Berlin is an interesting place after dark. The city has always been a hotbed for underground subcultures, and here the gutter punks share dance floor space with everyone from latex-wearing goths to edge kids and everything in between. The years preceding the fall of the Wall fostered the same sort of alternativism. Oppressive conditions tend to breed resistance, the weeds that poked through the homogenous concrete of Honecker’s régime.
Speaking of Herr Honecker, he’d have had us Americans nicked by die Stasi if we’d made it through the Iron Curtain to where our hostel was – Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz just over the line from the West. During the days of the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or East Germany), Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz was home to the Volksbühne, the East German ‘people’s theater’. Kira and I checked in to our hostel, just across from the U-Bahn and set upon the unsuspecting capital. The U-Bahn was mere steps away and sped us quickly through the tunnels beneath the city and on northward. We disembarked at Eberswalder Straße, and in wandering the streets nearby, found ourselves in a park with a number of spindly stadium lights at the top of a hill on one side and rows of Soviet-era housing blocks on the other. We climbed the hill, watching the increasing amount of people fill up the park with dogs, footballs, and most importantly for Berlin, bottles of beer. The beer in Germany is key, it’s cheap (sometimes less than a euro for a litre) and delicious, and the denizens of Berlin were cracking open cold ones in the park as the heat of the day faded away into the evening.
The top of the hill had a section of concrete wall on it, 30 metres (100 ft.) long and four metres (16 ft.) high. A number of writers were making good use of this canvas (see below), and it was actually encouraged; as we watched, a Berlin cop walked up and admired the work one artist was in the process of finishing. He chatted to the painter for a few minutes, then let him finish the last few sprays onto the concrete.
We had a sneaking suspicion about the origins of this heavily-painted section of concrete, and that night, after some quick research, we confirmed them. It seems we had managed to simply stumble upon one of the largest extant sections of The Wall. The one Roger Waters played the entirety of The Wall in front of after its fall. The one that Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down. That wall. No Man’s Land was just on the other side of the appropriately named Mauerpark (wall park).
And the Wall isn’t the only thing tagged up in East Berlin. Nowhere else have I seen such quantity of quality; nearly every piece of graf East Berlin showed us was remarkable.
The U-Bahn is, predictably for Germany, fast, clean, and efficient (if a bit boring to look at sometimes). During the days of the Wall, the German capital’s metro, like the rest of city, was diced up according to East and West. Some routes remained entirely in one or the other; others, like the U2 we were on, were cut in half giving some to the East and some to the West. Still others (West Berlin’s U6 and U8 and the S-Bahn’s Nord-Süd Tunnel) ran partially through Eastern territory – though without stopping, leading to the so-called geisterbahnhof – literally ‘ghost stations’. Trains would pass through these dimly lit, heavily guarded stations slowly, giving the western passengers on board their only up-close views of East Berlin. The sole exception to this no-disembarking rule was Friedrichstraße station, which was set up as a transfer point and a border crossing between the Berlins. The building was turned into a labyrinth of corridors, checkpoints, cameras, and armed guards – with some Stasi officers thrown in for good measure. For decades, Friedrichstraße was the biggest hole in the Iron Curtain, the crack through which many of the the 3.5 million East Germans that had left by 1961 (approximately 20% of the population of the DDR at the time) forced their way out through. After the fall of the Wall, Friedrichstraße, along with Potsdamer Platz and many others, was reopened to all Berliners. Potsdamer Platz was built in the Nord-Süd Tunnel, the connector between Berlin’s northern and southern rail lines. The tunnel’s orientation put it smack underneath the Berlin Wall, and as a result Potsdamer Platz shut down for service from 1961 onward until the Wall fell in 1989. It remained unchanged from the way it had been before its closure – right down to the station signs, still in old-style German script (the one outside dates from after the station’s reopening).
A train’s ride away is the famous Brandenburg Gate, built in the late 1700s as part of a wall built for tax purposes (similar to the Wall of the Farmers-General in Paris). The gate stands today as the most well-known symbol of Berlin, complete with its innumerable patches over holes made by shrapnel and Soviet bullets during the final days of World War II. Once again, we were doing nothing but minding our own business when *SMACK* – here comes the broad pimp slap hand of History. It would be coming down hard again very soon, as we walked a few blocks from the Gate to a car park just across from the Holocaust Memorial. It’s just a car park, full of gravel and…well…cars. When the dogs of Berlin need to have a poo, they’re sometimes taken here.
You see, it’s not the innocuous car park that bore any particular significance, it was what was buried underneath our feet: Hitler’s bunker. Remember that history pimp slap?
This sort of thing happened a lot in Berlin. All of these things I’d only learned about in history classes, this was where they took place. It’s a different experience hearing about the Battle of Berlin and actually seeing the gouges in buildings from shell fragments and bullets fired during the battle, or seeing the imposing Soviet housing blocks in East Berlin and knowing that this was a Communist country only 30 years ago. Seeing things like this up close make all of that real. It’s undeniable. It’s everywhere. Berlin has managed to masterfully incorporated this history into the city’s current form, never forgetting where it came from – and where it’s going.