Saturday, May 27, 2006

Berlin Memories

[Because I promised recently to flesh out those cryptic references to having inhabited a vanished city]

The Berlin I lived in in 1978 and '79 is gone now, I am sure. It's been almost 30 years since I was last there, but the place I rode out of is sure to be as deep-buried in history as ante-bellum Atlanta.

West Berlin was an artificial child of the Cold War. You take a big, sprawling capital, smash it flat in a war, then split it in two, and isolate one of the halves -- cut it off from its outer suburbs and garden farms. Then you build a huge concrete wall around that half.

But it wasn't a circular wall; it zig-zagged along ward lines and alleys, and you would run into it where you didn't expect it to be. Some places it looked like what you'd expect: a 30-foot-tall concrete thing, with barbed wire and a killing zone of tank traps. But in others, especially up in the French Sector, it ran through what had been blue-collar apartment blocks, and in some cases they simply bricked up the backs of those buildings, and that was the wall, too.

The old center of Berlin, with the main street of Unter den Linden, was in the East zone, and so West Berlin evolved its own glittering center, along the Kurfurstendam (universally known as the Ku-dam). It had all the shopping meccas that were built to showcase Western prosperity -- Ka-de-We, Europa Center -- and the Gedachtneskirche, about which more later.

Yet the shadow of a whole city remained over the fragments; in the transportation system, for instance. The entire U-bahn (Untergrundbahn = subway) system, east and west, was run by the West; and the S-bahn (stadtsbahn = elevated railway) for the whole city was run by the East. The S-bahn was a line of clattering old orange flying coffins of pre-war vintage. The U-bahn was gleaming, yellow, ultramodern.

My main U-bahn stop was Wittenbergplatz; on the north end of the downtown Ku-dam district. To get there from where I lived, the U-bahn traveled a long curve route that took it back and forth under the wall. There was only one subway stop where you could disembark in the East from any of the lines that originated in the West. That was Friedrichstrasse, and it was a rat-maze of customs and currency exchanges and all of that.

There were other stations along the lines that passed under the wall, and they were empty, abandoned, underground ghosts. The trains slowed, but never stopped, at Potsdamer Platz. Before the war it was one of the busiest intersections in Europe, but when I was there it was dead brownfields above ground and a hollow shell beneath. And it crept through Anhalter Hauptbahnhof, where in the last days of the war Hitler's troops, desperate to stop the Red Army, blew up the locks on the Landwehrkanal and in the process drowned the civilians and wounded soldiers who were sheltering in the bowels of the station.

I lived with friends in Zehlendorf, an old suburb in the southwest, near Potsdam, that had been spared the war's destruction. It was a glimpse of how the leafier parts of the city might once have looked, with high-ceilinged old rowhouses on streets named for Prussian generals. Other friends I had there lived in Kreuzburg, in big warrens of old apartments, and, I now realize, they were all squatters. The civic code of West Berlin at that time made it beneficial for people who owned old property to let it deteriorate, then tear it down and build something new and high-rent. But because the city had a chronic housing shortage, the average folk fought back by taking over the big empty buildings and living in them.

It was a volatile place; all old people and teen-agers. The elderly were too poor to pick up and go west, and they had seen everything (Soviet war memorial in East Berlin known to the older women of the city as "Tomb of the Unknown Rapist"); and many of the young had come in from the West, hippie dropouts disaffected with consumer culture and drawn to West Berlin as a sort of enclave, with an easy university and a haven from the draft.

The Allies had done a lot for the city, overall, and they were not as aggressive or intrusive a presence as they were in other German cities near U.S. bases. But they were widely despised anyhow.

It seemed to be a German habit to establish one's distance from the Nazis, and it's not hard to understand why. The idea that Nazi=German is a silly one, of course, but few places in Germany were less Nazi-friendly than Berlin. William Shirer (I had the honor to interview him before he died) chronicled the contempt with which the city and the party regarded one another. One Nazi publication summed up Berlin "A melting pot of everything that is evil -- prostitutes, drinking-houses, cinema, Marxism, Jews, Strippers, negroes dancing, and all the vile offshoots of so-called 'modern art.' "

There was very little of pre-war Berlin to see when I was there: The Weimar Republic Berlin of cabarets and coffee-houses and Bauhaus. I did have one utterly unforgettable "old Berlin" experience, though, in a kino somewhere near Steglitz that showed "Rocky Horror" at midnight. The place was packed with Germans, all reciting the lines and throwing toilet paper. The campy homosexuality of the film was somehow just right for Berlin. Berliners also have a sense of humor about themselves ["If the Alps were in Berlin, they'd be bigger"] that is not really evident in most other parts of Germany.

Out in one of the big parks in the district of Schöneberg is a high hill, almost the only eminence in flat, sandy Berlin. High enough to ski down, high enough to put a star observatory at the top. It's the Trümmerberg -- "rubble mountain." That's the old Berlin under there; swept off the streets by gangs of women (there were no men) and piled up in an out-of-the-way spot. It took 12 years. And there are two others in the city.

In the East, more than 30 years after the war's end, there were still many buildings in ruins, especially a big cathedral I'd see from the railway as it ran along the wall. The Reichstag was still in ruins, too, and in the "no-man's land" near the wall.

One of the features of the landscape along the west side of the Wall was the white wooden crosses, lettered in black with the names of people who had died there trying to make it across, or under, or through the wall. Many were simply inscribed unbekant -- "unknown." There were a lot of them around the Reichstag, because the River Spree was the boundary between East and West there, and the wall was on the east side of the river, but the actual boundary was the high tide mark on the west side. So people would get over the wall, swim the river, then get shot on the other side.

The Gedachtneskirche was one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen anywhere. A big fortress of a church from the 1890s (Berliners sarcastically say it's the only building in history to be improved by being bombed), the broken, blackened fang of its spire was the only thing standing more than a few meters above ground in central Berlin in 1945. So they left it standing, and built West Berlin around it, as a permanent reminder of the awful price of making war.

Technically West Berlin was a front-line in the superpower war. But it felt like a forgotten city. After the airlift (1948) and the Wall crisis and the Kennedy visit (1961) the world pretty much forgot about Berlin. Most of the World War III scenarios had the Soviets bypassing it, as not worth the trouble to conquer. In fact, it was only useful to the West insofar as it could present a bright showroom window of commercial success in the heart of the drab east. Considering how the Cold War turned out, however, that was the essential thing.

So the prevailing feel of the city was benign neglect, slow decay, and a laid-back pace of life amid the stumps and scars left in the infernal last days of a horrible war. Who knew, all along, we were winning the battle right there? Especially after the Helsinki Accords in 1976, which made it easier for Berliners to cross over to the other side for a day and showed the Easterners the full measure of what they were missing.

I have heard stories from the post-1989 city, including some from the guy who recently redesigned our newspaper. He talked of a city full of construction cranes, as thick as oil rig derricks in Texas. They'd working all day, and at sunset, by some odd ritual, all turned their dinosaur necks to face the east.