleeing to the democratic West. Checkpoint Charlie was notable because it was located on Friedrichstrasse, a historic street in the American-occupied city center and the only gateway where East Germany allowed Allied diplomats, military personnel and foreign tourists to pass into Berlin’s Soviet sector.
As the Wall crumbled, the famed Allied sentry post was officially closed in a military ceremony and today remains a place where tourists pose for photographs at a price.
A replica version of the guardhouse was later installed on Friedrichstrasse as a tourist attraction, while the original now sits on display at the Allied Museum in Berlin.
This area displays signs and stories of the heartbreak, the desperate attempts to escape, the loss of life, the aiding and abetting that went on from family and friends who were courageous enough to help plan and execute escape routes. This is a testament to courage and fortitude, of friendships and family ties that made this period in Berlin’s history unforgettable.
One of the most nail-biting chapters of the Cold War began on October 22, 1961, when U.S. diplomat Allan Lightner attempted to cross Checkpoint Charlie to attend the opera in East Berlin. East German border guards demanded to see Lightner’s passport, but he refused on the grounds that only Soviet officials had the authority to inspect his papers. He only got through the checkpoint after he left and returned with a complement of armed U.S. soldiers and military jeeps. When East German officials continued to deny Americans entry into East Berlin, U.S. General Lucius Clay put on a show of force by moving 10 M-48 tanks into position around Checkpoint Charlie. The East Germans’ Soviet allies responded by positioning three-dozen T-55 tanks near the eastern border. On October 27, 10 of them rode forward to meet the American armor. For some 16 hours, the two sides stared each other down in one of the only armed confrontations of the Cold War. The potential for World War III was only averted when President John F. Kennedy contacted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and convinced him to withdraw his tanks. A few minutes later, the American M-48s also left the scene.
Ironically, I had already just watched the movie “Bridge of Spies” (starring Tom Hanks), a true story about an exchange of prisoners that took place in Berlin.
I think I’m done with Berlin for the moment. Tomorrow I head off to Poznan Poland.