Berlin: The Receding Cloud of Shame

One of my earliest political memories is the falling of the Berlin Wall and my parents trying to explain how this meant that a divided continent was coming back together.  Since then, my travels have taken me to different countries which were behind the Iron Curtain.  In the next 4 posts, I’m offering reflections and tips for travels in the former ‘East’ including Krakow, Prague and Budapest. I start, though, in Berlin, the heart of the divide and where the physical scars of the Cold War can still be seen. 

Berlin 1 Fuhrerbunker
Site of the Fuhrerbunker

Standing in the middle of a carpark in the centre of Berlin might sound like a mundane addition to a trip to Berlin.  But this is the site of the Fuhrerbunker where Hitler had his HQ in World War 2 and, for me, symbolises how this city has been the heart, the crucible of so much of European history.  In some ways this city is the point where the Cold War started and ended, where East and West were most obviously divided and then reunited.  And there are points throughout the city where the scars of the past can still be seen.  This made it an important trip for me and not just for my understanding of world history: it was also the city where I fell in love with my partner.

Berlin 5 Bernauer Straße
Bernauer Strasse

To see the physical scars left by generations of war and then the re-joining of the two parts of the city, the remaining section of the Berlin Wall at Bernhauer Strasse has the best views.  You can see two houses on either side of a wide, open strip through the city and realise that communities, friends and families were torn apart.  People on one side of the wall could not visit the bakery they had used for years as it was on the other side.  There’s a memorial in the centre to remember those killed trying to make their way from East to West as well as an elevated view point.  Standing over the former ‘death strip’ at this – less crowded – section of the wall gives a sense of the physical changes the wall inflicted on the city.

But to see the remaining political, emotional scars, you have to delve a little deeper in to the city.  As you inevitably cross from East to West and back again in the city, small differences can be spotted.

Berlin 6 Charlottenburg Schloss
Charlottenburg Sloss

Alexanderplatz with its massive TV tower and concrete buildings remind us this was once the centre of East Berlin; go further out on the S-Bahn in to the Eastern suburbs and the modern lives of East Berliners becomes clearer.  The East continues to be poorer with locals earning 77% of what their Western counterparts bring home [1] and there continues to be a brain drain from East to West [2].  Conversely, head deeper in to the West and you can end up in the leafy suburbs, including Charlottenburg with its Sloss.  Each side of the city has a different feel to it and, despite the city now being reunited, at many corners you can spot memorials or evidence of a divided past.

Visiting the DDR Museum reminds us that there were some positive aspects to this split city.  The exhibition reflects a growing sense of awareness in an Eastern identity [3] with its music, food and fashions all on display.  The museum does not shy away from the economic problems or the fact that there were 170,000 Stasi members when the wall fell which has led to a mistrust of officialdom in the East to this day [4].  But Ost-tourism is on the increase and ranges from Hostels to Tours in Brabant cars but, beyond tourism, there has been a growing sense of regional identity in the former Eastern states [3].  The cranes littered over the city may be healing the physical scars but the political and emotional ones may also be starting to mend.

For me, the Eastern part of the city has more distinctive culture and nights out.  We stayed on Oranienburger Strasse and found in the roads around a vibrant nightlife.  Each area has its own distinctive culture with bars and music to suit everyone’s tastes.  There are still some hints of the past: cash remains popular here with card or contactless payment only now starting to take hold despite being popular elsewhere in Western Europe.  The former mis-trust of cards and credit in the East is – like other habits – starting to change.

Berlin 4 Reichstag dome
The Reichstag Dome

Before I arrived in Berlin, my brother had told me about his visit and how the history he had encountered at each corner had left him with a feeling that a “cloud of shame” hung over the city.  He’s right, in a way, particularly if you look at the buildings and monuments around the city.   The Reichstag Dome is an obvious symble of a city being repaired; a modern dome for an old parliament which still has Soviet graffiti engraved on its walls.  The old has been rebuilt with modern additions but acknowledging its divided past: an obvious metaphor for the wider city.  The politics and lives of Berlin’s citizens are moving forward whilst still remembering their shared and divided pasts.  Sitting with my beer among the locals, I felt  hopeful that Berlin is a city where division has led to diversity rather than an attempt to impose uniformity.

 

References

[1] Hogwood, P. (2011) ‘How Happy are You …?’ Subjective Well-Being in East Germany Twenty Years after Unificationpon.  Politics, 31(3), pp.148–158.

[2] Dragostinova, T. (2009) 1989 Twenty Years On: the End of Communism and the Fate of Eastern Europe.  Origins. 3(3), URL: https://origins.osu.edu/print/64

[3] Yoder, J. (2000) West-East Integration: Lessons from East Germany’s Accelerated Transition.  East European Politics and Societies, 14(2), pp.114-138.

[4] Görtemaker, M. (2009) The Berlin Republic: Reunification and Reorientation in 20 years after the gall of the Berlin Wall. 

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