“Nobody has the intention of building a wall.” – GDR head of state Walter Ulbricht, East Berlin, June 15th 1961
For me, for everyone I suppose, some places can have a real impact when we visit them. They leave an impression. The Berlin Wall was one such place. History hangs in the air, so thick you can almost touch it, almost feel it, almost smell it. Other places that I have visited that have had similar impact for me are Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland and Clairière de l’Armistice at Compiegne in Northern France.
Checkpoint Charlie was an obvious place to visit and every other visitor to Berlin agreed with us because this is probably the most visited attraction in the city. It is the most famous of the fourteen previously controlled crossing points between East and West Berlin, between the Allied and the Soviet Sectors.
Today I walked along a section of the wall, I ran my fingers across its harsh, hostile, concrete surface, I read the conflicting messages of anger and hope that it been scrawled across it, I was stunned by just how grotesquely ugly it was, I remembered all of the things that frightened me about the wall when I was a young boy.
Today as tourists we have our picture taken against a souvenir section of the wall, we smiled for the camera, fifty years ago people died trying to get across it and escape to the west, they didn’t smile. I thought about that as this picture taken.
The Berlin Wall divided the city from 1961 to 1989. In the German Democratic Republic it was an offence to leave the country without permission. The border guards were duty bound at all time “to arrest or eliminate border violators”. The border regime was based on barriers and border guards at regular intervals and above all on the permitted use of firearms. The border guards who successfully stopped escapes were rewarded with a decoration and a bonus.
There is no checkpoint there anymore of course just a reconstruction and men in menacing uniforms providing a photo opportunity. It amused me that the Berlin Wall was constructed to keep out the west but at the site today is one of the most aggressive symbols of western capitalism – a McDonalds restaurant. Walter Ulbricht is probably still spinning in his grave!
I was seven years old when the German Democratic Republic began building the wall and it was barely out of the news headlines throughout the 1960s; subjugated people trying to escape, the unlucky ones being gunned down in cold blood, the menacing stare of the border guards, the impenetrable and secretive Soviet Empire. Berlin was where East and West stood toe to toe, where the West stood firm against further Soviet expansion in Europe and where the East tried to annex the whole of Berlin by starving out the West.
Donald Trump would have been proud of a wall like this.
If World War Two and the Nazis fashioned our vision of Germany and the Germans then the Wall was something that shaped our opinions of the post war East and the Soviet domination and I spent my childhood with a morbid fear of the USSR and in an environment preparing for imminent nuclear conflict and the end of the world. This was the golden age of espionage and spies, John John le Carré and Ian Fleming.
For me this was the best moment of all in Berlin, around the site are informative displays and photographs which made me stop and think. I was born within ten years of the end of the most appalling and destructive war in Europe, in the World, and grew up seeing the Germans as natural foes. I soaked up my Dad’s stories of the War and read the Victor comic. When England won the Football World Cup in 1966 it was a champagne moment to beat West Germany and even in the 1970s I still carried with me my irrational dislike for sun-bed thieving Germans when on holiday in Europe.
I was forty-five when the wall came down, Germany was reunited and Europe gave a collective sigh of relief.
So, for the first fifty years or so of my life it would simply never have crossed my radar to visit Germany until in 2007 when cheap Ryanair flights to Friedrichshafen and Lake Constance persuaded me that I should go there and give it a chance and it turned out to be a personal pivotal moment when I discovered Germany to be relaxed, refined and cultured and I was glad of that and to have my national prejudices so quickly readjusted.
Close by to Checkpoint Charlie is one of the last remaining sections of the wall that remains intact and another series of information boards chronicling the years through the time of the Weimer Republic, the rise of Nazism, the War and the Wall. I had imagined that this period of history might be somewhat suppressed in Berlin, it is after all nothing to be proud of. But this is not so. It makes no excuses or apologies but sets out the history in a matter-of-fact and sensitive way. I was impressed.