The Berlin Wall 1961 – 1989: Personal Reflections

Sunday August 13th 1961

Aged 17 and on an exchange visit to Hamburg prior to returning to school for my A Level year, I was awoken early on Sunday 13th August 1961 by Herr Kansdorf, the father of my exchange partner Gerhardt, stating incredulously time and time again, “Berlin abgesperrt, Berlin abgesperrt….” (Berlin barricaded). He had been listening to his local radio station which conveyed the news that in the preceding night, East German frontier guards, in an attempt to stem the flow of would-be migrants to the West had erected barbed wire and concrete barricades. My thoughts went immediately to another family I had met two years previously in another part of Germany. There I had met a member of the family from Magdeburg (formerly in the “Ostzone”), allowed briefly in to the West on compassionate grounds to visit his ailing elderly mother and who had been planning for the day when the whole family might  be re-united in the West. What would happen to that family now?

That afternoon Gerhardt and I, together with what the local press estimated to be some 100,000 others, attended a rally in front of the Hamburg Rathaus (town hall). On the way we all received our complimentary copy of the “Hamburger Abendzeitung” which devoted itself to the sole theme – Berlin, the division, the indescribable acts of cruelty perpetrated by the Pankow (E Berlin) regime and its unspeakable leader and puppet of the Soviet Union, Walther Ulbricht. From the balcony of the Rathaus, high above the dense crowd, the mayor of Hamburg powerfully urged his fellow citizens to imagine what it would be like if their city were divided in a similar way and contact with friends and family were to be forcibly denied. Very rapidly the mood of the crowd became very angry. At that point I understood for the first time my own father’s fears when he had described a rally he had been “encouraged” to attend in 1935 in Freiburg im Breisgau when he had witnessed Hitler addressing a large crowd. Such a gathering in the hands of a skilled demagogue can very quickly demonstrate its feelings.

The impact of what had happened in Berlin and the events since the end of World War II came home to me a few weeks later. As A Level students we were asked to consider the question: “Ist Berlin eines dritten Weltkrieges wert?” (Is Berlin worth a third World War?)

Early August 1971

Ten years later now as a young schoolmaster, I found myself in Hamburg once again. On learning that I had not visited Berlin previously, my hosts insisted that I spent at least a few days there. After all, how could any respecting teacher and student of the language of the German be able to teach with any authority without first hand knowledge of Berlin? Hamburg to Berlin was one of the three “corridors” between the West and Berlin. I would go by train and then return, again by train, but this time via another corridor, Berlin to Hannover.

My first impression was the sense of fear the East German frontier guards instilled in to all on the train at the first check point. They operated in threes – under the train, through the train, on top of the train. They were armed, the dogs were not muzzled. The same operation was repeated at the border between the “Zone” (E. Germany) and West Berlin. This emphasised the sense of isolation: West Berlin was an island in the middle of a politically hostile, but culturally similar state. Again, the political sub-division of the Third Reich at the end of World War II became apparent. Time and time again, West Germans referred to East Germany as “die sogenannte (so-called) DDR”. So –called because in their opinion it was neither “deutsch”, nor “demokratisch” nor a “Republik”.

From the train, the contrast between the “Zone” with its underdeveloped agriculture – ploughs and wagons being pulled at best by horses, in some cases people, level crossing gates being manually opened and closed by elderly women, the shortage of motor vehicles – and the busy, prosperous streets of West Berlin could not have been starker. One of the first sights of West Berlin was the Kaiser Wilhelm GedÄchtniskirche, (NB a small a – but it won’t play, for some reason!)nicknamed the “egg box” because of its architectural style. Rather like Coventry Cathedral, it is a fusion of both the original bombed church and a modern building – an imposing symbol of on the one hand the then recent past and on the other hope and confidence in the future.

This contrast was more than at a superficial initial level. West Berlin was enjoying the benefits of the “Witrschaftswunder” (the “economic miracle”) which had its roots in the Marshall plan. Despite the superficially prosperous “Schaufenster” (“shop window”) of part of East Berlin, the cost of war reparations paid to the Soviet Union had been high, skilled labour was not plentiful and many of the suburbs drab and depressing.

Having enjoyed the sights and consumerism of West Berlin, I visited East Berlin on two occasions. As a British citizen I was entitled to do what was forbidden to the citizens of West Berlin – and for which citizens of West Germany required special permission. After passing through Check Point Charlie the initial impression was one of anticipation and triumphalism: East Berlin was about to celebrate ten years of the Wall. In West Berlin this was going to be a very subdued affair, consisting mainly of vigils at  places by the Wall marked by wreaths where some had perished in attempting to escape. In the West the Wall was known as “die Schandmauer” (wall of shame), in the East as the “anti-fascist “Schutzwall”” (“protection rampart”).  In the East a special rostrum in the shape of the Brandenburg Gate was erected where the march past in front of the East German hierarchy and their allies was due to take place. My first visit was on an official tour, where the major sites were proudly displayed – the imposing new flats “sugar lump” style along the Frankfurter Allee, built for party members and selected workers, the war memorials such as the one at Treptow and the cultural highlights such as the Pergammon museum and Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. My abiding memory of this carefully supervised visit was on the return through Checkpoint Charlie: a Vopo had rather lazily waved a West German Ford Taunus bearing a Stuttgart number plate to turn right in to a parking bay. Presumably the Taunus driver misunderstood the sign and drove slowly forwards. In next to no time, a whistle was blown, the car was surrounded by armed guards and the car was stripped, even including the removal of the seats and the separation of the tyres from their wheel rims. Our bus had to wait whilst this scenario unfolded. As we drove away, we watched the Taunus driver as he struggled, by himself, to put his car back in to roadworthy condition.

My second visit was unaccompanied. On arriving by S bahn at the Friedrichstraße I had to go through passport control. The image of a film version of George Orwell’s “1984” flashed through my mind. Taken in to an underground room, with no windows, the walls painted grey and with only a couple of wooden chairs, my passport was taken from me – and I was left completely alone in a locked room for what must have nearly two hours. A sense of panic grew within me – no-one in the West knew precisely where I was! The imagination starts to run riot in such a situation. Even though I spoke fluent German, no-one came in answer to my calls. My sense of relief was immense when I was finally re-united with my passport and allowed to go on my way.

By myself I was able to discover parts of East Berlin that my official tour had omitted. I was able to walk up comparatively close to the E Berlin side of the Brandenburg Gate – why had it been such an act of priority to turn the Quadriga on the top of it round through 180 degrees? I was struck by the emptiness – so few people, virtually no cars or vans, Those I did see varied – from the new, official Soviet style limousines to the very old, probably pre-war in many cases and barely roadworthy commercial vehicles. I met very few passers by as I wondered along Unter den Linden. Even the goose stepping ceremony of the changing of the guard at the “Mahnmal”  (war memorial) attracted few onlookers. Official banners proclaiming the 10th anniversary of the Wall from official buildings such as the E Berlin town hall and the SED Central Committee Offices formed another stark contrast with the weed covered Marx-Engels-Platz and the cathedral in ruins.

Along to the Alexanderplatz where at last there were signs of people: on the paving slabs was an exhibition of drawings in coloured chalks, ostensibly done by children but in reality extremely mature, celebrating the anniversary of the Wall and the fact that “peace must be armed”. The political content of the drawings was extremely heavy and as I arrived they were being were being admired by the greatest number of largest number of people I had come across so far. Defiance against the West was something that was instilled at an early age! Above all of this towered the Fernsehturm (TV tower), ostensibly a symbol of East German technological advance, but with the reflection on the central bowl shape of a cross, the symbol of Christianity which some in West Berlin took to be a sign of divine disapproval of the lack of freedom to worship. The fact that there were armed guards on duty outside the one Christian Church which had been allowed to remain open in the centre of East Berlin conveyed its own, very confusing message.

As a visitor it was far from easy to meet any one other than representatives of officialdom. The “Haus der Lehrer” (the teachers’ house) on the corner of the Alexanderplatz was an obvious port of call. It turned out to be a combination of a resource and advice centre for the centrally prescribed curriculum and a suite of offices for those responsible for education at both national and local government level. Conversations with those whom I met were always courteous and fascinating, but not for the first time I was confronted by the argument that education had to be utilitarian as the authorities planned for educating a workforce deprived over previous years of so many young men in the 18 – 48 age group, those on whom the economy so much depended. On occasions I felt that I was being patronised – how on earth could someone from a country such as England, despite a fluency in the language, ever expect to understand their situation, their aspirations, their systems?

Nearly forty years later I still have abiding images of what life must have been like for those living behind the Iron Curtain. Clothing and food seemed to be of poor quality, entertainment restricted to what the state thought appropriate, living conditions often cramped, lacking in privacy or even reliable sources of heating. People were rarely seen in large numbers, with the exception of the queue at the security gates of the Friedrichstraße on my return to the West. The vast majority were women past the age of retirement – they were the ones who were considered to be a burden on the state and therefore more likely to gain approval to leave. Once again, the system of three guards at a time was in operation. It was illegal for anyone to take out any East German currency (Ostmark). On arrival it had been compulsory to exchange West German marks for East German marks on a one for one basis (“Wucher” – “usury” to quote a good friend of mine in the West). By the time I reached the third guard my nerve failed me. I had wished to bring some back to show my students but I finally admitted that I had not spent everything. I was encouraged by the guard to go back and treat myself to “Beer and sausage” at a “Wurstbude” (sausage booth). Quite where he thought this might be, I do not know. The only one near the station had a queue of some forty plus people waiting. I found a bookshop nearby and bought a book on Soviet space exploration, which I have to this day.

On my return to Hannover I found myself sharing a compartment with a student who was on his way to The Hague to represent the DDR at a youth conference. We discussed my visits to E Berlin and other places in Germany I knew well. This was his first visit beyond the DDR. I have often wondered what a conversation with him on the return might have been like. On his outward journey at least his tutors had clearly succeeded in their aim – he was worryingly blinkered in his view and extremely hostile towards the West and all he believed it stood for. I have also often wondered how he and his generation have coped with all of the changes since 1989.

Thursday 9th November 1989

The build up to the breaching of the Berlin Wall has been headline news for a while. The morning of the 9th November is a red letter day: the end of what the Berlin Wall has stood for since 1961. My first lesson of the day is with a group of 6th formers, studying  “German for Business Studies”. They are 17, very similar in age and educational background to myself when the Wall was first erected. I can hardly restrain my excitement in conveying exactly what this means to me, my generation and also to their generation, how it had been a symbol for the divisions in Europe and had had its origins in the political settlements reached as my generation was born and what it might mean for the future. They listened politely, somewhat bemused……….

Bob Mardling

Bob Mardling

Bob Mardling is a Fellow of the Institute of Linguists and a self confessed Germanophile. A retired headmaster and former Senior Quality Assurance Officer for ISCTIP, he now lives in West Yorkshire with his wife Liz.

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