I left Berlin nearly a quarter of a century ago to live in Brighton, and in November 2019 I went back to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, a momentous, joyous occasion that made me reflect on what Berlin meant to me, and how it influenced where and how I have lived my life since I spent half a decade there in the early 1990s. I return regularly, of course, and indeed kept my flat near Kollwitzplatz in the area of Prenzlauer Berg (then unbearably hip, now unbearably gentrified) for several years when I first came to the UK, just in case things didn’t work out for me here. On this last visit I took my British-German family with me and we celebrated with our international group of friends the peaceful revolution of 1989 in Germany. I also wanted to teach our young daughter a thing or two about what freedom means, by visiting this vast, scarred, thriving, multi-cultural city. We had, of course, no inkling that this would be our last visit for what already feels like a very long time, because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The sky was leaden-grey and it was drizzly on 9 November 2019, the anniversary of the day the Wall began to crumble back in 1989, and we decided just to walk together, from West to East, and back again, threading through a historic and historical division that is hardly visible any more. We walked the following day, too, in glorious sunshine, and I felt both like a tourist and a lifetime-Berliner, leading the way with the confidence of someone who negotiated this complicated and ever changing city for several years, when parts of it were badly lit and signage had not quite healed the scars of physical division. We took an old map that predated 1989, the Wall clearly marked in blood-red, awkwardly zigzagging across the paper. You now have to consciously seek out remains of what was not only the Berlin Wall, but a symbol of the Cold War, of danger, death, conflict and division running all the way through post-war Europe, a concrete death trap lined with minefields and watchtowers. It is hard to explain why the so-called Iron Curtain running through Berlin was so iconic (and not in a good way) and how it came to be. In short, because Berlin was the capital of Germany, it was divided up between the Allied powers in the same way the country was divided into the Communist East (controlled by the Soviet Union) and the capitalist West (France, UK and the US). This meant that the island of the French, British and American sectors of Berlin was eventually enclosed by a physical wall that was impenetrable for people from the Eastern bloc.
As I child I found it hard to comprehend that, firstly, there were two Germanies and those in the East were not allowed to travel to the West (and if they tried they would get shot), and secondly, that in Berlin the island surrounded by the Wall was, ironically, the free West. Being a child of both the East and the West (my father made it to the West before the Wall was built and I was born in the Rhineland, then “occupied” by the British), I crossed the German/German border many times in the 1970s and ‘80s, and have memories of being strip-searched, the car taken apart, our family being separated, passports taken away, hours spent in empty rooms waiting to be called in and questioned by East German border guards. Crossing this incomprehensible border was nerve-racking and causes me still to get very stressed when going through passport control on any of my travels, or even just renewing a passport.
In 1989 I saw – from the safety of my centrally heated West German student bedsit – the people of East Germany fight to bring this Wall down. I watched in disbelief, fear, and unbridled admiration. These people were risking their lives for freedom and liberty while I was reading Shakespeare and the Brontës.
Astonishingly, not a single drop of blood was shed. Naturally, I wanted to live in Berlin after this happened, soak up the spirit, and play a small part in reuniting Germany. The years immediately after 1989 were difficult and exciting times. Living conditions were not great in East Berlin (few telephone lines, mostly coal-heated stoves for heating, dodgy plumbing, and winters so cold and long that sometimes the water in your toilet would freeze), but I made friends for life there, and most importantly, I learnt what freedom means. Three years after 1989 I cycled through Berlin on bike lanes that used to be the minefield strips next to the Wall, sharing these erstwhile deadly areas with dog walkers and skateboarders. When I left Berlin for good in 2000, I took the enamelled house number plate from my house with me. It had been replaced with a mundane electrically lit one, and was destined for a skip. The plate has been on the bookshelves above my writing desk here in England ever since, as a tactile, material link to a city that puzzled, astounded, challenged, and shaped me.
Thirty years later I wandered around Berlin with my family and friends, stopped at the Café Pasternak at the water tower in Prenzlauer Berg – where I once got snowed in with fellow students – rendez-voused with friends at the Urania-Weltzeituhr (World Clock) on Alexanderplatz and imagined people fast asleep on the other side of the world.
We visited my old house in Kollwitzstraße (now immaculately renovated), looked for Communist stained glass windows at Humboldt University, my Alma Mater, on Unter den Linden, immersed ourselves in the blue interior of the post-war Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche near Berlin Zoo, and stood and stared at the seemingly infinite space in Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Monk by the Sea at the Alte Nationalgalerie.
Together we drifted back and forth from East to West, without seeing or feeling borders any more. We walked through the Brandenburg Gate several times, once inaccessible as it stood on the line of the Wall, something that still makes me shiver. Perhaps it is the combined weight of personal and world history at this deeply symbolic place. The approach to the Gate from the West, the Straße des 17. Juni, was decorated with a multi-coloured ‘Skynet’, a band of visions of Berlin, printed or written on strips of paper by anyone who felt a connection with the city.
It was uplifting, and visually beautiful, but what stopped me in my tracks was, once again, Gerhard Marcks’ sculpture The Crier, a bronze cast of a human figure, facing East, calling out to the other side with cupped hands. Although the sculpture dates from 1966, it was only installed in Berlin-Tiergarten in May 1989, a few months before the Wall fell, undoubtedly as a sign of solidarity with the people fighting fearlessly for freedom on the other side. The sculpture bears a quote from the Italian poet Petrarch, which perfectly captured how I felt as a young woman in the 1990s, on that day in November 2019, and still do, although once again historic events have restricted how we can travel and move: “Ich gehe durch die Welt und rufe ‘Friede, Friede, Friede’” (“I wander through the world and cry ‘Peace, Peace, Peace.’”).
Alexandra Loske, October 2020
A shorter version of this piece was published in Viva Brighton Magazine in December 2019.