We watch the fighting – close-quarters, house to house – from the safety of the top of the street. Someone makes a crouching dash across the road protected by covering fire from a comrade in a doorway. But this isn’t Stalingrad. The soldiers are small boys, the machine-guns are plastic, and the buildings of Karlshorst are undamaged by bullet or shellfire. It’s a misty, November, Sunday afternoon: play time.
On Thursday evening we arrive in Berlin. Unaware that we’ve landed in the middle of a seismic global event, we check in at the Pension Nürnberger Eck and go to bed. Things become clearer the next morning – Friday, later declared the Day Of German Unity – though even then we are slow on the uptake. We are children of the Cold War who simply don’t believe what’s happening. But then we see people standing on the Wall by the Brandenburg Gate; see lines of East Berliners queuing for welcome money at the banks; watch Trabants and Wartburgs crawl slowly through the checkpoints to heroes’ greetings. The Kurfürstendamm that night is one very long street party. Dance music thumps out in some places. A pair of old Berliners – gap-toothed and Schnapps-soaked – dance and sing to a hurdy-gurdy.
Saturday – 11 November, Armistice Day, St Martin’s Day – is calmer. We try to cross into East Berlin at Friedrichstraße. There’s a semblance of order at the S-Bahn station – and we are suitably intimidated by Volkspolizei patrolling the gantry with machine-guns – but at ground level it’s chaos. A crush of people forces itself from East to West, with a similar crush going the other way. Without orders to respond to the situation, the guards are simply brushed aside. At which point, our Cold War instincts kick in. It’s one thing to arrive in the East unchecked, and without Ostmarks (though Deutschmarks would take us a long way). But to try to return to the West later that day might be another matter. Would they let us out? We turn back.
Potsdamer Platz, 12.11.89. In West Berlin for the first time in 28 years [photo by Lisa Osborne]
So back to Sunday. In the morning we go to Potsdamer Platz, where another part of the Wall is breached. The Mayors of the two Berlins meet symbolically in the gap, and thereafter more people from the East, many carrying flowers, walk into the West to have Sunday lunch with family or friends for the first time in 28 years.
We decide to have another go at visiting East Berlin. We try Checkpoint Charlie this time and here, it seems, normal service has been resumed. We queue for a while. In the line, by way of conversation, a man from Sri Lanka berates us for Britain’s colonial past. A officer of the Grenzpolizei looks at our passports, looks at us over his glasses. Then he pauses – which makes me want to confess to crimes I haven’t committed. We are directed first to a kiosk – to change a prescribed amount of money into Ostmarks – and then into a deserted street. It seems like a time-portal taking us back to 1945, but we are now in the East.
Unter den Linden is also a time-portal, but with the controls set for the heart of 1953 or thereabouts. Whether it’s because of acid rain or absorbing the metallic fumes of too many two-stroke engines, the lindens themselves are in bad shape. This was the grand imperial thoroughfare of Bismarck’s time and before, but it’s very quiet. Alexanderplatz is even quieter. Perhaps every Sunday in the capital of the GDR is like this. Or maybe it’s because so many of its citizens are visiting the West.
Karlshorst is home to the Soviet ‘Berlin Brigade’ – you might loosely describe it as the “Russian quarter”. We’re not sure what we expect to find but think it might be an interesting place to wander. Which brings us back to the boys with their toy machine guns.
But as the light fades we hear singing. A procession of children with lanterns, a few adults at the front, the rest bringing up the rear. We follow from across the road until the line of light stops outside a church and everyone files in. Silhouetted under the arch, a man is about to close the door but, seeing us watching, he stops. A hand reaches out to us from the light, beckoning. We hesitate. He beckons again. We make our way into the church.
St. Marienkirche, Karlshorst, 12.11.89. [photo by Lisa Osborne]
No longer in silhouette, a portly man in a sober suit welcomes us. He explains that the procession is for the Feast of St. Martin. They have already walked and sung their way to the Lutheran church for a short gathering and have now – with a few Lutherans in tow – returned here, to the Roman Catholic church.
St Martin of Tours: friend to the child, friend to the poor man. The most common story about him involves his encounter with a beggar by the roadside. He takes his fine cloak, slices it in two with his sword and hands one half to the beggar. At the front, the priest takes the tale as his starting point. My future wife, who has good German, whispers translations in my ear.
“Many of you will have visited West Berlin in the last few days,” the priest says. “You will have been excited by the lights, all the goods in the shops, received your welcome-money. Some might see our friends in West Berlin in the role of St. Martin, with ourselves in the role of the beggar. But do we see ourselves this way?”
It’s little more than a murmur, but the answer is unanimous – an indignant, defiant “No.”
“Of course not,” the priest continues. “There are many, so many, people less fortunate than ourselves. Can anyone think of somewhere where people are less fortunate than us?”
A pause. A small boy shouts out “Romanien!” A couple of people snort. Most of the adults smile indulgently.
On leaving, the portly man hands out pastries. We hold back, feeling we are not part of this, but he insists we take one. The atmosphere is gentle, friendly, communal.
It’s properly dark and much colder when we step back outside, and the mist which has never entirely lifted today is getting thicker. As we head back towards the S-Bahn we pass a Soviet officer – I don’t know of what rank, probably a lieutenant or a captain – standing on his own at the bus stop. He looks lost in his own thoughts. I wonder, this weekend of all weekends, what he’s thinking.
Back in the centre of the divided city it’s even quieter then when we first arrived. We pass the ruin of the Synagogue on Oranienburger Straße and in the darkness it gives us the shivers. Back on Unter den Linden there’s a glow in the distance, as if part of the city is on fire. But it’s only the lights of West Berlin. By evening we are more than ready to return to its less alien, walled enclosure.
* * *
I’ve mentioned this before in posts (c.f. Building The Wall, Angels And Acrophobia, Pt. 1.) but we went back to Berlin in May 1990. The Wall was still neatly white-washed on the Eastern side, but whole swathes on the West were simply no longer there. The mines had been removed from the death-strip, presumably, since rabbits were breeding happily without blowing up.
The Synagogue in Oranienburger Straße, May 1990. [photo by Lisa Osborne]
Restoration work had begun on the Synagogue in Oranienburger Straße. Officially, the GDR was still intact at this, without formal plans to dissolve, but it was clear that it was only a matter of time.
And even in those strange, strange days of November 1989, you didn’t need to be Nostradamus or Eric Hobsbawm to work out that the unification of Germany was most likely inevitable. But even now I still find the speed of the change that coursed through Europe breath-taking. Czechoslovakia followed a similar course within weeks. The little boy in church was all too prescient – a bloody civil war in Romania and Ceaușescu’s bullet-ridden corpse on TV on Christmas Day. By October 1990 Germany was a single state. Just over a year later, the Soviet Union would itself unravel.
And I still wonder what the officer at the bus stop was thinking …