Wednesday, November 11, 2009
On the Fall of the Wall
I was in Berlin the weekend after the wall came down. I had never been to Berlin, and on my first day I went to see Schinkel's Kleine Glienecke — by the Glienecke bridge, which had a constant stream of East Germans walking into West Berlin. The walkers were closely packed together, filling the bridge from side to side and front to back.
On Sunday, we went to a cafe which had a famous all-you-can-eat buffet. The West Germans and tourists were diving in, but the East Germans made a circle around the buffet tables, standing 2 meters or more away from the tables. They had paid for the meal with the allowance they got when they entered West Berlin, but seemingly couldn't believe they were allowed to partake.
Easily noticeable around Berlin was that many of the young men in the west for the first time had spent a large portion of their stipends on pornographic magazines.
I made my way back to Munich by train via Potsdam, Leipzig and Weimar. I had to go into East Berlin by subway to get a visa for the trip. When you got off the train, the station was shabby, dirty and poorly lit. Soldiers in gray uniforms stood around with machine guns and German Shepherds, watching the crowd. It was a grim and depressing introduction to what humans are willing to do to each other in the name of "equality."
The next day I went back to visit Potsdam. Potsdam is at one end of the Glienecke bridge, but I had to go to a central station and then to a railroad that rings the city, transforming a potentially short walk into a trip that took a few hours.
The trains were again shabby and poorly lit. Without announcement, we would pull into badly marked stations and people would run to and fro, exiting and entering trains on adjacent tracks. Luckily, I saw a sign for Potsdam and got off the train. Other trains pulled out, and I was left standing on an empty platform.
I walked into the station building, which had temporary construction walls that looked like they had been left untouched for a decade. A man walked out of the gloom in one corner of the station and asked me in English if I wanted a taxi. I was too dumb to say "yes," and went to the ticket window to find out how to get to my hotel.
I had been living in Munich for a few months and knew some German, but I got nowhere with the ticket seller. He pointed to a sign for trams to the center of the town, but when I telephoned my hotel — the best in Potsdam — to find out how to get from the tram to the hotel, no one answered the phone at the hotel.
I went to a taxi stand. Every time a taxi pulled in, a rugby scrum would run to the driver and yell things at him. He would point to a few people, they would get in the taxi, the taxi would leave and the scrum would disperse.
Down the street, I spotted a some parked taxis. The drivers of those taxis were having dinner and weren't interested in communicating. I went back to the taxi stand and eventually realized that dollar bills would probably get me a private taxi. The driver may have grossly overcharged me, but since I only gave him $2 I wasn't concerned.
As we drove into Potsdam, it was dark. Few streetlights were lit, and most houses had their shutters drawn against the cold. Almost all the buildings still had what seemed to be bomb marks from World War II, and the stench of coal was overwhelming. I later learned that coal was the main source of power and heat for most things, including cars, and that it was a particularly noxious and toxic coal.
The hotel was a beautiful if somewhat grim English country house in a park, designed for a Crown Prince by Muthesius. But even after several hours in Potsdam, when I woke up in the middle of the night in my beautiful and comfortable room, my first thought was "the coal stinks."
When I got away from Potsdam to Leipzig and Weimar, it was hard to tell that anything had changed in East Germany. No one was willing to talk to me about what was going on in Berlin, with the exception of a very old couple in Weimar, whom I guessed thought they were too old to get into trouble.
East Berlin 1988
I visited in December 1988. I was part of a small delegation of Milwaukee business and local government types who were, believe it or not, looking for trade opportunities in the DDR. The opportunities were a bit slim, but one Milwaukee businessman had previously sold container fabricating systems to several other East Bloc nations including Poland and Hungary.So for five days we hung out at the Trade Ministry in the now demolished Volks Palast. In evenings we visited the Berlin Symphony, the Comic Opera and some working class bars in Prenzlauerberg. One day we visited the Mildred Fish Harnack middle school which is named for the only US female civilian executed by the Nazis. She had been born in Milwaukee and so we were curious. In the school were propaganda posters of US jets strafing civilians in Nicaragua as well as little statues of Lenin that were about the same size as the plastic Mary's you see on some dashboards in America. Mildred's husband Arvid was a key leader of an anti Nazi spy ring called the Red Orchestra.
On the last evening we had dinner with Horst Brasch, who was a member of the Party Central Committee. He spoke excellent English having lived in exile in London during WWII. He told us how successful the DDR was even though he admitted they had made mistakes. As he departed he said,"I leave you with this one thought and that is that we are now living in the late stages of Capitalism". Horst's DDR ended 11 months later, but with help from Goldman Sachs he may ultimately be proven right.
Posted by: john norquist at Nov 23, 2009 1:32:04 PM