Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Berlin Wall

Seeing the television picture yesterday of the celebration to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, reminded me of perhaps one of the most scary and foolhardy things I have ever done.

In 1981 I was 21 and studying in Northern Germany, along with two fellow students, as part of my degree. It was getting towards the end of the academic year and although we had done a lot of travelling, we hadn't been to Berlin. Two of us decided we had to go and booked train tickets and beds in the youth hostel (which was often fully booked). At the very last minute my friend caught a nasty virus and couldn't travel but, wanting to seize the moment, I decided to go alone.

We had often seen the fortified border between West and East Germany when travelling by train, but this would be the first time I had crossed it. The train stopped at a dedicated border crossing and heavily armed East German guards got on. They scrutinized passports thoroughly, with no discernible facial expression, then stayed on the train as it crossed the dreary East German countryside without another stop.

On arrival in West Berlin I could have been in London or Paris as I took in the shops, a modern art gallery, and McDonalds. But there was always the spectre of the huge wall, heavily graffitied on the Western side, which divided the city between communism and capitalism. The little museum at Checkpoint Charlie told of the fate of those who had tried to escape from East to West.

On my last day in West Berlin I decided to travel into East Berlin. On my own. Access was via the only underground station on the Eastern side of the wall which was still in use, and once again I had to go through rigorous passport control to be allowed a day visa. A mandatory amount of hard currency had to changed into the East German currency, Ostmarks, and this could not be brought back out of the country.

On finally getting out of the station I was shocked by how drab East Berlin was. Much of the architecture was of modern Soviet design, there were no advertising billboards and I could see no colourful paint. I headed towards the famous television tower and beneath it found a shop. I hoped to spend most of my Ostmarks but could find little to buy except a few dull postcards, because there were few consumer goods on the shelves. I then decided to walk towards the Brandenburg Gate, the big triumphal arch of Berlin which lay right beside the wall itself. But as I walked down Unter den Linden I felt my every move scrutinised by the armed guards patrolling the area. About halfway down the avenue I spotted a tiny bookshop in a side street and thought I could spend some more of my money. But the shop was full of Marxist propaganda rather than the East German literature I had hoped for. I bought a couple of pamphlets and a book of statistics about East German society and fled.

I was too frightened to go any further towards the Brandenburg Gate, so I turned back and headed towards the antiquities museum. On the way I passed soldiers goose-stepping scarily outside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Neue Wache, which was then known as a Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism. It seemed that as a lone woman out on the almost empty streets I was very conspicuous and, even though I spoke German, I did not want any entanglement with armed guards.

Once inside the museum I felt a little safer. I spent some more Ostmarks on a guide book but still I had not got rid of all my currency. I was too scared to consider going into a restaurant, even if I could find one. In the end I decided I'd had enough. I walked back towards the underground station and found East German citizens outside, begging very discreetly. I handed my last change to one and dived inside the station, ready to go through the border patrol once again.

Getting back to the West was a huge relief, I have never in my life felt so vulnerable as I did that day. But I'm glad I did it, because I've never been back to Berlin and if I did now I would find a completely different city.

I don't have photos from East Berlin, I was too scared to take my camera in, but this blog shows pictures of the Berlin Wall in 1981, the very year I was there, and is almost exactly as I remember it. It also provides some interesting history so is well worth a read.


Beth said...

I was quite terrified for you, reading that. Even though I know you obviously got home OK.

Sounds like quite an experience. You are much braver than me!

Jenny Beattie said...

Wow: you are brave. My Dad did something similar on a conference. They had been given gifts of a book each which the border control officers decided they wanted to confiscate. My Dad hid his so that he could keep it! Eeejit! What if he'd been caught?

I used to visit West Germany as a child, right by the border. You could see the border guards with the guns in the towers. Then ten years ago, as an art student, I went to the opened up Berlin and what an amazing place.

Cathy said...

Looking back it was madness, but you don't really think of the dangers when young!

JJ, we used to see the fortified border when travelling by train from Hannover to Bavaria. It was hard to comprehend that it was the Iron Curtain, just like the Berlin Wall.