When you interpret “9/11” using the British English date format, it translates as the 9th of November, rather than the 11th of September. And on that day in 1989, one of the most hated and visible symbols of the Eastern Bloc was finally breached: the Berlin Wall began to come down. Berliners could, after more than a quarter of a century, freely cross from East to West, and vice versa.
Brandenburg Gate looking West: the Wall ran behind it
Now that so long has passed since its fall, there is little to mark the barrier built by the East, ostensibly to keep the bourgeois and decadent out, but in reality to stop their population voting with their feet and leaving. When Germany was partitioned after World War 2, the engines of economic growth were all on the western side of the line. East Germany was in reality just a consolation prize.
And Berlin put that more prosperous face right up against the East. It was so appealing to East Germans, as the years passed and West Germany became more and more prosperous, that a barrier was inevitable. The Wall brought disruption: transport links were cut, neighbours were estranged from one another. U-bahn trains sped through ghost stations staffed only by East German guards.
Checkpoint Charlie: not as easy to walk through when the Wall was up
Access to West Berlin by rail was usually only possible on locked “corridor” trains. German national carriers were prohibited from flying to and from airports in the city (the East Germans got round this, as Schoenefeld, the East Berlin airport, was outside the city boundary). You could drive to Berlin from the West, but only along guarded motorways. And looking out over East Germany was officially forbidden.
Healing the divide after the Wall came down inevitably took time: when I visited the city in 1998, the area around Hackescher Markt – when the city was divided, it was called Marx-Engels Platz – was still rather faded, with one of the few signs of Western influence an Irish pub in an arch of the railway viaduct (still there when I last visited). Now the area is buzzing day and night.
And all done in the names of two blokes conveniently long dead: statue of Marx and Engels
Friedrichstrasse is just another North-South thoroughfare: when the Wall was up, it was the location of Checkpoint Charlie, where Russian and American tanks once squared up. The Brandenburg Gate is now open to all: for many years, it was only visible from the West via the viewing platform memorably visited by Ronald Reagan. The Wall ran along its western side.
Above all, the Berlin Wall took away a fundamental freedom, forbidding free movement and imprisoning East Berliners. When those of a right-leaning persuasion whinge about “freedom” in the context of restrictions on their ability to drive too fast, when on the phone, or enforcing seat belt use, they would do well to think about what happened for so many years in Berlin.
They’ve never had the sad and dispiriting experience of looking out over that Wall.
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