Berlin 1976 and 2013

See also Gallery entitled "Berlin"
Berlin 1976 and 2013.

I first visited Berlin in 1976 at the height of the Cold War and when the city was divided by a wall. My job was to manage the installation of furniture in a new British Embassy just built in East Berlin.
The Embassy was set up under certain conditions, one being that we didn’t recognise Checkpoint Charlie. This meant that when I was picked up from Tegal airport I was driven along the corridor (a road giving access to Berlin through East Germany) and into East Germany through another gate. At the Embassy I was given a diplomatic pass which allowed me through Checkpoint Charlie. Although I had to show my passport at the checkpoint I had to make sure it was not stamped there.
At that time the East Germans were a very depressed nation with very few smiling faces. However, I didn’t see any poverty; everyone appeared to work and had enough food and clothing even though basic. Life was pure socialistic, everything run by the state, ie employment and the rental of homes etc. The country was desperate for Western currency so certain luxury items could only be bought with western currency, these included cars, opera tickets etc. I had a Praktica camera which was made in E Germany but you couldn’t buy one there, they were all exported. I stayed in the Hotel Unter Den Linden across the road from the Meissen porcelain shop where you could only buy seconds; all first quality was exported. Cars were bought through the state, if you had enough money to buy one there was a seven year waiting list, and that was for a Trabant.
The purpose of my latest visit in 2013 was to see how the city has changed in the last 37 years and since re-unification. Having become more and more allergic to budget airlines I thought I would try the coach. There is a Euro-Lines coach that leaves Victoria for Berlin most days, it cost me £78 return with no hidden costs. I even used my bus pass to get to Victoria. It was a 19 hour journey, through the night, all on time and without any problems.
I suppose Berlin’s struggles began in 1933 when Hitler’s Nazi party took power; his intention was to take over the world with Berlin as World Capital. In the process they wanted to produce the perfect Arian race; Jews etc either emigrated or were rounded up with horrifying consequences.
World War 2 followed Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. After Hitler’s defeat in 1945 the control of Berlin was split into four sectors; each sector controlled by either America, Britain or France in the West; and the Soviet Union in the East. East Berliners came under the austerity of communist rule and could clearly see the potential prospects in the west and began to emigrate. The migration of this brain and brawn drain was in such high numbers that it began to send the east into economic decline. The only way to stop this migration was to build a physical barrier, The Wall, which was built in 1961. Desperate attempts to cross into the West were horrifyingly life threatening with hundreds being killed in the process.
In 1989, along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the wall came down; possibly the most cost effective demolition job ever; armed with whatever tools they could lay their hands on hordes of local residents came out onto the street and before long it was breached, dismantled and sold off bit by bit as souvenirs.
So how was Berlin now, in 2013, particularly in the East? There was certainly no sign of any austerity. In 1976 many buildings were war damaged shells with little future hope. A lot of money must now have been pumped in to re-juvenate the key buildings; these included the Brandenburg Gate, many churches and the Reichstag; our own Sir Norman Foster being responsible for the restoration of the latter.
The biggest transformation has got to be the Potsdamer Platz; in 1976 this was a wide desolate death strip patrolled by guards under instructions to shoot to kill, dogs, razor wire, trenches etc. It has now been totally rebuilt with imposing new buildings.
My main disappointment was Checkpoint Charlie, that notorious checkpoint which allowed westerners into East Berlin. In 1976 I wasn’t allowed to photograph the border, particularly from the East, so it would have been more than my life was worth to photograph the checkpoint then. All that remains now is the American guard hut; unfortunately there are so called actors posing for photographs in American army uniform, very tacky. I’m glad there was no sign of any British uniforms or flag.
Many museums and monuments have also been built, set up so as to record and remember the horrors of the past; these include the Holocaust memorial; Topographie des Terrors, on the site of the Stasi, the Gestapo HQ; and Berlin Wall Memorial remembering the Berlin Wall victims. Hopefully the likes of those horrifying past years will never be seen again.

Stafford Steed