Berlin bookended my formative years. I first visited at the age of seven, though I have little memory of the long, hot trek through the flatlands of East Germany in my parents’ camper van.
I returned seven years later, in 1982, with one year of schoolboy German and a deep fascination for the city and what it represented. I had read about the Berlin Airlift and the building of the Wall. I had stared at photos of Checkpoint Charlie. I had sat in the school library listening to a faded recording of JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech from 19 years earlier; I stayed with a family friend just yards from the Rathaus Schöneberg where that speech was given, within earshot of the Freedom Bell as it rang every day at noon.
Berlin then seemed a self-conscious place, under scrutiny from West and East alike, almost brazen in showcasing western freedom in the heart of the grey, barren German Democratic Republic. A western S-Bahn line, forced by the arbitrary geography of the Wall to run through one East Berlin station, offered me a glimpse of the sinister bleakness of life on the other side – all weeds, discoloured concrete and heavily-built Grepos -before restoring me to the carefree relaxation of the free world.
Reading Christopher Isherwood a few years later, I encountered the Berlin of the 1930s, a place of nightclubs and high living that nevertheless knew it was balancing on a razor’s edge. It rang true, that image of a hollow, glittering society living like Gatsby’s New York on the lip of a deep pit. I had to wonder whether modern-day Berlin was just as precarious.
Then on my next visit, at the end of 1989, I found myself in the middle of history being made. I’d booked my ticket about three weeks before the border had opened, with no idea that I would come home with my own souvenir pieces of the Berlin Wall (not to mention the grazed knuckles that came from hacking them out). A euphoric place it was then, vindicated in its stand against the oppressor, celebrating not just its own freedom but the freedom of everything around it.
It was easy to think, in those intoxicating years of the early 90s, that the razor’s edge was an exaggeration, the fall of the Iron Curtain inevitable, the cold war just a bad dream. Easy but naive.
Earlier this year I read Anna Funder’s book, Stasiland. I had just read her novel All That I Am, which showed the darker side of 1930s Berlin and the human and emotional cost of resistance against the Nazis, a poignant, haunting counterpoint to Isherwood’s perspective.
For Stasiland Funder, an Australian journalist, visited Germany in 1996 to discover the real story, the human story of the German Democratic Republic. In understated but luminous prose she tells of her encounters with those who lived under the communist regime – both its victims and its agents. A quarter of a way into the book I read this, about her visit to Stasi headquarters:
A smaller room leads off from this one. At first I think it’s going to be more revolutionary kitsch, but here there are just books and medals under glass. In fact, mostly there seem to be papers. But when I read them, I see why they deserve a room of their own. They are the 1985 plans of the Stasi, together with the army, for the invasion of West Berlin.
The plans are methodical. They include the division of the ‘new territory’ into Stasi branch offices, and figures for exactly how many Stasi men should be assigned to each. And there’s a medal, cast in bronze, silver and gold by order of Honecker, to be awarded, after successful invasion, for ‘Courage in the Face of the Western Enemy’. No-one in the west had imagined the extent of the Stasi’s ambitions.
No, we hadn’t. Where had I been in 1985? I’d visited West Germany every year throughout my teens. Eighteen months earlier I’d visited the East/West German border, a barren landscape marked by barbed wire, watchtowers and a lifeless silence, but ultimately forgettable. In the summer of ’85 I’d stayed with friends near Düsseldorf – two weeks of lying in the garden under the sun, sightseeing, and as usual falling briefly but hopelessly for a girl who wasn’t that interested. There wasn’t a hint of the meticulous plans being laid in an airless office in East Berlin to turn the world upside down..
I have never made it back to Berlin, nor to Germany since the weekend before East and West were formally reunified in October 1990. I have not, as my daughter has, visited the memorials to a wall that is now just a line in the pavement. Berlin is somewhere near at the top of my bucket list. One day, maybe, I’ll go back as a first-timer to this place I’ve never visited.
I hope, when I get there, that Berlin isn’t just another city.
(This just in. No… not just another city.)