Reminiscence: Memories of Berlin
Chris Bunyan recalls his experiences in the divided and reunited city of Berlin.
The recent anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall made me think about my times in that city over a 20 year period – from after the wall had been built to after the downfall of the East German regime.
I visited Berlin twice in the late 1960s – once to the West and once to the East. My first visit came when I worked full-time for the Liberal Party and the Young Liberals in Jo Grimond’s “Red Guard” days, for those old enough to remember. Along with a couple of colleagues we were invited to West Berlin by the local Free Democrats.
We flew into the famous Tempelhof airport and spent a week of cultural and political meetings – and some fairly amazing social times in a city famous for its decadence. I particularly remember a huge nightclub, with a spectacular water fountain stage show and a helter-skelter type slide from the roof to the floor for customers. Each table had a number and you could send messages or speak to folk at any other table either via a vacuum message system, similar to those found in old shops, or by the phones on each table. I’ll draw a veil over the nature of most of the conversations, except to say that they tended to be of an adult nature.
I also went over to East Berlin, passing through Checkpoint Charlie for the first time. It was a huge complex of buildings, with a zigzag corridor design intended to hamper any escape attempts to the West. I still remember the oppressive nature of the place, the warnings about trying to take anything political, the fact every step you took was watched – and the compulsory purchase you had to make of worthless GDR Marks.
Eventually emerging into East Berlin was a bit like time travel. From a vibrant, exciting and bustling city in the West you found empty streets and pavements in the East. The most memorable thing – apart from soldiers with machine guns warning you about jay-walking – was how dilapidated the buildings were, the lack of people and traffic, and how most of them still showed the scars of the war, with bullets holes all over the walls. The Brandenburg Gate at that time was seriously out of bounds and not a place you hung around without drawing attention to yourself. It did seem very odd looking back across the wall to the watchtowers and sentry posts in the West.
It was a few years before I returned to Berlin – this time to the East. In 1968 I was on a committee helping to organised a major Vietnam War demonstration in London (which became known later as the Grosvenor Square Riot, but that is another story) and was one of a small group invited over to East Berlin to meet the North Vietnamese – East Germany being the only European country that recognised them. The trip was organised by the FDJ, the youth wing of the Communist Party, and travelling in by train was a very different experience from flying straight into the city. There were checks by guards and security police, and I remembering the distinct feeling that they were suspicious of why two young western men were on the train.
On this trip I had a very different view of the East, with local people showing me around. As well as the organised cultural and political meetings I found that young people enjoyed themselves there in much the same way as everywhere else – I particularly remember a great evening in a basement jazz club.
We had a two-hour visit to the North Vietnamese embassy, where officials asked about the protest movement in Europe and we asked about aspects of life in their country. The war was being fought thousands of miles away and at home we only had images on television, or in the papers, so it was very strange and a real privilege to meet the people fighting the Americans and their southern puppets
I walked away with two gifts – a bottle of delicious orange liqueur brandy and an aluminium ring that I was told was made out of a wrecked US aircraft. I’ve no idea whether this was true – I thought they might have had better use for aluminium than making rings – but I treasured it for years, and particularly enjoyed wearing it during a trip to the States, but alas it broke years later and I never found the “safe place” I put the two halves in.
My other lasting memory is the visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which is a distance outside of Berlin. The place had a frightening atmosphere and thinking of the horrors that happened in the buildings I looked at raised the hairs on the back of my neck. A memory that still sends shivers down by spine today is not of the gas chamber, or the trenches where thousands were shot, but the white-tiled room where the medical experiments were carried out. If ever a room could be said to have an evil atmosphere, this was one.
The guided tour, incidentally, failed to mention the fact the Russians not only liberated the camp but then promptly started using it themselves for anti-communists and “dissidents”, as well as Nazi prisoners. Their brutality didn’t reach the Nazi’s levels but they did try.
Berlin didn’t come into my life again for nearly 20 years, until the late 1980s when I was working on anti-nuclear energy issues in Shetland and also did work for Greenpeace International in Amsterdam. A lot of my time involved Dounreay – trying to stop its work and closing the place down. At the time Dounreay was desperately looking for reprocessing work and a small research reactor in Berlin, known as HMI, was a potential customer.
I visited Berlin a couple of times on this work when the Alternative List – the equivalent to the Green Party – was part of the Berlin regional government. At the time Michaele Schreyer was the city’s environment minister – she later went on to become the European Commissioner for the Budget and Financial Control.
We managed to do a lot of good work in Berlin and succeeded in stopping or delaying contracts with Dounreay. During one visit I acquired a copy of the contracts between Dounreay and the reactor owners, plus the accompanying letters of agreement between the UK and German governments. This is the one and only time an actual nuclear reprocessing contract has been published in the UK.
I was in Berlin about a week after the wall came down in November 1989 and one evening I was speaking at a meeting in Potsdam. We crossed over the famous bridge, where exchanges of spies used to be made. Leaving West Berlin and driving past the guard post into East Germany we held our passport photograph page against the window and went past at 40mph. We didn’t bother slowing down and the guards couldn’t care less.
The following day I decided to take a look at the East. I took the U-Bahn to the main station on the east side at Friedrichstrase and found myself in a great mass of excited people all shouting and shoving. Again as we came out of the station past a couple of police people held up open passports or just waved bits of paper at them. Among the great mass of people there were folk trying to sell you US dollars and Levi jeans. That seemed to be the hottest business. I also noticed the great variety of people in the crowds. There seemed to be people from every Eastern European country or former Soviet republic.
As I came out of the station and walked towards the Brandenburg Gate the pavements were lined with people trying to sell things. It was really pitiful. Most of the folk seemed to be poor peasants and they sat on the pavement, possibly with a cloth on the ground, or had small old tables, to display their goods . They were selling anything they could – literally. One person might have two small cans of food, another had two cups and saucers, I remember. There might be a pair of shoes, a belt and a shirt, an old clock. While there was a definite air of excitement about the place, the pictures of poverty and desperation were upsetting.
The Brandenburg Gate had already become quite a tourist attraction – you hadn’t been able to get near it for nearly 30 years. For some reason most of the stalls there were selling East German or Soviet military uniforms. Outrageously grand and multi-coloured hats and jackets of navy commanders or army generals. To this day I regret not buying something – at least one of the hats.
From there I walked around a bit and eventually made my way to Checkpoint Charlie as I wanted to see what changes had happened there. The physical building was the same. The zigzag corridors and the offices and observation posts. But the place was almost empty. I caught a glimpse once or twice of security police in an office, but there were no checks, no-one seemed interested. You could just wander though without any problem. That was strange given my experience 20 years earlier.
But as I made my way through the complex I became aware of a noise I couldn’t work out, that got louder and louder until I emerged into the West. There the noise was almost deafening – there were hundreds of people chipping away at the Berlin Wall with hammers and chisels or anything they could lay their hands on. Some no doubt wanted a piece of history – others saw a way of making money. People were already selling off pieces of the wall. I got speaking to someone who sold me a couple of small chunks they knocked out of the wall for me. What was very noticeable was how heavy it was, how dense the concrete. One thing the East Germans obviously knew how to make was concrete.
On a visit the following year much of the wall had already gone. Selling off bits to tourists was big businesses, but having got the genuine article I could tell these were all fakes. The concrete was light and almost crumbly, but just because someone had spray-painted it, or had an official looking stamp “guaranteeing” it was genuine lots of people were handing over their money. The only thing I did buy on that trip was a “Fall of the Wall” t-shirt. I’d been there, now I’d got the t-shirt.