Magazine article Geographical

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

Magazine article Geographical

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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