Friday, November 7, 2014

The Berlin Wall

In 1989, after I had returned to Finland following a few years studying in the States, a friend of mine from Georgia came for a visit. 

Jerry was on something of a Grand Tour of Europe, interrailing around the continent, and made a point of visiting us in Helsinki. In addition to doing some sightseeing around the Finnish capital, Jerry took advantage of the very favorable situation Helsinki held back then as a jumping-off spot for tourists who wanted to penetrate the Iron Curtain and see what was on the other side. 

There was a travel agency in those days, FinnSov Tours, which specialized in arranging trips to the not-so-accessible parts of the Soviet Union. I seem to recall it was an actual joint venture between Finnish and Soviet enterprises. In any case, FinnSov had connections that allowed it to offer a wider range of package tours to the further reaches of the USSR than most travel agencies could. (FinnSov is still around, but no longer seems to have such a privileged spot in the Russian tourism business.) 

After studying the destinations FinnSov had available, Jerry shouldered his backpack and flew off on one of the agency's tours of Central Asia, spending a week or more visiting some of the epic stopovers on the legendary Silk Road. He went to Bukhara, Tashkent, and Samarkand, antique place names that evoke images of Marco Polo and camel trains laden with spices and precious stones. And silk, of course.

He returned to Finland from his no-doubt edifying trek to the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic shortly before my wife and I were to travel to Rome with our five-month-old son. Jerry had been thinking that before flying back to the States he would wrap up his European trip with a visit to West Berlin, partly to see the Wall that symbolized the all-too-concrete reality of the East-West divide during the Cold War. 

He changed his plans, however, deciding instead to skip Berlin in order to fit Italy into his itinerary and meet up with us briefly in the Eternal City. I imagined he figured he could see die Berliner Mauer on some future trip to the edge of the Free World. 

The closest I ever got to the DDR
Witzenhausen, W. Germany, 1983.

Five weeks later, the Wall fell. 

Although some sections of the Wall still remain 25 years after Germans on both sides started demolishing its slabs of reinforced concrete, the Wall forever lost the chilling mystic that I’m sure it still held in 1989. If Jerry had only known, he might have stuck to his original plans and put off until another time the chance to gaze on the ruins of the Colosseum. That is one concrete edifice does seem to be truly eternal.

I never saw the Wall when it was still the menacing barrier it was meant to be. My wife and I drove through West Germany a couple of times in the early 80s, but never got closer than a kilometer from the DDR, and certainly never made it to the enclave of West Berlin. With all the East German checkpoints to pass through along the way, that would have been an interesting drive. 

In 1993, four years after the Wall fell and on our way to France, we found ourselves once again passing through what was now a reunited Germany (no “East” or “West”). Driving south from Kiel, we decided to take a left turn in Hannover and detour into the former Ost-Deutschland

As we drove along the autobahn leading to Berlin, we were immediately struck by the nature of the heavy traffic heading east. We shared the road with what seemed like an endless procession of trucks, all loaded with building material. We could also see trucks in the opposite lanes, returning westward, empty. The reconstruction of the east was in full swing.  

At the little town of Helmstedt, very close to the erstwhile DDR according to our outdated road map, we left the autobahn and continued east on a smaller road, keeping a lookout for signs of the former border. Nothing. 

Nothing obvious to mark the line where NATO and Warsaw Pact forces had once faced off. 

Then, as we crossed a low hill and descended into the next village, we noticed something. Unlike Helmstedt, this little town looked plainly rundown. All the buildings were older, shoddier, needing paint. It was obvious that we have already crossed into the former territory of East Germany. 

We turned around, driving back to the top of the hill where we now recognized that the lone narrow three-story building by the roadside must have been a watchtower. I think it now housed a snack bar or such. 

A preserved stretch of the Wall at the Topography of Terror museum.

We also noticed two single-lane roads leading away into the wood on the north side of the highway. The two roads were some meters apart, running parallel to each other. The westernmost was graveled with a thin strip of grass growing in the middle. It looked just like any jeep road that I know so well from my native mountains in north Georgia. In short, it had a very "American" feel to it, but maybe that's how all jeep roads look in Germany. The one on the east was more “industrial”. It consisted of two narrow ribbons of concrete laid on the roadbed, separated by the length of an axle. 

Military roads hugging the border on either side, once patrolled by soldiers under the command of two superpowers hysterically wary of each other. 

After identifying the “border”, we continued onward to the east, but only as far as Magdeburg before heading south again toward Switzerland and France. On that trip, we didn’t have time to go all the way to Berlin. 

I did make it there on a business trip 15 years later, though there wasn’t much spare time for sightseeing. I did manage to make a quick visit to the Brandenburg Gate (no remnants of the Wall that I could see), and got off the U-Bahn once at Potsdamer Platz, where I found only a couple of graffitied sections of the wall standing in a park in Leipziger Platz. Crossing that small grassy park was a line, two-cobblestones-wide, embedded in the ground, tracing where the Wall had once stood. In one direction, it ran straight into the side of a modern office building. What was once “east” and “west” here no longer mattered. 

Checkpoint Charlie, complete with fake soldiers from both East and West.

I finally did Berlin properly on holiday two years ago with my wife and daughter. We had plenty of opportunities to see some of the few remaining intact sections of the Wall, at the Gedenkst√§tte Berliner Mauer (the Berlin Wall Memorial), at the Topography of Terror museum (site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters during the Nazi reign) and, of course, at Checkpoint Charlie (now apparently ground zero for kitschy tourism in Berlin). 

Though, obviously not nearly oppressive as it would have been as late as 1989, the Wall was still a somber sight, and obviously an indelible part of Berlin for generations to come. I bet this week, however, there will be some serious celebrating going on over those slabs of gray concrete that have now mostly disappeared.


  1. You wouldn't happen to have a picture of the two roads?
    I would very much like to see it.

    1. No, I'm afraid I don't. We didn't take so many pictures back then, which in a way is too bad.

  2. One of my old friends (who lived in Germany in the mid-70s) visited East Berlin at that time. About the only negative thing that happened to him was that the security folk tended to glare at him a lot. Also, he said that East Berlin was generally more run down and seedy than the west.