1989 – The Berlin of 1989-1990

Acquainted with the city in its many guises, Jan Morris evokes the Berlin of the aftermath of the Fall of the Wall.
The top end of the Kurfürstendamm, the showiest boulevard of West Berlin, offers the liveliest and least inhibited street scenes in Europe. Beneath the glare of the neon signs, past the crowded pavement cafés, flooding through the tumultuous traffic, an endlessly vivacious young populace laughs, struts, sits around, eats, plays music, kisses, and shows off from the break of afternoon until the end of dawn. It is like a perpetual fair, or perhaps a bazaar, the genteel with the rapscallion, the indigent with the well-heeled: gypsy beggars with babies, bourgeois ladies with dogs on leads, lovers embracing at restaurant tables, unshaven money-changers in dark doorways, an elegant wind trio playing Scarlatti outside a brightly lit shoe shop, a not very skilful acrobat treading a rope between two trees, tireless drummers, tedious mimes, unpredictable skateboarders, portrait sketchers, hang-dog youths with ghetto blasters squatting among their own rubbish, smells of coffee and fresh rolls, doubledecker buses sliding by, fountains splashing, sidewalk showcase of leather and jewels – and presiding over it all, incongruously preserved there as a reminder of old horrors, the ugly tombed hulk of the Kaiser Wilhelm I Memorial Church, defiantly floodlit.
Berliners have always been famous for their irrepressible disrespect and hedonism, maintained through all oppressions and apparent even when I first came here to find a city half in ruins. Even on the east side, where the equivalent of Kurürstendamm is the loveless Stalinist Alexanderplatz, even there, now that the dictatorship has gone, flashes of high spirit often show through the authoritarian grumps (fostered not only by forty years of communism, but a decade of National Socialism before that). A waiter winks and bypasses the management ruling that we are too late for a cup of coffee. A young man dashingly V-turns his car, with a glorious screeching of brakes and skidding of tyres, across Karl-Marx Allee to pick up his laughing girl. A stretch of the hitherto sacrosanct Wall – the wrong side of the Wall – has been covered with murals and called the East Side Gallery.
Liberty is in the very air of Berlin now. It is good to be alive here, and to be young must be heaven. Everything is in flux, everything is changing, new horizons open, and nothing demands unqualified respect or allegiance. Although half of Berlin is the theoretical headquarters of the about-to-be-disbanded and thoroughly discredited People’s Republic of East Germany, the city is not really the headquarters of anything much, and this gives it a stimulating sense of irresponsibility. Tokens of fun abound, indeed, and none are more endearing than the preposterous little Trabant cars, like goblin cars, that swarm out of east Berlin for a night out or some shopping in the West, with hilarious clankings and wheezings of their primitive engines, and faces smiling from every window.
The Berlin cosiness (Gemütlichkeit) is an ethos in itself, for better or for worse, and it is inescapable. Here we see it at a modest wedding in Spandau, where the bride in her long white dress, the groom in his high white stock, the priest and amiable altar boys, the intermittently squabbling choir girls, the solitary bespectacled bridesmaid (pink glasses to match her pink dress), the wildly over-accoutred family guests, the casual passers-by and even we ourselves are embraced by its bonhomie. Here we observe it at an alfresco restaurant in the Grünewald woods in the persons of two middle-aged ladies giggling over their asparagus, smiling and nodding encouragingly at us and balancing their purses carefully on the rims of their glasses to stop the chestnut blossoms falling into their wine.
And it is realized most explicitly at Lübars, at the northern extremity of West Berlin. Lübars is a genuine farming community, surrounded by meadows and marshland within the limits of the great city. It is crystallized Gemütlichkeit. There is a pretty village church in a sweet village green; there are farmyards and stables and a restaurant with lace tablecloths. Sometimes a plump farmer trundles by in a trap drawn by two horses, and, if you walk out of the village centre you may find a kind of pixie settlement, all enveloped in green, where people live in little toylike houses, attended by gooseberry bushes and small lawns exquisitely trimmed, like Germans in a fairy tale.
I looked through a big hole hammered in the Berlin Wall, quite near the site of the old Checkpoint Charlie, and saw into the patch of no-man’s-land beyond. It was littered with rolls of discarded barbed wire, surrounded by ruined buildings, and floored with the dismal mixture of sand, gravel and rubble that has resulted from three decades of herbicide – no greenery was allowed to soften the allegory of the Wall, let alone provide cover for escapers. Three East German soldiers were in there, one tilted back on a kitchen chair with his cap over eyes, the others kicking an old steel helmet about in the dust. It was an epitome of squalor and wasted time.
For yes, the squalor of the Cold War certainly survives in Berlin. Farther along the Wall, Potsdamer Platz, once the busiest intersection in Europe, is now a dingy wilderness of gravel and miscellaneous huts through which the traffic passes as across a patch of desert. Verminous wild rabbits hop around down there, anachronistic hippies with headbands and small children protest against this and that outside grubby tents. Not far away hundreds of Poles run their shambled market of trucks and awnings, selling American cigarettes, crude transistors, some bilious-looking cheese and dismal bric-à-brac; they were guarded, when I was there, by a huge, mastiffy kind of animal, slavering at the jaws, which was not just the most gruesome dog I have ever set eyes on, but the most horrible creature of any species.
Even now, in the centre of Berlin, you know when you are approaching the line of the Wall, whether from the western or eastern side by an unmistakable air of dubious dereliction: bombed, rubbish-strewn spaces, peeling posters, huddles of men in dark clothes, vestigial street marts with stalls and trailers, apparently abandoned vehicles, faded graffiti like KILL REAGAN or PUNKS UNITE, and, in the more touristically accessible parts, souvenir huts selling Soviet army caps or bits of the Wall encased in plastic. Nobody knows what to do with this dismal swathe, sweeping through the heart of the city in such an unlovely way; for the moment it is like the pale strip that is left on the human skin when a bandage is ripped off.
Seediness enough, then, from the days when spies were swapped across this false frontier and young people were murdered just for trying to cross it. But the sinister part of my third image? Gone, it seems to me, all gone. Utterly dispersed is the awful fear that used to hang over the Wall like a black cloud, making every crossing from East to West a chill apprehension. The soldiers of the People’s Army kick a redundant helmet about a rubble yard, instead of peering over their gun sights from a watch post, and Democratic Republic’s immigration officials, once so terrifyingly robotlike in their zeal, have turned out, to everyone’s surprise to be human after all. The Television Tower above Alexander Platz, whose bulbous platform used to look like some sleepless, ominous all-seeing eye, now merely reminds us that if we care to go that way there is a revolving restaurant at the 680-foot level, and an obliging tourist office at the bottom.
All the resonances of the antagonism have gone, too – a whole genre of legend, politics, art, and humour made irrelevant overnight. I had a meeting one day with two German officials, one from each side of the former border, itself an appointment that I would have thought a wild improbability ten years ago. Extracting spontaneous responses from them was rather like unpacking particularly fragile pieces of china, so anxious were they both to appear neither overweening nor apologetic. But I sensed no animosity between them and no resentment, though one was dressed in the sportiest Western fashion and gave me a handsomely printed visiting card with translations in English and Japanese, while the other worse an ill-cut dark suit without a tie, and offered me only a piece of pasteboard with his name typed upon it and a crookedly stamped logo on the back.
Fun, Gemütlichkeit, malignity, dominance – some of these emblematic qualities I found alive, some mercifully buried. At the end of my stay I searched for another that might represent not my responses to Berlin’s past and present, but my intuitions about its future. I spread out before me – in the Café Einstein, pre-eminently the writer’s café of contemporary Berlin, where you can write novels until closing time over a single cup of coffee – my 1913 Baedeker’s plan of Berlin, and looked for omens in it.
It showed a city of great magnificence, compact and ordered around the ceremonial focus of the Brandenburg Gate, with parklands and residential districts to the west of it, the offices of state and finance to the east. Where now almost everything seems random, ad hoc, or in transition, Baedeker’s 1913 plan shows nothing but rational and permanent arrangement. Modern Berlin has no real centre or balance, devastated as it has been by war and fractured by that vile Wall, but the old Berlin was, in its heavy and self-conscious way, almost a model capital.
It is fashionable just now to imagine it as an imperial capital again – as the future capital of Europe, in fact, at the place where the western half of the continent meets the east. In some ways indeed it feels like an international metropolis already, frequented as it is by Westerners of every nationality, and by Turks, Romanians, Poles, Arabs, Africans and gypsies; road signs direct one to Prague and to Warsaw, and at the Zoo railway station you may meet the tired eyes of travellers, peering out of their sleeper windows, who have come direct from Moscow and are going straight on to Paris.
Physically, no doubt, Berlin can be restored to true unity. Already its wonderful profusion of parks, gardens, forests and avenues, lovingly planted and replanted through peace and war, give it a certain sense of organic wholeness. When the wasteland of the Wall is filled in with new building, when the communist pomposities of Karl-Marx Allee and Alexanderplatz have been upstaged by the cheerful detritus of free enterprise, we may see the old municipal logic re-emerging too. The focus of life will return to the old imperial quarter, and the Brandenburg Gate will once more mark the transition between public and private purpose.
But metaphysically, my ancient Baedeker suggests, it will be a different matter. The lost Berlin of its plan was built upon victory – the victory over France, in 1871, which led to the unification of Germany and made this the proudest and most militaristic capital on earth. Everything about it spoke of triumph, Empire, and further victories to come. In today’s Berlin the very idea of victory is anomalous, and triumph no longer seems a civic vocation. The world at large may still, at the back of its mind, dread the prospect of German re-unification and the revival of German power, but in my judgement at least, Berlin is no longer a place to be afraid of. I strongly suspect that half a century from now, when this city has finally recovered its united self, it will turn out to be something much less fateful than Europe’s capital. It will be a terrific city, beyond all doubt – a city of marvellous orchestras, famous theatre, of scholarship, of research, of all the pleasurable arts – but not, instinct and Baedeker together tell me, the political and economic apex of a continent.
This is an abridged version of the piece entitled ‘Berlin 1989’ in A Writer’s World by Jan Morris (Faber and Faber, 2003) and is printed here by kind permission of Faber and Faber and the author.
Jan Morris
is the author of six books about cities and countries, including Venice and Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Among her other works are a novel, Hav, The Pax Britannica Trilogy, two autobiographical books, and several volumes of collected travel essays. When not travelling, she lives in Wales between the mountains and the sea.