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Created
 09 Jun 2003 
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Modified
 05 Oct 2012 
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Berlin
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Impressions
Afterthought
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Berlin

The city of Berlin is actually a grouping of several northern German communities that grew together over time.  The name "Berlin" is a corruption of the German word Bärlein, meaning "little bear," and the city's symbol is (appropriately enough) a small black bear standing erect and wearing a crown.

The Berlin I Remember

As I begin, I beg the reader's pardon for any temporal disorientation.  The Berlin described here is not the Berlin of today, but of the late 1960s.  It is my hope that my guests will join me there for a moment, both in that place and in that time.  Recovery from World War II is still in progress, the city is divided by the infamous Wall.  The Vietnam conflict and related protests are the daily headline topics, the Cold War drags on, and the bilateral superpower military strategy of deterrence is MAD—Mutually Assured Destruction.

In the 21st century, as in the past, Berlin is the proud capital city of the nation of Germany.  During the three years I live and work here, however, Germany is a defeated and partitioned country.  Following World War II, Germany had been divided into four zones, each occupied by one of the four conquering powers: France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union.  West Germany—organized as the Federal Republic of Germany (Deutsche Bundesrepublik)—with its capital in Bonn, comprises the French, British, and American zones.  East Germany—the so-called German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Democratische Republik) with its official capital in Frankfurt an der Oder.[1]—makes up the Soviet zone.

Situated well within East Germany, 177 kilometers (110 miles) from the border with the West, is the city of Berlin, former capital of Germany.  Like Germany itself, Berlin is also partitioned into four occupied sectors, and although occupation of West Germany was lifted in the early 1950s, Berlin continues to be occupied by the four powers during the remainder of the Cold War.  The eastern sector is occupied by the U.S.S.R.; the western three sectors, from north to south, are occupied respectively by France, the U.K., and the U.S.  Despite that an agreement among the occupying powers states that Berlin is not to be considered the capital city during the occupation, East Berlin is to all effects the working headquarters of the East German regime.

For fifteen years, the borders between Berlin's various sectors had been marked but not blocked; one could travel more-or-less freely throughout the city—merely taking prudent note of which occupying power controlled the area where one happened to be at the moment.  But in August 1961 the barriers, between Berlin's three western sectors on one side, and the Soviet sector and East Germany on the other, suddenly became physical as well as political, as the East German regime desperately sought to staunch the ongoing hemorrhage of its labor force and brainpower to the West.  Walls, fences, and waterway patrols encircled West Berlin, dividing it from East Berlin and cutting it off from the East German countryside.  Neighborhoods were sliced in two; streetcar lines were truncated; bustling boulevards suddenly became dead-end streets.  People became abruptly and permanently separated from their friends, families, jobs, and homes.

I first came to West Berlin in December 1965.  Even two decades after the end of World War II it is a horrendous mix of demolition and rebuilding, so great had been the devastation of the conflict.  It is a city in a cage, a lone bubble of democracy floating defiantly in the Soviet brew of Eastern Europe.  Yet West Berlin is a thriving city, a glittering showcase of the West in the grim heart of the East, its beautiful parks and modern high-rise buildings sprouting from the rubble amid pre-war architecture that has escaped serious damage.  It is a major cultural center of central Europe, featuring museums, theaters, concert halls, and universities, not to mention the artists, performers, faculty, and patrons who make it all work.  It is a city of palaces and prisons, monuments and office towers, busy boulevards and quaint streets, serene gardens and majestic forests, shopping districts and even a few small outlying farms—all against the inescapable background of war's ghastly aftermath.  Indeed, the city's most noteworthy hill is Teufelsberg (Devil's Mountain), entirely man-made out of the excavated rubble of war-damaged buildings; yet even this grim mound plays merry host to a ski resort!  West Berlin is both urban and rural, a world within itself, literally confined within an area of about 900 square kilometers (340 square miles).  This is the Berlin I knew.

Capitalist West Berlin's isolation within the heart of the communist GDR has made it unique.  As a result of a Soviet blockade of all road, rail, and barge traffic to and from the city in the late 1940s, for a time West Berlin became the only major city ever to have all of its necessities—food, medicine, fuel, and materials—supplied by air, in the form of the Berlin Airlift.  During the Cold War, Berlin is a hotbed of international espionage, prisoner exchanges, and refugee traffic.  And from 1961 until the demise of the GDR, West and East Berlin are physically divided by fences, walls, and barrier strips.  According to official Communist Party propaganda, the Wall has been erected to prevent invasion of the GDR by the occupying military forces in West Berlin.  No one actually believes this fantastic rationale, however.  It is obvious that the barrier's true purpose is to halt the flow of East German talent and manpower to the West.

 
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Geography and Landmarks

Metropolitan Berlin is a collage of local communities, grouped into about 16 major districts.  These are shown in the guide below in their approximate geographical relationship (north at top), along with points of interest.  Note that these last are represented mostly by those which I could visit personally or view from an observation platform; having a military security clearance prevented my entering the Soviet sector.  Items featured in the photo tour are displayed in green type.

AMERICAN    BRITISH       FRENCH       SOVIET   
Sector Landmark Guide
Spandau
  • Spandau Prison
Reinickendorf
  • Jungfernheide
  • Tegel Airport (F)
Wedding
  • Plötzensee Memorial
  • Rehberge
  • Bernauer Str.
Pankow
  • Esplanade
Charlottenburg
  • Charlottenburg Palace & Garden
  • Deutsche Oper (German Opera)
  • Gatow Airport (UK)
  • Mass Exhibition Grounds:
    Deutschland Halle
    Funkturm
  • Ernst Reuter Pl.
  • Olympic Stadium
  • Theodor Heuss Pl.
Tiergarten
  • Bellevue Palace
  • Europa Center
  • Hansa Quarter
  • Hauptbahnhof (Main Rail Station)
  • Kaiser-Wilhelm Mem. Church
  • Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe)
  • Kongreßhalle
  • Kurfürstendamm
  • Philharmonie
  • Reichstag Building
  • Russian War Mem.
  • Siegessäule (Victory Column)
  • Zoological Garden
Mitte
  • Alexander Pl.
  • Berlin Dome
  • Berlin Palace
  • Brandenburg Gate
  • Main Library
  • Museum Island
  • Oranienburger Str.
  • Sporthalle
  • Staatsoper (State Opera)
Prenzlauer Berg
  • Bernauer Str.
  • Sportforum
Wilmersdorf
  • Teufelsberg
  • Grunewald
  • Havel Strand
Schöneberg
  • John F. Kennedy Pl.
  • Rathaus Schöneberg
Kreuzberg
  • Checkpoint Charlie
  • Hasenheide
Friedrichs-Hain
  • Treptower Park
Zehlendorf
  • Freedom Bridge
  • Peacock Island
  • Wannsee
Steglitz
  • Botanical Garden
  • Dahlem Museum
  • Free University
  • Kaufhaus Karstadt
Tempelhof
  • Tempelhof Central Airport (US):
    Air-Bridge Mem.
Neukölln
  • Osthafen
OCCUPATION SECTOR COLOR CODES
AMERICAN    BRITISH       FRENCH       SOVIET   
As Berlin was divided up after W.W.II, the U.S.S.R. got the Stadtmitte (city center) and the northeast quadrant; the U.S. ended up with the largest territory in the south, including Tempelhof Central Airport; the U.K. acquired the sector with the most points of tourist interest; and France received a compensatory parcel in the north, including Tegel, the only airport in West Berlin with approach clearances adequate for commercial jetliners.  An interesting oddity is that the Russian War Memorial ended up in the British sector, so Russian guards must be bussed in for each shift.

Despite the unusual political divisions and the physical barrier of the Wall, getting around West Berlin is quite easy.  Taxis are ubiquitous; the many local and express bus routes are operated on a precise timetable; the subway (U-Bahn) has stops in nearly all areas of West Berlin east of the Havel River.  The elevated Stadtbahn (S-Bahn) is operated by the East Berlin regime, but also serves West Berlin.  In addition, cruise boats operate on many of the city's rivers and canals.  All of these are displayed on detailed city maps, making it easy to find one's way from here to there using either private or public transportation.

Ways of getting into and out of the occupied city are much more restricted.  Surface traffic between West Berlin and West Germany is handled by two Autobahn (motor highway) routes—west to Helmstedt and south to Hof—and by the Deutsche Reichsbahn (the railway of the GDR), as well as by the military "duty trains" of the occupying forces.  Tegel and Tempelhof airports feature commercial flights to the rest of Europe and the world.

 
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Photo Tour

During my stay in Berlin, I used some of my leisure to capture the city's landmarks—particularly in the British and American Sectors—on 35-mm. film.  Now that I have finally gotten around to scanning those old slides, I find them in less than pristine condition.  Some of the colors have changed or faded, and in some cases contaminants have proved hard to remove without risking damage to the film.  Even so, this selection of shots, grouped by the sector boundaries of the period, may still be found enjoyable.

For 2009, the original 35-mm. slides have been cleaned, re-scanned with finer resolution, and tweaked with a digital editor for better alignment and color balance.

Use the color-coded Sector Landmark Guide above as a general indicator of landmark locations, and select any of the following sectors to tour:

The photo page sequence is such that a general tour of the entire city flows best if the sectors in the above plan are selected in a clockwise direction.  This way, the landmarks progress naturally from one sector to the next as the pages are scrolled from top to bottom.  While you are free to start and finish your tour at any point, I recommend viewing British, French, Soviet, and American sectors, in that order. This way, the tour begins and ends on an upbeat note, with Berlin's grimmest aspects sandwiched between.

Of special interest to the tourist is Berlin's east-west axis boulevard, which bisects the city and features prominent landmarks along its course.  This highway changes names as it traverses several districts.  In west-to-east sequence, it hails as Heer Strasse, Kaiser Damm, Bismarck Strasse, Strasse des 17. Juni, Unter den Linden, Rathaus Strasse, Karl Marx Allee, and Frankfurter Allee.

If using a dial-up connection, please allow time for the images to load; the British Sector in particular features numerous photos.

 
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Personal Impressions

My military assignment to Berlin was my first trip away from American soil.  I was 21 then, and there is nothing quite like a trip to another continent and another culture to illuminate and challenge homeland perspectives that are taken for granted.  Following are some of my impressions upon arriving, as well as after having grown into the fabric of the city:

Horror of inhumanity:  No matter how many times one has seen the Berlin wall in print or on screen, the psyche rejects it as unbelievable.  Like the Nazi extermination camps and the A-bomb detonations over Japan, it overloads the sensitivities and seems akin to sensationalist effects in fantasy movies.  Seeing it in person affects one viscerally, bringing home that this is real, an inescapable fact in a world we only fancy is civilized.
Scale:  While there is much about Berlin that is grand and imposing, on the human scale things seem somehow miniature compared to America—perhaps compact, precise, and efficient are the terms I seek.  Even the police drive Volkswagen beetles.
Pace of life:  Time is noticeably compartmentalized; domestic life is lived day-to-day, rather than from week-to-week as in the U.S.  People do not hoard food, but buy it fresh every day; it doesn't have time to spoil or go stale.
Regimentation:  Berliners refuse to turn on the heat in hotels or apartments until October—even if it turns chilly in September.  Perhaps this attitude is rooted in the fact that many buildings are still heated by coal; a little discomfort just isn't worth stoking up that apparatus for only one or two days.
Tradition:  In contrast to the asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks typical in American cities, many of Berlin's are cobblestone.  The perpetuation of this type of paving is due to the labor guilds, which guarantee work for craftspeople trained in various trades.
Construction:  Few buildings in northern Germany are made of wood.  Except for steel high-rises, masonry is the preferred construction medium.  Even roofs are made of red clay tiles.  Because walls are solid, most wiring and plumbing are mounted on the surfaces of interior walls and ceilings, or under false floors.
Time reference:  Many of the buildings that survived the World Wars date from the19th century and before.  Large urban structures of such vintage are designed to accommodate horse traffic, with tunnel-like portals through the outer walls providing access to central courtyards.
Permanence:  In Berlin an "old" house is at least a century or two old, whereas in the U.S. buildings are routinely demolished long before reaching the hundred-year mark.  Berliners see value, quality, and durability in what exists, and wish to protect it and build upon it; meanwhile, each generation of Americans seems bent upon wastefully eradicating the work of its forebears to make room for the latest slap-together schemes to make a quick buck.
Law and Order:  Despite its cloak-and-dagger reputation as a nexus of intrigue and espionage, Berlin is a city whose streets and parks are safe for the ordinary person to wander any time of the day or night.  (At least it was before racist backlash against immigrant laborers in the 1970s.)
Home entertainment:  At a time when color television is the rage in the U.S., Berliners' interest is in audio and radio.  In addition to ordinary AM and FM, home receivers typically have several long- and short-wave tuning bands, providing access to news and culture from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  Movies?  That's what the Kino (movie theater) is for!
Culture:  Fine art, theater, music, literature and botanical and zoological gardens are an integral part of the average Berliner's life.  Though not all are greatly knowledgeable about creative culture, most nevertheless value and enjoy it.  Berliners, like their counterparts in Vienna, Paris, Florence, and elsewhere, appreciate the arts as a crucial component of their city's identity and vitality,[2] and thus consider taxpayer support for them a most worthwhile investment.
People:  The people of Berlin range from urbane to provincial.  Some are highly educated, cultured, and worldly professionals, while others have lived and worked their entire lives within a neighborhood only a few city blocks square.
Relations:  Berliners have mixed feelings about Americans.  They welcome the Western allies as liberators from the Nazi regime, as defenders against Soviet aggression, and as benefactors and partners in the massive rebuilding effort.  Yet there is a natural resentment that their city is no longer really theirs, but that of the occupiers.  A further irritant in this era is the Vietnam conflict, which few outside the U.S. now view as anything more than an imperialist effort to establish an occupying foothold on the Asian continent.  But for whatever their differences in language, tradition, and politics, Berliners and Americans are not too much different on the human level.  We work day to day, deal with life's problems, root for the home team, and party on the weekend.

Precisely how much of the Berlin I once knew remains today I cannot say.  Though I revisited Europe in 1989, my path did not lead to Berlin.  But to judge from long-established pattern, Berlin's acquisition of the new has not meant the discarding of the old.  If I were to return today, it would be like greeting an old friend after an absence of half a lifetime.  Certainly there have been some noticeable and not entirely unwelcome changes—after all, the city is no longer dominated by foreign forces, and that miserable scar of a wall has finally been removed.  But I am sure that the underlying spirit of Berlin endures, simultaneously brooding and rejoicing, regardless of temporal turmoil—or perhaps, oddly enough, because of it.  Berlin bleibt immer Berlin!

 
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Afterthoughts

Since I left Berlin in February 1969, many things have occurred.  The floating of the U.S. dollar caused its value to drop relative to the Deutsche Mark, making daily life in Berlin much more expensive for Americans.  An influx of laborers from the Middle East triggered conservative reaction disturbingly reminiscent of the hysteria of the Nazi era.  The sweeping, saddle-shaped roof of the Kongresshalle has collapsed, and the burned-out Reichstag building has been restored.  Following the demise of the German Democratic Republic, the various sectors of Berlin have been rejoined (albeit not without some stressful adjustment), and the city now stands once again as capital of a united Germany.  Plans are afoot to convert the military installation (where I once worked) at the summit of Teufelsberg into a tourist attraction.  And I am given to understand that the celebrated Kurfürstendamm has been superseded by Oranienburger Strasse as the primary tourist magnet.

In addition to the reunification of Berlin and Germany, the integration of Germany itself into a broader European Union has brought about other changes, including the relaxed border policies and the replacement of national currencies (including the Deutsche Mark) by the Euro.

Still, for Berlin to be Berlin, there must remain the Tiergarten and the Olympic Stadium, the Philharmonie and the German Opera, the Dahlem Museum and Charlottenburg Palace, fresh Berliner Pfannkuchen and weekend cruises to Peacock Island, and fruitily foamy Berliner Weisse sipped in a sidewalk cafe on a warm afternoon.  Someday I hope to return, to marvel at what has changed, and to savor what has not.

=SAJ=

 
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Notes:

[1] Frankfurt an der Oder, a small East German city, should not be confused with Frankfurt am Main, the large West German metropolis, especially familiar to Americans stationed at Rhein-Main Air Base.

[2] Though the fine arts often fail to raise enough money to cover their own expenses, established art institutions tend to attract talented and educated individuals (hence innovators, leaders, and cash) to a locale, and thereby pay for themselves indirectly—a subtlety seemingly lost on most bottom-line-focused Americans.


Films Featuring Occupied Berlin:

  • The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
  • The Quiller Memorandum
  • Funeral in Berlin

 
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