Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Berlin Wall (VI): Berlin Reunited

After the Wall was torn down, a long wasteland ran through the city. Many historic buildings had been demolished, and mending the two halves of the city back together was a difficult task. Many grand projects were initiated, the rebuilding of Potsdamer Platz being arguably the most spectacular. An entire new city centre mushroomed here within seven years, now frequented mostly by tourists. Much of the disconnected infrastructure needed to be redeveloped, and the entire eastern half of the city required considerable modernisation.

But like the rest of the country, the reconstruction of east Berlin took longer than expected and eventually stalled, causing much social misery in many of the eastern boroughs. Obviously, the west was also affected and started to descend into poverty. The high-profile Mitte borough has been mostly reconstructed now and has grown back together, once more being the seat of the German government. But in other places, the former partition is still apparent by empty land. Many predictions for the city’s future, such as a huge wave of migration that would boost its population turned out to be false, and some building projects that were initiated with these predictions in mind now seem needlessly large, and the attempt to develop a new city centre is eyed critically by many.

Today, Berlin is a thriving city that has been labelled by its mayor, Klaus Wowereit, to be “poor but sexy”. The visible scars of the division are being gradually removed, with only a few pieces of the Wall preserved as monuments, but many spaces within the city remain empty. There is some animosity between former West and East Berliners, who each feel misunderstood by the other, and like the rest of the country, Berlin is struggling hard to tear down the walls in the heads of people.

The Berlin Wall (V): The Fall of the Wall (Continued)

Meanwhile, Czechoslovakia had also opened its border to West Germany, and the pressure on the GDR government grew. Eventually, a new law was proposed by which it was generally allowed that people of East Germany could leave the country, but with strict visa regulations. The public did not accept this, and a revision of the draft was initiated. On the evening of the 9th November 1989, a spokesman of the government stepped to the press and proclaimed that freedom of travel was granted, and the border was to be considered open. In a matter of hours, people were dancing on the Berlin Wall.

The Wall, which had divided Berlin for 28 long years, lost all of its terror in one single night. Officials at the border checkpoints had no other choice than to let the great masses of people who desired to visit West Berlin through without any control. West Berliners rushed to the border checkpoints to greet the Easterners, and the night of the 9th to 10th November 1989 became one huge party. On the following day, West Berlin was crammed and crowded, and people chuckled at the fact that bananas – the unavailability of which in the East was a symbol for its poverty and need – were sold out in the entire city.

In hindsight, the following development – the disbanding of the German Democratic Republic and its admission to the Federal Republic of Germany – appear like natural, logical consequences. But it was not so obvious at the time. East German authorities did not deny the fact that a reunification was inevitable, but they supported a slow, careful process. Initially, it was proposed that the two German states would form a confederation which would help the GDR to build up its political and economic structures to West German standards before it would eventually join the Federal Republic.

But these careful approaches were unrealistic. The people of East Germany were not satisfied with free travel, they demanded reunification. The parole of the ongoing Monday Demonstrations changed from “We are the people” to “We are one people”. The West German government reacted by announcing that further negotiations would only be made if the East German government was democratically elected and represented the people. Elections took place on 18th March 1990, and the parties that favoured immediate reunification got the majority. After economic and social regulations were taken, the five new states that constitute the former German Democratic Republic, and East Berlin, joined the Federal Republic of Germany on 3rd October 1990.

International recognition of the Reunification was granted with the Two Plus Four Treaties of 1990, in which the Allied Powers - The United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union - also granted full sovereignity to the Federal Republic of Germany, formally ending its status as an occupied country for good.

The Berlin Wall (V): The Fall of the Wall

In 1987, highly respected German historian Sebastian Haffner wrote in his book, “Von Bismarck zu Hitler”:

What could a reunification of both German states, the way they have developed in 40 years and are now, possibly look like? Strangely, imagination fails there. A reunification of the kind that one of the two German states would disappear and blend into the other one is barely imaginable. Obviously, this would require a war, and a reunification of such kind could under today’s circumstances only undergo in a mass grave. But a reunification, in which both German states, the way they are and have become, would be merged into one working state, is not imaginable, not even theoretically.

By this time, Germans on both side of the border had put up with the fact that there would be no reunification. The ease in West-Eastern relations had made life bearable for West Berliners, as they were allowed to visit East Germany and East Berlin for day trips, and deals were made that ensured West Berlin got supplies from the surrounding areas. Damocles’ Sword had disappeared, a total lock-up of the city as in 1948 was unlikely. Ronald Reagan’s visit in West Berlin on 12th June 1987, where he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said: “Come here to this gate! Mr Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” was considered a nice gesture, but nobody believed it would happen.

The cracks in the Iron Curtain that appeared in 1989 shocked the whole world. It was known that East Germany suffered from severe economic problems, but the conservative West German Kohl administration had granted generous loans to the GDR in the course of the 1980s. But the East German government retained its cold, conservative bearing, which even ignored the impulses of Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost and Perestroika, while nearly every other country of the East Bloc had adopted political reforms. Consequently, in the summer of 1989, masses of refugees arrived in West Germany, at first via Hungary, which had opened its border to Austria (already an incredible development in itself), and hundreds of people fled to the West German embassies in Budapest, Warsaw, East Berlin and Prague.

Then, Eastern Germany experienced civil unrest. It emerged from the traditional weekly peace prayers in the Nicolai Church in Leipzig. In September 1989, they were extended to include demonstrations after the prayers. These Monday Demonstrations went through the country like a wildfire and by November, they took place in every big East German city. Over a million East German citizens marched through the streets shouting a simple parole: “We are the people”.

The East German government was caught by surprise. It believed that the protests would die down if they presented its leader, Erich Honecker, as the scapegoat and deposed him, which they did on 18th October 1989. The new leader, Egon Krenz however did not possess any kind of credibility among the people, and so the protests went on.

(Continued in next post)

Saturday, 22 August 2009

The Berlin Wall (IV): The Divided City (Continued)

West Berlin indeed became a showcase of the western world, including its very worst parts, and social problems were soon rampant. A particularly bad problem the city had to deal with was drug addiction. David Bowie, who lived in Schöneberg in the late seventies, called West Berlin the “world’s capital of heroin”, and the book, “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” by junkie Christiane F. amply illustrated the problem and made it known throughout West Germany. By 1980, West Berlin’s centre was crowded with junkies, hookers and tramps.

West Berlin, and particularly the Free University, was also a centre of the leftist scene. The West German ’68 revolt started when on 2nd June 1967, the student Benno Ohnesorg was shot at a riot that emerged from a protest against the Shah of Iran who was visiting the city. From that point on, Berlin became a test tube for alternative ways of life. Particularly the borough of Kreuzberg, which at some parts was enclosed by the Wall on three sides, became a self-styled autonomous territory, attracting leftist students and later, punks.

The Wall stood for 28 years, and created two distinct cities out of one. Prior to 1961, it had been unimaginable that Berlin was anything other than one city. By 1989, it had become unimaginable that it would ever be one city again.

The Berlin Wall (IV): The Divided City

The Wall consolidated the position of the two distinct centres of the city. The eastern centre was renewed, with historic building blocks being completely demolished to make room for the new, lavish Communist city-building concept. Even the historic city palace, residence of the Prussian Kings and German Emperors, was torn down. Broad streets were built and huge panel flats dominated the city’s image. A new landmark, the 368-metre high television tower was built in the demolished centre. Only few boroughs, such as Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg retained their old structure, and they are today among the most original areas of Berlin that can be found.

East Berlin profited from being a city that both had a historic core and room to expand. Although formally illegal, new boroughs were added at the eastern borders, Marzahn being the most important one. The city had a more or less intact infrastructure, and only a few underground stations were closed because they were served by trains that were coming from and going to the west. These “ghost stations” became an eerie reminder of the partition, with the trains passing them at walking speed but never stopping.

West Berlin on the other hand was not a historic city. Most of it had only become a formal part of Berlin in 1920, and had been dependent of what became East Berlin. It had no official town hall, no central railway station, and much worse, little room to expand. Some of the first measures that were taken were the re-opening of Tempelhof airport as the city’s main commercial airport and the founding of a new university – the Free University – because the historic Humboldt University was in the east. The train station Zoologischer Garten became the city’s new central station, as it was located in the centre of the New West. Schöneberg Town Hall became West Berlin’s new town hall. The city was constantly rebuilt, and when housing space began to get scarce again, new settlements were founded in the few empty spaces within the walled-in city, such as Gropiusstadt south of Neukölln and Märkisches Viertel in the northern borough of Reinickendorf. These new quarters were soon occupied by the poorest elements of the population: the working-class, and later mostly Turkish and Arab immigrants. To this day, Berlin is home to the biggest Turkish community outside Turkey. The historic infrastructure of the city was completely revamped when a new motorway was built, leading critics to remark that West Berlin was turned into a huge interchange.

(Continued in next post)

Friday, 21 August 2009

The Berlin Wall (III): Berlin before the Wall

To understand just how brutal and unnatural the division of the city was, it is necessary to take a closer look at the city of Berlin itself. And to understand the city of 1961, it will become apparent why, we must dive a bit deeper into its history.

After becoming the capital of the newly-founded German Empire in 1871, Berlin witnessed an immensely rapid growth. Its population skyrocketed from 931,000 in 1871 to 3,734,000 in 1910 to 4,300,000 in 1939. Its new political role had made it an attractive location for new industries, businesses and culture. Poor working-class suburbs like Rixdorf (Renamed to Neukölln in 1912) or Wedding, and wealthy ones like Charlottenburg, Wilmerdorf or Steglitz emerged and gradually grew together with Berlin proper, which until then had its western city limit at the Brandenburg Gate, now located directly in the city centre.

Vibrant urban life concentrated itself among several urban centres; Alexanderplatz in the historic centre of Berlin, Potsdamer Platz to its southwest, and the New West at the intersection of the then-suburbs of Schöneber, Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf. Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz were mostly heavily frequented traffic junctions – in fact, Alexanderplatz was the busiest square in the world in its heyday – and boasted expensive stores, hotels and nightclubs. The New West only emerged in the early 1900s, when new high-profile cafés, theatres and warehouses (the Kaufhaus des Westens, Warehouse of the West remaining the largest warehouse in continental Europe) opened along the Kurfürstendamm or Ku’damm, a major street in proximity to the Berlin Zoo, west of Berlin proper. It became mostly a centre of cultural and artistic life of the urban bourgeoisie.

In 1920, the major suburbs were incorporated to the city of Berlin itself, making the population hit the 4 million mark, which to this day it has not reached again. The 1920s became Berlin’s golden years, with its cultural significance eclipsing even Paris and London. Germany’s biggest contemporary authors and artists lived and worked here, and the Babelsberg film studios produced legendary cinematographic classics such as Nosferatu, Metropolis and The Blue Angel.

Socially, Berlin remained in turmoil since the days of industrialisations. The working class suburbs and boroughs were strongholds of Social Democrats and Communists, mostly because of the pitiful living conditions many workers had to endure. In Wedding, some tenements had up to six courts, and for a while Rixdorf was the most densely populated town in the world. These conditions only slowly improved, in particular when the National Socialists came to power and intended to remove Communist breeding grounds.

Speaking of the Nazis, their plans for Berlin, particularly Albert Speer’s megalomania, are well-known. Only very few building projects were actually started, mostly in the government quarter. Today, a few Nazi buildings can still be seen in the city, including the Tempelhof airport (the third biggest building in the world by square metres), the Olympic Stadium and the former ministry of aeronautics, now ministry of finances. Hitler’s dream to create a city that could compete with ancient Athens or Rome was however fulfilled in a macabre way. Like ancient Rome, Berlin lay in ruins in 1945.

Berlin’s destruction was concentrated to the city’s centre, around the government quarter. The heaviest hit boroughs were Mitte, Charlottenburg, Tiergarten, Wedding, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain – these were affected by strategic bombing. Nevertheless, nearly every part of the city suffered heavy destruction at least from the house-to-house fighting in the final days of the War. When the fighting was finally over, the city was so devastated that an American soldier remarked it could not possibly ever be rebuilt. Especially the three aforementioned centres of Alexanderplatz, the New West and mostly Potsdamer Platz were levelled. The population of 4,3 million in 1939 had been reduced to 2,8 million.

Nevertheless, reconstruction began. First, the city was cleared of rubble by the so-called “rubble women” (Trümmerfrauen). It was a lot of rubble, by contemporary estimations 60 million cubic metres, amounting to 15% of all of Germany’s post-war rubble. It was turned into a number of Schuttberge, or rubble mounds, with the 115 metre high Teufelsberg in Grunewald forest being the biggest. Incidentally, the NSA installed a listening station of major strategic importance on Teufelsberg during the Cold War.

Authorities managed to revitalise Berlin, obviously under the impression of division. While it was still one city, East German authorities rebuilt the area around Alexanderplatz into its representative centre (with many Stalinist buildings along the Karl-Marx-Allee), while western authorities turned the New West in to the “Western world’s showcase”, heavily funding new building projects here. Potsdamer Platz was not rebuilt, because it lay in the border area of western and eastern sectors, and it turned into a strange wasteland in the heart of the city. By 1961, living standards in both parts of Berlin had again improved, even if ruins and facades pierced with bullet-holes were still a common sight. The Wall did not halt this process of regeneration, but it did steer it into new, curious directions.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Berlin Wall (II): Dividing a city

On 15th June 1961, Walter Ulbricht, head of state of the GDR, said at a press conference in East Berlin:

I understand your question in the sense that there are people in West Germany who wish that we mobilise the construction workers of the capital of the GDR to erect a wall, yes? I am not aware that such an intention exists, because the construction workers of our capital are fully engaged in residential construction, and its labour force is deployed for that. Nobody has the intention to erect a wall.

On 13th August 1961, Nobody erected a wall.

Let us recall for a moment that up to this point, people could move around freely in the entire city of Berlin. Formally, you were only allowed access to the other part of the city if you had relatives there, but practically, it was impossible to control. Underground and overhead trains, busses and trams operated across the border without any sort of control. Many people lived in one part of the city and worked in the other one. Even if two different currencies were used, and you could buy different goods in both parts, it was impossible to think of Berlin as anything other than one city.

And then, the Wall was built. It was built along the border of the Soviet sector, wherever that happened to be. It was built through train stations, on the pavement, in the middle of the street, along the Spree river, literally through the middle of the city, with the most iconic part running in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous landmark, now unreachable from the West. Houses on the east side had their windows bricked. Later, these houses were demolished altogether, and a “death strip” that varied in width was installed behind the wall, with barbwire and land mines. The death strip was sealed off by a second wall running parallel to the first one, and a total of 302 watchtowers were built. Seven border checkpoints between the two parts of the city existed, the most important ones being “Checkpoint Charlie” at the crossing Friedrichstraße/Kochstraße, the train station at Friedrichstraße and those at Bernauer Straße and Sonnenallee.

With West Berlin sealed off, attempting to use the old escape route became perilous for East Germans. Some decided that they would rather risk their lives than living under tyranny anyway: Up to 206 people are assumed to have been shot trying to climb the Wall or swim across the Spree. Countless were arrested, yet some came through. In 1989, 1,000 refugees lived in shelters in West Berlin.

Throughout the western world, and particularly within West Germany and West Berlin, the Communists had lost their moral credibility. During the 1950s, there were many West Germans who were not sure that the western, capitalist system was the way to go. Even the Conservative CDU party had described their policy as “Christian Socialism” to go with the flow, and many felt uneasy about the banning of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1956. But now the “Real Existing Socialism” as the GDR called its system, had shown its ugly face, with concrete walls, barbwire and watchtowers.

Berlin now faced its darkest hour, and many West Berliners were uncertain about their future. But their spirit was reinforced when the most powerful man of the world himself made a visit to the city. On 26th June 1963, John F. Kennedy stood in front of the Schöneberg town hall – seat of West Berlin’s government – and held his historic speech:

Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner. (…) All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.”

To the Berliners, Kennedy coming to their town and saying, in German, that he was one of them was immensely uplifting and helped build their spirit for the hard decades to come.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Berlin Wall (I): Locking up a city

This year, Germany and much of the world will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a symbolic event that is today widely recognised as the turning point of the tumultuous final years of the East Bloc and the initiation of the downfall of Soviet Communism. Merely three years after the Wall fell, the Soviet Union was no more, and in the countries of central and eastern Europe, Communism had vanished.

For one last time, on the night of the 9th to 10th November 1989, all eyes turned to the city that had been the flashpoint of the epic struggle between east and west for four long decades: Berlin, the old and new capital of Germany.

In many ways, the historical development of Germany has nearly always been projected on this city, which is situated in the centre of the otherwise immensely rural province of Brandenburg. It witnessed rapid growth and industrialisation following the founding of the German Empire in 1871; it was the site of merciless street battles between Communists and Nazis in the opening and closing stages of the Weimar Republic; it saw the worst of the War when it was nearly levelled by Allied bombing and Soviet invasion; and like the rest of Germany, it was divided after the War.

Although occupied by the Soviets and situated in the heart of the Soviet zone of occupation – the later German Democratic Republic (GDR) – Berlin was divided in the same manner as the rest of Germany. The eastern boroughs – East Berlin – were now the Soviet sector of the city, the south-western ones the American sector, the centre-western ones the British sector and the north-western ones the French sector; the latter three constituted West Berlin. The city of Berlin in its entirety, meaning all four sectors, was considered an individual entity within Germany. This also meant that officially, the Soviet sector was not a part of the Soviet zone of Occupation of Germany, and hence also officially not part of the German Democratic Republic (although this fact was later disregarded when East Berlin became the capital of the GDR), even though it directly bordered, nay, lay inside it. This fact is quite significant because it meant two things: First, the citizens of Berlin could freely move within the city limits, and in fact many people lived in East Berlin and worked in West Berlin and vice versa. Second, because the Soviet sector directly bordered the city, East Germans could freely pass and leave the city. The result was devastating: Between 1949 and 1961, five million East Germans fled the GDR through West Berlin.

Moreover, Communist authorities, both Soviet and East German, were not pleased by the fact that the three western powers, and the United States mostly, had military presence in the middle of a Communist country. Let’s keep in mind that Berlin was a fully-occupied city: each of the four occupation powers had troops and military infrastructure inside, including barracks and airbases.

Things became dangerous when in 1948, the western powers introduced a new currency in their zones of occupation (i.e. Western Germany), including their sectors in Berlin, the Deutschmark. It became apparent that the western Allies intended to stay where they were and create a capitalist West Berlin. The Soviets felt that there was only one thing that should be done: Drive them out. And so they locked up the city. The idea was simple and near-brilliant. By blocking the roads to Western Germany, the citizens of West Berlin were forced to buy goods in East Berlin and the surrounding areas. But the Soviets underestimated two things: The resistance of the West Berliners, and the determination of the western Allies.

There was no sympathy for the Soviets among those who lived under western occupation. Never would they support their system, and most West Berliners chose to sit it out. On 9th September 1948, Berlin’s Social Democrat mayor, Ernst Reuter, stepped up in front of the burnt-out ruin of the Reichstag building, facing hundreds of thousands of Berliners, pleading: “People of the world, look upon this city”, and not forget Berlin.

They did not. The western Allies, mostly the United States and Great Britain, immediately initiated an airlift to carry supplies to the city. Most American planes landed at Tempelhof Airport, both Berlin’s commercial airport and the American air base in the city. British planes landed at their own airbase at Gatow; the French rush-expanded the Tegel airfield in a whopping 90 days, although they provided very little direct air support themselves. In addition, planes and pilots from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were involved.

Lasting nearly a year, the airlift was a massive success. At its high point, planes landed and lifted off every three minutes at Tempelhof. On 12th May 1949, Communist authorities gave up and re-opened all access routes to Berlin. That morning, many West Berliners were irritated from waking up to silence, and not the roaring motors of the legendary Douglas planes that were lovingly dubbed candy bombers.

But the Communists did not give up. Ten years later, in 1958, Khrushchev threatened to lock up West Berlin again, if it was not turned into a sovereign Free City without Allied occupation (with the obvious intention of reuniting it with East Berlin and turning it into a part of the GDR). Again, the western Allies stood up against it, and the plan failed.
By that time, millions of East Germans had fled the country through West Berlin, and the GDR was slowly but steadily drained of its life blood. Extreme situations, the East German government felt, required extreme measures.


Welcome to Perunology, a blog featuring the personal views of history by Perun. Here, I am posting essays on things in history that interest me, and that I feel like presenting to the world my way. I am going to inaugurate this blog by posting the first part of my article on the Berlin Wall.