Brave New Berlin: Ten Years after the Last Foreign Troops Pulled out of Berlin, Nigel Hicks Reports on How the City Is Transforming Itself from a Symbolic Flashpoint of the Cold War into a Great Modern City at the Heart of Central Europe
Hicks, Nigel, Geographical
People swirl around the huge concourse of the Sony Centre in Berlin, some hurrying about their business, others ambling in open-mouthed fascination at this study in modern steel-grey minimalism. Sunlight pours in through the tent-like roof, bathing the scene in a pleasant, calming light. Chic young Berliners sit chatting and sipping cappuccinos at the coffee shops that line the hall's sides. It's all reassuringly capitalist, cosmopolitan and 21st century. So it's rather disconcerting to remember that not long ago this spot was patrolled by soldiers armed with machine guns, surrounded by barbed wire and overlooked by watchtowers containing more gun-toting guards. This was the red-hot frontline of the hottest spot of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall, which for more than a quarter of a century divided Communist East Berlin from the capitalist west, ran right through here, give or take a few metres. How times change.
September marked the tenth anniversary of the final withdrawal of foreign troops from Berlin following the fall of the Wall, an act that drew a line under the Cold War. At the end of August 1994, the Russian forces departed, followed--pointedly one week later--by US, British and French troops. Their departure brought to a close Berlin's invidious distinction as an occupied city, a status it had held since April 1945 when Soviet forces had stormed in, bringing Nazi reign--and the European component of the Second World War--to a brutal and bloody end.
By the time the Nazis surrendered, Berlin was well within Soviet-held territory, but the final treaty gave control of half of the city to the USA, UK and France. Troops from all four nations poured in, initially to root out the last Nazis, and then, supposedly, to work together to get the city back on its feet. It proved to be an uneasy alliance. Tensions between the Soviets and the Western Allies mounted, and West Berlin became increasingly marooned in a sea of Communist-controlled territory, linked to what was soon to become West Germany only by road and rail corridors that were heavily guarded by Soviet soldiers.
The Soviets tried all kinds of tactics to force the Allies out of Berlin, finally closing the land corridors and threatening to starve West Berlin into submission. The Allies responded with the Berlin Airlift, which kept the city going for 18 months in 1948-49 until the Soviets backed down and land links were reopened. West Berlin was safe, for the moment at least, and for the next half century it was to be the star pawn in the Cold War, a constant and deliberate thorn in the Communists' side.
Attempts to give the city a unified administration were quickly abandoned. The Communist and capitalist halves developed separate governments and infrastructures, and Bonn became the West German capital in 1949. It was a separation that became almost total when the Wall was thrown up in August 1961 (see The Berlin Wall, right). For the next 28 years, East and West Berlin glowered at each other in a Cold War stalemate. Then came the revolution.
In 1989, European Communism collapsed. A peaceful uprising in East Berlin saw the Wall torn down and hordes of East Berliners pouring into the western half of the city, jubilant at their liberation. In the heady months that followed, the East German government seemed more or less to implode, allowing the West Germans, led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, to push through reunification of the entire country in 1990, with Berlin soon reinstalled as the nation's capital.
When the celebrations died down, the country began to realise what an enormous task lay ahead. While West Germany's economy was one of the world's most successful, that of the East lay in ruins, and it didn't take an economic genius to see that removing the imbalance was going to require a monumental investment.
When Berlin was returned to its position as capital of all Germany--a status it had enjoyed prior to the Second World War, following Germany's original unification in 1871--it became the focus of the project to revitalise the east. An extensive building programme was launched. "There was this enormous empty area in the middle of the city," explains Dr Peter Barker, lecturer in German Studies at Reading University. "It was land where the Wall had run, and where many nearby buildings had been demolished by the East Germans for defensive purposes. In addition, much of the East Berlin housing stock was in a poor condition and had to be rebuilt."
During the 1990s, it seemed as though the entire eastern half of the city was one huge building site, a forest of cranes forming its skyline. The work continues, although much has been completed; in particular, the central areas along the old line of the Wall have been transformed from a dour front-line zone to a glitzy, modern city. This is the area that many visitors will see--resurgent, vibrant and apparently wealthy, looking forward with confidence to a bright future in which Berlin is restored to its rightful place as a major European capital and centre of culture.
When looked at in this way, it's easy to see the transformation as more or less complete, but the process is actually far from over and has been filled with pain and controversy. The reconstruction has been so expensive that Berlin now teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, with a staggering debt of 45 billion (30 billion [pounds sterling]). Unemployment remains stubbornly high, at about 19 per cent--double the national average--and the city is beset with a steady migration of workers, not just from eastern Berlin to the western half of the city, but also from Berlin to western Germany.
"The problem started when the economies of both halves of the city went badly downhill after reunification," says Barker. "The east's industries simply crumbled and the west lost the government subsidies that had kept it buoyant during the Cold War. Once the city became the capital again, everyone expected its economy to take off, but it just didn't happen, partly due to the world recession that followed the first Gulf War. They probably would have got away with it had the economy boomed."
More than half of the cost of Berlin's reconstruction has actually come from the federal government, which for more than ten years has been transferring huge amounts of money from western Germany's states to the east (not just Berlin), which at present total more than 100billion annually. It's a sum that has been dragging down western Germany's economy, leading to growing resentment, not least because of the 7.5 per cent surcharge that is added to the income tax of every German to fund this transfer. "The western Germans are very bitter about it," says Barker, "especially because at the time this started in 1993, Chancellor Kohl promised there would be no new taxes. He soon found he couldn't fund it without them so along came the surcharge."
Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's governing mayor, has little time for such attitudes. "My position is unequivocal," he says. "Berlin is one city, and Germany is one country. We will only be able to overcome our problems by working together as a country and as a whole. That approach has been successful in my city. And this is something that every responsible politician and citizen knows."
According to Wowereit the problems actually predate reunification. "Economically, Berlin is still suffering from the consequences of division," he says. "The economic structure of both halves of the city underwent radical change, and the effects of this change are a continuing problem."
Controversy has also reigned over the question of exactly how to rebuild Berlin: attempt to re-create a city with recognisably the same identity as the pre-war Berlin, or make a complete break with the past and design a new city. "When we think about the future of our city, we of course also have the Berlin of the golden '20s in mind," says Wowereit. "But the city's real models are the world's other major cities--London, Paris, Rome and the like--rather than its own past."
Certainly, the old street layout has been retained. Such famous squares as Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz--destroyed by wartime bombing, then lost under the Wall and East German defences--once again form the heart of the city. They are very different from their earlier incarnations, however, providing a dynamic steel, concrete and glass home to a cluster of corporate headquarters, including the Sony Centre.
The area around the Brandenburg Gate (which stood in a no-man's land on the eastern side of the Wall) includes the adjacent Pariser Platz and Unter den Linden. It has largely been restored to its pre-war elegance and, once again, is the site of embassies and government buildings. This was a controversial move, as the buildings here are inextricably linked with both the defunct East German and 19th-century Prussian governments. To re-establish today's federal departments in the same area wasn't an entirely popular move. The symbolism, not just of the old Communist apparatus being used to run the whole of Germany, but also the ghost of Prussia returning to haunt the western states, has left a very bad taste in the mouths of many.
The nearby Reichstag, too, generated its fair share of controversy. Burnt down in 1933 by the Nazis, it stood in partial ruins throughout the war, only to be further damaged by wartime fighting and then left neglected for years on the western side of the Wall. Its resurrection as the parliament of the newly reunited Germany stirred uncomfortable memories across Europe, while in Germany arguments raged around how far restoration work should conserve or obliterate reminders of the past. One of the main controversies concentrated on the large amounts of less-than-complimentary graffiti that victorious Soviet soldiers had scrawled across it in 1945. A compromise eventually allowed some to be retained. Restored by Sir Norman Foster, the Reichstag is now a stunning building, complete with a spectacular rooftop glass dome that recalls its original dome and allows a view for the public down into the debating chamber and out across the city.
Of the Wall, little remains, so completely has it been swept away. There is also little of the infamous Checkpoint Charlie--the only point that foreigners and diplomats could use to cross between East and West Berlin--save a reconstruction of the guard post, posters of glowering Soviet and US soldiers, and a phalanx of souvenir stalls selling everything from Red Army uniforms to bits of the Wall (supposedly). The Allied troops that held this city for so long are remembered in the Allied Museum situated in a western suburb.
It's impossible not to be amazed at the speed of Berlin's transformation, although it's also difficult to see how it will solve its huge problems. "Our burden of debt is so large that Berlin cannot repay it all on its own," Wowereit says. "However, our country's federal system means that we can take our case to Germany's highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court, and sue the government for federal aid. We have filed suit and are now waiting for a decision."
"Berlin will eventually dig itself out," says Barker. "For one thing, the city is far too important symbolically for the government to allow it to go bankrupt. In addition, the eastward expansion of the EU will have an impact. Eastern Europe is Berlin's hinterland--to realise that you only have to look in the phone book and see just how high a proportion of the surnames are Slavic. As it is, Poles have been keeping parts of Berlin's economy going for some time. This will only increase now they are in the EU."
There is no doubt that the sight of people sipping coffees where armed guards used to tread symbolises a resurgent Berlin, as do the ranks of new and newly restored buildings, from the Sony Centre to the Reichstag. That the process of change has been painful is hardly surprising, but we can only hope that, with time and the expanding EU, debt and unemployment will fade away, leaving Berlin the major Central European hub that it deserves to be.
The Berlin Wall, 1961-89
The most infamous and concrete manifestation of the Iron Curtain that divided Eastern and Western Europe for nearly 50 years, the 15S-kilometre Berlin Wall encircled the West Berlin enclave, isolating it almost completely from the surrounding Communist East Germany, or German Democratic Republic. Set up on 13 August 1961, initially as a barbed-wire fence, its role was to stem the flood of people fleeing East German communism. Despite its obvious purpose, the East German authorities insisted on calling the fence the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier, in what could be seen as an astoundingly Orwellian touch.
For the outside world, the most infamous section was the 43-kilometre stretch that separated the Communist-controlled eastern half from the Allied sectors of West Berlin in the heart of the city. By the 1980s, it was enormous: a high wall faced West Berlin and behind this was an open space known as the 'death strip', followed by a second fence or wall, tank traps, electrified fences and observation towers with mounted machine guns.
Despite the Walls apparent impenetrability, a steady stream of East Germans risked their lives to cross over, using a variety of ingenious methods. Estimates vary due to the secrecy of East German records, but it's thought that more than 3,000 people were arrested for attempting to cross into West Berlin and 200 shot dead in the process. However, more than 5,000 others made it successfully to the other side.
Finally, during the late 1980s, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War came to an end. In November 1989, a popular uprising in East Germany led to a climbdown by a government that was unwilling to unleash the army on its own people. On 9 November, politburo member Gunter Schabowski announced that "travel abroad for private reasons may be unconditionally applied for." Within hours, many thousands of people had flooded into West Berlin, while many thousands more from both sides of the city began ripping down the Wall.
Nowadays, little remains of the Wall, save a stretch along the Spree River--known as the East Side Gallery due to the huge amount of graffiti it bears--and a memorial on Bernauer Strasse that consists of a preserved section, complete with death strip and tank traps.
Nostalgia for the old days?
For those living in eastern Germany, life has changed dramatically over the past 15 years. Since reunification, not only has the old Communist order been swept away, but so too has much of what distinguished East Germany--including such simple things as household brand names.
With the passage of time and mellowing of memories of the Communist regime, nostalgia for old days has grown. This is clearly demonstrated by a rise in the number of specialist suppliers once again selling those old East German brands, as well as the huge popularity in 2003 of Goodbye Lenin, a German film providing a homely and comic look at life in East Germany at the time of the fall of the Wall. There is even a plan to open a theme park to the East German way of life, possibly in a suburb of eastern Berlin.
Much of the nostalgia--or ostalgie, after the word ost meaning 'east'--can be put down to people reminiscing about their youth. But there is also a gentle longing for what appeared to be a simpler life, when jobs and security were guaranteed, something that freedom and capitalism have so far struggled to deliver to eastern Germany.
Many observers have pointed out that living in East Germany wasn't one long prison sentence--much of it was just an ordinary German life. However, as Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's mayor, has pointed out, there is also concern that nostalgia for East Germany shouldn't be awarded cult status. It must always be remembered that the country was run by a government happy to shoot anyone who tried to escape and imprison those who dared to criticise the status quo.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Brave New Berlin: Ten Years after the Last Foreign Troops Pulled out of Berlin, Nigel Hicks Reports on How the City Is Transforming Itself from a Symbolic Flashpoint of the Cold War into a Great Modern City at the Heart of Central Europe. Contributors: Hicks, Nigel - Author. Magazine title: Geographical. Volume: 76. Issue: 10 Publication date: October 2004. Page number: 22+. © 2008 Circle Publishing Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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