I’ve seen pieces of the wall all over Berlin already. There are a few still left standing, though they’re (somewhat ironically) surrounded with fences, as the government is planning to eventually turn them into permanent memorials. There are also pieces hanging in various bars, or posted in galleries and strung up for display. Germans, I’ve found, aren’t really interested in talking much about the Nazis, for good reason. But they’re more than happy to share stories about the GDR and the Wall. They’re almost proud of it, as if it was some mysterious opponent that they all fought and conquered together.
In a way, I guess, it was. After World War 2, the Allied forces didn’t want a repeat of what had happened after World War 1, and the Soviets specifically, as I understand it, wanted to keep all of the land they had fought so hard and lost so many of their men for. So a deal was made: Germany was split into two different parts (West Germany, called the Federal Republic of Germany/FRG, and East Germany, called the German Democratic Republic/GDR), and Berlin itself was split into four parts: Three zones for the British, French, and Americans to control, and one half for the Soviets. Each country kept their own forces there, just to make sure that things didn’t go bad, as they had before.
Of course, just a few years later, the Cold War began, and a different fight started: That between the communist Soviets and the capitalist West. To learn more about the wall, and exactly why it was built (and why it was such a problem for local Berliners), I went to place here in Berlin called the Tranenpalast. In English, it’s called “The Palace of Tears.”
Checkpoint Charlie, which I’ve visited a few times this week, is the most famous of the seven border checkpoints on the Berlin Wall. It’s the checkpoint that went between the American and Soviet sectors, and so it’s where celebrities and diplomats came when they wanted to cross the border, and it’s the site of lots of espionage schemes and Cold War tension. Nowadays, it’s an intersection in Berlin that’s almost as cheesy as Times Square — there’s a replica checkpoint box there, and an actor who stands in front of it who charges a few Euros for pictures. There’s coffee shops on all sides, and a museum that I didn’t bother to visit — it’s a tourist trap of the highest magnitude. There are stories there, but they’re buried beneath all of the tchotchkes.
The Tranenpalast, on the other hand, is the border checkpoint that local Germans used to go back and forth between the two sides of Berlin — it’s based right at the Fredrichstrasse train station, which was sort of the Grand Central Station crossing between East and West. There’s a building there that connects directly to the station with huge, rounded glass walls around it, and that building was built by the communists specifically to serve as the East German checkpoint. Over the years, Berliners have named that building the Palace of Tears, because it’s the point in the city at which they’d have to tearfully say goodbye to each other when crossing over the border.
Today, it’s used as a museum, with a permanent exhibition about the border crossing and what happened there. After the Cold War really kicked off, East Germany found that it was losing citizens. Originally, the borders in Berlin were just symbolic, and you could easily walk back and forth between them, just by crossing over a few streets. The communists, however, were much poorer, and the culture was so much more oppressive than the West that citizens fed up with the government over there just walked over to live in West Berlin instead. 3.5 million East Germans ended up fleeing their homelands to go to the West, before the wall was built.
So to stop this exodus of its citizens, the communists decided to build a wall. (Well, first they denied there were any plans to build a wall, and then they built a wall.) At midnight on a Saturday evening in August 1961, 40,000 troops spread out along the borderline in Berlin, and started laying down barbed wire and planks. A few months later, the wall was completed: There was an outer wall (which most people mean when they talk about the wall), and then a “death zone” (since Eastern guards were ordered to shoot anyone trying to leave the country illegally), and then an inner wall. At the Fredrichstrasse train station, all trains were stopped and turned around from either side, and both the East and the West set up their own checkpoints, with East Germany housing its checkpoints inside the glass building that became the Tranenpalast.
It’s stupid to try and “rate” tragedies — certainly, the Holocaust was a terrible tragedy for Germany and everyone in the world, and the Wall wasn’t without its deaths as well: The numbers are hazy, but records say there were anywhere from 100 to 200 people killed while trying to get out of the country. But the real damage that the wall did was in splitting up and separating families and friends. In the museum, there are stories and interviews about people who couldn’t see family members because they lived on the wrong side of the border, or who couldn’t visit or learn from the other side because their politics didn’t vibe with the communists. Some of the stories were quite emotional: One woman, who was told by the communists that she couldn’t take a historical trip to Sweden because she wore “Western clothes” and had ties too close to the capitalists, tearfully talked about having to sneak out of the country with her mother, leaving her grandmother behind, who she was never able to see again.
And then of course, there was communist oppression in general: At the border crossing, they confiscated Western books and magazines, and put spies and surveillance on anyone seen hanging around the border for too long. In the train station, there was a small cafe, and at one point, 11 of the 19 people employed there were “unofficial” employees, paid to just sit, pretend to read the paper, and try to overhear subversive talk from citizens passing through.
The thing that most fascinated me about the wall itself was that both sides, not just the communists, tried to put out propaganda to cast the other as evil. West Germans, for their part, were very supportive of their Eastern countrymen, smuggling supplies through and over the wall when they could. But even Western media put a spin on what was happening in East Germany. They showed me some newsreels from the ’60s from either side of the wall, and the West claimed that millions of people were “heroically” out for demonstrations on the Eastern side, showing throngs of citizens fighting against soldiers. For the same story, Eastern media claimed the demonstrations were “the work of a few bandits,” instead showing empty streets with broken windows and trashed shops.
The West claimed the communists were trapping and killing their citizens with the wall, and the East said the wall was designed to “keep out the worst of capitalist elements.” It was like two siblings arguing about a fight after it happened, and because history is of course always written by the victors, I had to wonder just a little bit when the Tranenpalast described how terrible the East German guards were.
Not that I’m supporting their actions at all. Of course the Wall had to come down, if for no other reason that it was pointless and cruel to separate families from each other for the sake of politics. Eventually, East and West Germans rebelled and held demonstrations with millions of people around the country in the mid-nineties, all battling for and calling for reunification. The Soviet communists actually calmed down before the German communists did — even when Gorbechov was pushing for change, the Germans were looking to China and its suppression of its citizens as a model. I found it interesting, too, that two of the biggest voices against reunification of Germany were France and Britain — they were both very worried about what would happen if Germany got the chance to reunite.
But those fears were eventually overcome, of course, and in 1989, the wall came down. The troops from various countries, in the various sectors of Berlin, actually stayed until 1994. And today, Germany is completely reunited — I haven’t had my passport (or my politics) checked once while walking all over Berlin.
The Tranenpalast was both the newest museum and the newest bit of history I’ve seen on this trip: I was of course alive when the Wall came down (and I remember hearing about it on TV, back in Missouri, though I didn’t really understand what was going on), and the museum exhibition itself was only opened last September (about a month before I decided to go on this trip, actually). It was a little strange to see such recent history on the walls of a museum, after spending the last three weeks studying what’s basically ancient history. I remembered that jean jacket one of those demonstrators was wearing in a video, I know that band poster stuck up on the side of the Wall ruin.
But for some reason I didn’t feel all that connected to it. Maybe it’s because the divide was largely political — the real enemy was basically just bureaucracy gone terribly wrong. And in the end, while again I don’t want to understate the trauma that the wall caused for those in Berlin, the whole thing was just a stupid mistake, two huge nations that couldn’t settle their differences amicably, and made citizens suffer as a result.
At the back of the Tranenpalast, there used to be a little corridor that led right into the Fredrichstrasse station, which was how anyone who made it past the guards entered West Berlin. That corridor was removed after the wall came down, but you can still see right through there — the back door of the Tranenpalast looks right into the big glass doors on the station. And so I could stand in the museum, near the little replica guard stations stood, with pictures of the wall and German’s history all around me, and look out through the two sets of glass doors, right into the train station.
That’s where I saw people hurrying back and forth, Berliners rushing to and from work and home, some carrying briefcases or dragging luggage right behind them. All of them were, I was glad to note, free to go where they pleased.
After I finished at the Tranenpalast, I had one more task to do that I’d been looking forward to all week. I’ve tried beers here and there in Berlin, but back when I took the free tour, the guide told me about a bar just north of the Fredrichstrasse station that had a beer list of 300 beers, and I decided that, for the sake of science, I would need to go over there and try as many as I could. I found the bar pretty easy, actually — it was a nice and dingy dive bar, with a big gruff German bartender behind it. He didn’t speak English at all (“No English?” I asked him, a few bars in, trying to maybe start up some semblance of conversation. He just shook his head and grumbled something back in German.), but we both spoke the language of beers, so I ordered by reading off and pointing out the beers on the list I wanted to try.
I started with one I knew I’d like. Weiss beers are Germany’s specialty, and my favorite beers, so the Rothaus Zapfel that I ordered was beautifully golden, and nice and sweet and thick.
Next, I wanted to try a “dunkel” beer. I’ve seen them on a few menus around the city — dunkel means dark in German, and while it’s still a weiss (wheat) beer, dunkel beers are thicker and supposed to be a little smoother. The Schofferhoffer Dunkel that I ordered was a little spicier, I thought, however. It was a little much for me, given that my taste is towards the hefeweiss.
I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I turned to Twitter, and they recommended the Aventinus, a stronger wheat beer from Bavaria. This one was excellent, and it took me a while to finish it. The bartender actually rolled the bottle across the table while he poured it, to mix the beer up a bit. It was a high 8.2% alcohol, too, and there was a lot of it, so it slowed me down for sure. I did like sipping it, though — it was actually a little sugary, I thought, kind of the way that barbeque sauce sometimes is.
After that beer, I had to go lighter, so I went to a Krombaucher Pilsner, another Twitter suggestion. Most US beers are pilsners — they’re very light and bitter. I thought this one was a little too light for me. “Need a bit of heft to my beer,” I typed in my notes. It did last a little while, though — it would have probably been better with dinner or some hearty food.
At this point, I was getting a little woozy — I am a big guy, and I can handle my drinking just fine, but I hadn’t had any dinner at all, and now I was four really great beers in. I decided to do one more and finish strong, however, so with Twitter egging me on yet again, I went for the Andechser Dopplebock Dunkel, which was supposed to be an amazing beer in the very strong, very dark dopplebock style. This is the kind of beer, I was told, that monks use as food in place of meat and bread.
And it was very, very good. So dark, so sweet. The bottle said “Seit 1455″ on it, so this beer has been around since even before Martin Luther. “Like a fine steak dipped in caramel,” I tweeted — it was just an amazing beer. And the best part is that the ingredients are three: Water, malted barley, and hops. That’s it. What a beautiful drink.
I stumbled out of the bar and headed for home, but was easily distracted on the way. I wandered into one restaurant to grab a quick bratwurst, and ended up sitting down for about twenty minutes to watch the game with a bunch of Germans. I finished my wurst and wandered on, found another restaurant that looked really good and figured heck, I’d stop in for one more drink and make use of their WC. While there, I had a Jever Pilsner, the best cheapest beer on the menu, and chatted with the bartender, a German lady who told me that she had studied Swedish history in between making coffees and drinks for the people eating there.
I wandered on — stopped in another bar that was crowded with people also watching the soccer game, but the place was so crowded I couldn’t even find a bartender to order from, so I left (thinking back on that, it may actually have been a house party. Hmm.). I found another bar, ordered another beer, and then went and sat down in a little stage area, where a guy on stage, no kidding, started speaking in English. He sounded and looked like he was a New York intellectual, and he was actually hosting a panel, in English, on the short history and current situation of Berlin techno music.
On the panel with him were three German musicians, and the whole thing was very surreal — completely by random, I had fallen into a presentation in English, talking about how Berlin’s techno music has changed since the wall came down.
That finished, and I wandered back out of that bar again, decided I was hungry. A falafel sandwich later, I made it the rest of the way back to the hostel, and headed upstairs to bed. The Internet connection I’ve been using in my room wasn’t working, and it was just as well — I dressed for bed, and conked out right as my head hit the pillow.
Posted on Thursday, April 26th, 2012 at 8:39 am. Filed under general.