Berlin—Ten Years Later
By “Awake!” correspondent in Germany
AS OUR jet tilted to give us a panoramic view of a maze of lights, Karin pressed her face against the window and exclaimed: “There it is; there’s Berlin!”
We began to descend, and Karin fixed her attention on a single row of bright floodlights, snaking its way through the metropolis. “That must be the wall!” She made no effort to hide her emotion.
The plane was about to touch down at Tempelhof Central Airport, the only European airport located in the middle of a city. I was excited too. This was my first visit to this divided city, one that has made headlines for more than twenty-five years. And Karin looked forward to comparing today’s Berlin with what she knew ten years ago.
Four Sectors—Four Airports
“It hasn’t changed much at all,” explained Karin, as we arrived at the airport, “and look! There’s where we waited for our names to be called out.” Ten years ago, Karin was one of the million and a half refugees who fled from East Germany into West Berlin. Most of them were subsequently flown out to West Germany on a “place available” basis.
Tempelhof, Berlin’s busiest airport, handles the shuttle service through the three twenty-mile-wide air corridors: northwest to Hamburg, westward to Hannover and southwest to Frankfurt.
Tegel Airport, located in the French sector in the north of the city, was built in ninety-two days during the Berlin Blockade. It is located on a site originally used by Wernher von Braun for the first rocket experiments. Currently being enlarged, Tegel is geared for international travel, as well as for many all-inclusive vacation flights that speed Berliners into the sunny south.
Gatow Airport in the British sector is used exclusively for military purposes. In the Russian sector, Schönefeld offers flights to Eastern European and Asian centers, generally featuring lower prices than those on Western airlines.
“Let’s go outside and see the Air Lift Memorial,” Karin suggested. This is a huge stone monument in front of the airport. It was erected on May 12, 1959, in memory of the seventy-eight persons who lost their lives during the Berlin Blockade from June 24, 1948, to May 12, 1949. During those eleven months more than 200,000 flights delivered over two million tons of foodstuffs, coal and other necessities to the West Berliners. On the 300th day of the blockade, there were no less than 927 takeoffs and landings.
Karin, who came from a little town just outside of Berlin, recalled: “At that time, there wasn’t much to eat anywhere, in or outside of Berlin.” What a contrast we noted now as we sat in a sidewalk café for an evening snack, while planning our next day’s tour of the city!
A Unique Political Record
The warm morning sun welcomed us to the famous boulevard, Strasse des 17. Juni (Street of June 17). “I remember June 17, 1953, as if it were yesterday,” Karin reminisced. “We were on a school picnic when martial law was declared in East Germany as a result of the revolts in many cities, and especially right here where we’re standing.” The street was renamed to commemorate that demonstration of the people’s dissatisfaction.
In this parklike area known as Tiergarten (Animal Park) there are a number of tourist attractions depicting the various political costumes that Berlin has worn in the last century. They seem to have changed as often as fashion itself.
The 220-foot-high Goddess of Victory Column in the middle of the boulevard recalls the victory over the French in 1871 and the era of the kaisers.
Nearby is the rebuilt Reichstag, the building that served as parliamentary seat not only during the monarchy, but also during the Weimar Republic. In 1933 the Nazis burned this building, accusing the Communists of setting it afire. As a result, Hitler was able to get a law passed to wipe out individual rights.
The Russian memorial, featuring massive tanks and a huge statue of a soldier, and still guarded by Soviet sentries, emphasizes which army actually took Berlin in 1945.
As for Berlin’s international symbol, the Brandenburg Gate, it is cut off by the present political reality. It is just inside East Berlin. Before the Communists built the wall, the Brandenburg Gate was the main crossing point for east-west traffic.
All these different forms of government, from the monarchy of the kaisers, the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s Third Reich, to the present situation of a divided city in a divided country in a divided world have displayed one common denominator: they have all proved unsatisfactory.
“When we were still here,” Karin recalled, “the city was divided up into the four sectors, but it was no trouble at all to go from one to the other, often without even a check of identification papers. Even the subway and elevated railway ran between the sectors. That’s how the people fled from the Communist regime: they just came from East Germany into Berlin’s East sector, walked or rode across to one of the Allied sectors and then registered at the Marienfelde Refugee Camp. Then they were assigned out to another camp or school and eventually flown out.”
On Sunday morning, August 13, 1961, East German police strung up a barbed wire fence to hold back the ever-increasing flood of refugees. The trickles that followed were gradually sealed off by a wall of concrete block ten to twelve feet high, as well as a system of guards, towers, watchdogs and mines. Some 60,000 East Berliners and East Germans were also cut off from their places of employment in the three Western sectors.
Today the Berlin Wall zigzags its way about thirty miles through the city and is supplemented by about seventy-two miles of fencing and wall bordering on the East German frontier. There are seven crossing points into East Berlin, the most famous of these being Checkpoint Charlie, for foreigners. Two other crossing points are provided for West Germans, and there are four for West Berliners possessing special permits. Along the border there are crossing points leading to three highways following roughly the air corridors to the Federal Republic, lying one hundred and six miles from Berlin.
From Ruins and Refugees to Present Prosperity
“Let’s go to the refugee camp where we were billeted,” was Karin’s next suggestion. “It must be along the wall somewhere; I remember my mother being so worried that my brothers would mistakenly wander over into the Eastern sector.”
Karin immediately recognized the huge factory building on Flotten Street but was surprised at learning of its present inhabitants. This building is now used to house foreigners who have come to Berlin to seek employment. The presence of so many Turks, Greeks, Yugoslavians and Italians underlines the current Berlin and German economy, which has skyrocketed in the last decade. Karin commented: “And to think, Germany is supposed to have lost the war.”
We did not find very much of the “eighty million cubic meters of rubble” that German historians refer to in describing postwar Berlin. In fact, the most famous ruins are on Berlin’s main street. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church presents modern buildings of blue glass flanking the bombed-out ruins of the old tower, preserved as a grim reminder of the war.
Opposite the church is the famous Europe-Center, a city in itself, offering more than a mile of display windows and featuring everything from an English pub to an outdoor skating rink open all year long. Leading away from this center is West Berlin’s most famous street, Kurfürstendamm, which presents a series of outdoor and heated sidewalk cafés intermingled with display windows offering luxuries of all kinds. The many nightclubs, bars and showplaces testify to the current prosperity of the people, while betraying their love of pleasure.
“But don’t let that veneer fool you,” Karin cautioned. “Let’s see if they have done anything to improve the houses behind these stores.” This was one part of Berlin that had not changed in the last ten years.
Housing the Population
On this tour of Berlin, Karin filled me in on some of the city’s history. On April 22, 1930, it was decided to combine seven cities, fifty-nine rural municipalities and twenty-seven landed estates into a “new municipality of Berlin.” This naturally produced much variety. Before the war, Berlin had swelled to a population of four and a half million people. They were spread out over 340 square miles, which would easily engulf Munich, Stuttgart and Frankfurt all together.
Today, West Berlin has a population of two and a quarter million in a little more than half the original area, thereby huddling more than 12,000 people on each square mile, compared with 600 per square mile in West Germany.
Housing in Berlin is varied. Older sections, such as Wedding, crowd up to five old apartment houses behind one another going back from the street, with only a small courtyard in between. The spacious villas of Zehlendorf, spread out in the woods along the Havel River, offer a refreshing contrast. Following the river northward, these mansions dwarf into small cottage-like homes, such as those in Heiligensee, nestled between Lake Tegel and the Havel.
Since the only direction that West Berlin can expand is skyward, huge housing projects have shot up. The most famous is Märkisches Viertel, designed to house eventually more than 50,000 persons. Some twenty architects from different lands were given the job of designing this project. The result: almost twenty miles of new streets flanked by very unusual, gaily colored apartment houses, ranging between three and eighteen stories each, together with a shopping center, schools and recreational grounds.
But West Berlin is not all houses and stores. Almost 17 percent of the area is woods, 7 percent parks, and as strange as it may seem, another 17 percent is devoted to various kinds of agriculture. Karin and I even went horseback riding and saw where the Berliners go skiing in the winter.
Changes in Transportation
“How about a boat ride?” Karin suggested. “We often used to take the ferry to come to Berlin.”
West Berlin’s four lakes combine with the Havel and Spree rivers and a number of canals to provide boats with no less than seventy-one miles of waterways. Private boating has become so popular in Berlin that some persons have claimed that it is possible to walk across the Havel River going from boat to boat.
Berlin provides a fine network of public transportation, including subway, elevated electric railway and buses. Streetcars have disappeared from West Berlin’s streets, while still playing a prominent role in the Eastern part of the city. The sixty miles of subway lines currently in use in the Western sectors whisk an average of more than 600,000 persons daily through the city for forty pfennigs (about ten cents) a fare. Two of these lines pass through the East sector, but all Eastern stations along the run are closed except for one, which is controlled by and serves as a point of entry into the Soviet sector. The elevated railway, still Soviet operated even in the Western sectors, supplements the subway lines into far corners of the city.
We also got around to seeing some of Berlin’s museums and old castles. And the 13,500 animals of Europe’s largest zoo heartily welcomed us, while the taciturn inhabitants of the continent’s largest aquarium seemed to pay no attention to us at all. A panoramic view of the city from the almost 500-foot-high radio tower completed our tour. As Karin gazed at the TV tower in the Eastern sector, she wondered who might be looking back at her.
West Germany pours money into the Allied sectors of Berlin to underline its claim that West Berlin is the eleventh state of the Federal Republic. Meanwhile, the Communists claim that West Berlin is an independent political unit, while labeling East Berlin as the capital of the German Democratic Republic. The four-power meetings seem to go on endlessly, and whenever any important topic in Europe is discussed, the “Berlin Question” is usually included. It is a question to which the nations have found no mutually acceptable solution.
All too soon we were in our plane again soaring away from Berlin. But we had seen many things to talk about. In Karin’s eyes ten years had indeed brought a number of changes, and to me it was interesting to listen to her comparisons of the present with the past.