The Transformations of Berlin, Revisited

Joseph R. L. Sterne

October 03, 1991|By Joseph R. L. Sterne

BERLIN. — Berlin -- Berlin on the first anniversary of German reunification is a strange, exciting and disorienting place for a newspaperman whose entire career has been bracketed by the Cold War.

I first saw the city riding the Airlift in 1949. It was a mass of rubble, a monument to the destruction wrought by the Hitler legions who had goose-stepped down the Unter den Linden only a few years before.

Berlin, what there was of it, was still one huge single metropolis -- the largest between Paris and Moscow -- despite Soviet, French, British and American sectors where the four military commanders governed.

The consequences of Yalta, of Potsdam, of Allied indecision over what chunks of Germany the West should occupy, were yet to materialize. When they did, in the painful Fifties and Sixties, the city was divided in two -- after 1961, by one of the most XTC monstrous edifices ever erected on this earth. The Berlin Wall, 103 miles long, punctuated by 285 watchtowers, protected by minefields and searchlights and vicious dogs, sliced through the heart of the city and then circled like a prison wall around the outer limits of West Berlin.

Checkpoint Charlie, the gateway between the American Sector and Communist-controlled East Berlin, became a Cold War flashpoint. It was here that that U.S. and Soviet tanks faced off snout-to-snout during one of the crises Nikita S. Khrushchev liked to manufacture. ''Berlin is the testicles of the West,'' he once commented. ''When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.''

The West did scream from time to time. But it also stood firm behind such bulldog mayors as Ernst Reuter and Willy Brandt. It sent John Kennedy to West Berlin to declare co-citizenship in fractured German ''Ich bin ein Berliner.'' (Literally, ''I am a doughnut.'')

And West Berlin, with huge subsidies from Bonn, metamorphosed into a prosperous, gleaming, hip city that took perverse pleasure in its precariousness. A guidebook from those days put it this way: ''Despite pain, [West Berlin] gets along, muddles through. . .''

When the four occupying powers signed their 1971 agreement to remove tensions over Berlin and formalize the the division of the city, West Berliners had a sense of let-down. As for East Berliners, they were left to chafe over the frustrations of being able to glimpse the glow of West Berlin and watch its television (including tantalizing commercials) without ever being able to visit.

Even after Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power, there was little hope for the reunification of the city or the German nation. Europe was both shocked and amused when Ronald Reagan showed up on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987, and declared: ''Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!'' Few political statements in modern times have proved more prescient.

Today, the Brandenburg Gate is wide open. Berliners and everyone else can stroll beneath its arches, marveling at the surrealistic scene of Turkish vendors selling Soviet military castoffs to American tourists for a hefty profit. Today, the only remnants of the Wall still standing are objects of controversy between neighborhoods wanting no reminders of the bad old days and preservationists determined to keep intact for later generations authentic remnants of what was.

This is especially true of Bernauerstrasse, once the scene of whole families jumping four stories from apartment buildings right on the East Berlin border in order to gain freedom.

With this Wall gone and the city reunited, it is a quiet, eerily peaceful place. A vacant lot marks the place where East German authorities -- as late as 1985! -- blew up the ironically-named Church of Reconciliation. Apartment buildings once boarded up on the eastern side to prevent further escapes are being rehabilitated.

Indeed what used to be East Berlin is gradually turning into one vast reconstruction project. In street after street, crumbling buildings with once-beautiful facades are being gutted and rebuilt to ease a terrible housing shortage.

Showpiece buildings preserved or built by East German authorities along the Under den Linden are being rediscovered by hordes of visitors from the West. From the huge revolving tower at Alexanderplatz, one can look down on a glorious metropolis of green parks and wide boulevards and wonder what kind of mentality would convert it into the launching place of Nazi aggression or divide it cruelly for Communist purposes.

One scene for this old German hand illustrates the funky, happy incongruity of the new united Berlin.

During the days of division, the old Reichstag near the Brandenburg Gate was one of the few historic buildings in the Western Sector. The Wall ran just to the rear of the Reichstag, cutting off views of the Spree River.

Today, only a concrete ribbon underfoot indicates where the Wall was. Flower-draped crosses commemorate would-be escapers who died trying to cross the river. You can look across the Spree to the old Eastern Sector. And what do you see? A Toyota showroom!

Berlin's surprises never end.

Joseph R. L. Sterne is editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

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