Berlin: A tale of two cities.

October 05, 2014  •  2 Comments

The title of this blog of course refers to East and West Berlin; now one city but with two very different histories. Brandenburg GateA powerful imperial statue tops the Brandenburg Gate.

When I was growing up, the Berlin Wall and the 'Iron Curtain' were talked about regularly on the news and were symbolic of the 'Cold War', the division between West and East, democracy and Communism, good and evil.

Growing up as I did on an island that was itself an occupied territory, one is imbued with some idea of what it was like during the war and perhaps a heightened sense of the importance of peace and freedom.

I vividly remember watching the news on 9th November 1989 showing the fall of the Wall.


Telecoms tower is the tallest building in Berlin.The toothpickThe telecom tower in Berlin, given the nickname 'the toothpick' for obvious reasons.

Divided we fall.This photograph reproduced with permission from the Mauermuseum.










"From the top of a watch tower everybody looks like an enemy"

Berlin November 1989This painting captures the scenes of celebration as The Wall was breached on 9th November 1989. Reproduced with the permission of the Mauermuseum.











As I watched scenes of people breaking down the physical and symbolic barrier to their freedom, families being re-united after more than 30 years of separation, pickaxes chipping away at the concrete; guards, who just days before would have shot anybody daring to do such things, joining in the celebrations, I cannot deny having a lump in my throat.

Checkpoint CharlieCheckpoint Charlie is now a tourist attraction. For €2,00 you can have you photo taken with fake US military personnel. With the Mauermuseum (The Wall Museum) in the background. It makes me feel old when I think that these events that I watched unfold have now been consigned to the category of '20th century history'!


And so it was very interesting to re-visit the history behind the building of the Wall and events that would lead to its destruction. Checkpoint Charlie, then, seemed as good a place as any to start a tour of the city. Now a museum and tourist attraction, this was once the main passing point between East and West and was the site of a tense tank stand-off in October 1961. With the exception of the Cuban missile crisis a year later this was the closest that the Cold War came to triggering World War III. The Berlin construction industry.The Berlin skyline is dominated by construction cranes.

Berlin was not quite what I had expected. We are constantly being told by our media that the German economy is the strongest in Europe and no doubt this is generally true. I was therefore expecting the country's capital to be a wealthy and thriving modern metropolis. It isn't. Berlin is a relatively poor part of the country with low pay and low property prices, although it is clear to see that there is a lot of money being invested into construction and renovation. Berlin is a building site.

Three girls and a boyThe statues of three girls and a boy sit on the wall by the Spree river, across from Berlin Cathedral.

I don't want to give the wrong impression here. It has been 70 years since the end of the war and 25 years since the Wall came down and a great deal of progress has been made in that time. There are large areas of the city that have everything that you would expect of a western capital but you do not have to step far away from the historical centre or the expensive shopping areas around Friedrichstrasse or Potsdammerplatz to find areas of poverty, dereliction and more graffiti than I have ever seen before in my life!

Just across the Oberbaumbruke in former East Berlin I came across this impressive mural towering over a little 'shanty town' area of immigrants. Time for changePoverty is never far away in Berlin. This mural towers over a shanty town of immigrants. The little girl ran over and politely asked me (in reasonably good English) for some money to feed her family. I could not refuse!

By the end of WWII Berlin lay in ruins and the victorious powers divided the city into the four sectors of the Western Allies; the United States, the United Kingdom, and France formed West Berlin, while the Soviet sector formed East Berlin. Traces of the communist regime can still be seen in East Berlin.

All four Allies shared administrative responsibility for the city. However, in 1948, when the Western Allies extended the currency reform in the western zones of Germany to the three western sectors of Berlin, the Soviet Union imposed a blockade on the access routes to and from East Berlin, which now lay entirely inside Soviet controlled territory. Scars of warBullet holes and battle scars are still visible on many of the buildings.










The founding of two separate German states increased Cold War tensions. East Germany proclaimed East Berlin as its capital, a move that was not recognised by the western powers. The West German government established itself in Bonn.

Black bearThis black bear is the symbol of Berlin. The USSR wanted Western armed forces to withdraw from Berlin. East German officials had begun to deny US diplomats the unhindered access to East Berlin that was part of the agreement with Moscow on the post-war occupation of Germany. General Clay ordered that the next American diplomat entering East Berlin was to be escorted by armed US military police in jeeps. The manoeuvre succeeded, but the East Germans continued to attempt to assert their claim to control western allied officials entering East Berlin.

The thin lineAlong the path of The Wall a memorial stands in memory of those who were killed trying to get across the wall. Never one to suffer defeat easily, Clay ordered American M48 tanks to head for Checkpoint Charlie. There they stood, some 75 metres from the border, noisily racing their engines and sending plumes of black smoke into the night air. Alarmed by the apparent threat, Moscow, with the approval of the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, sent an equal number of Russian T55 tanks rumbling to face down the Americans. They too ground to a halt some 75 metres from the East/West Berlin border and, as with the US tanks they faced, stayed there for 16 hours.

By now, American officials were deeply alarmed by the potential consequences. General Clay was reminded by Washington that Berlin was not so "vital" an interest to be worth risking a conflict with Moscow. President Kennedy approved the opening of a back channel with the Kremlin in order to defuse what had blown up. Berliner MauerTHE WALL: The route that The Berlin Wall once took

As a result, the Soviets pulled back one of their T55s from the eastern side of the border at Friedrichstrasse and minutes later an American M48 also left, so it went until all the tanks were withdrawn. General Clay's reputation among West Berliners had risen further but his warrior days were effectively over.

 The division of Berlin by the Wall in 1961 meant that West Berlin was encircled and effectively cut off from West Germany the economy there was heavily supported by the West while industry in surrounding East Germany was subsidised by the soviet state.

In 1989, with the end of the Cold War and pressure from the East German population, the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November and was soon mostly demolished.

The challengeYou can still buy sections of The Wall. When the Wall came down in 1989 West Berlin no longer had such support, industry in East Berlin collapsed as it was no longer subsidised and unemployment in the area rose above 20%. A massive redevelopment plan began but in recent years that has been slowed by the global recession. In 1991, the German Parliament, the Bundestag, voted to move the seat of the (West) German capital from Bonn to Berlin, a move that was completed in 1999. Wandbild der menschenThis mural on the side of a block of flats has clear socialist imagery.

In much of the city it is easy to see whether you are in the East or West although I am told that “if you ask two Berliners exactly where the wall ran you will get at least three opinions.”

Broken toothThis church, nicknamed the 'Broken Tooth' was one of the many damaged by Allied bombing raids in WWII. West Berlin was in better repair than the East in 1989 and there has been some renovation and new building since. The East however was poor and dilapidated but had the majority of the historically important buildings. Many of the historic buildings have now been restored so the East is now quite a mixture of old and new, restored and decrepit.

The Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church (now nicknamed 'The Broken Tooth') has been made safe and partially restored but is kept in this condition as a memorial. The ceiling inside has been patched as you can see here. The ceiling of the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church.












There is a third area which is the no man’s land or ‘Death Strip’ that existed within the wall. This means that West Berlin was encircled by a wide strip of land over 96 miles in length that was ripe for development after 1989 and in many places the old course of the wall now passes through new buildings or smart shopping centres such as the one at Potsdammerplatz. PotsdammerplatzThe Potdammerplatz shopping centre.

Glass houseOne of the buildings within the Potsdammerplatz shopping centre. Up on the roofAt night the roof of the Potsdammerplatz lights up with changing colours.











In 1985 the younger generation, (people of my age for example!) who had been born after the war but grown up in a divided city, were frustrated by the older generation's reluctance to talk about WWII. Represented by the Association of the Active Museum of Fascism and the Berlin History Workshop, they organised an event called 'Let's dig' as a symbolic act at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters. What they found, unexpectedly, was the basement cells of the 'House Prison' of the Gestapo. This is the site where the Topography of Terrors museum now stands.

The basement cells of the Gestapo now form a part of the museum.

Jewish museumThe new museum is the stark grey building on the right. The most interesting and thought provoking of the museums that we visited was without a doubt the Jewish museum. In this picture you see the old museum building in the foreground. The stark grey structure to the right of it is the new museum.

The new museum building zigzags away from its narrow front with long narrow galleries, jagged lines and slanting floors giving a feeling of loss, dislocation and disorientation.


A lamp post in front of the museum.



Within the labyrinthine design of the museum are deliberate 'voids' empty areas which represent the vacuum left behind by the destruction of Jewish life. Small facesA 'void' within the Jewish museum.
















Approaching one of these 'voids' we could hear a clanking noise echoing around the corridors as if there were slave workers, just out of sight, labouring with metal. This sound turned out to be caused by other visitors walking over a layer of more than 10,000 cast iron faces spread over the concrete floor. The artist calls this installation The Fallen Leaves and has dedicated it to "All innocent victims of war and violence". Walking over the faces was quite a moving experience.

Fallen leaves

  The dull colour and hard lines of the Jewish museum. I We want youSome of the graffiti has a message. already mentioned the graffiti, didn't I? In the tourist areas and the more prosperous shopping district it is no more noticeable than in any other European city but as soon as you step in to the side streets you soon realise that you are in a whole world of graffiti. It covers everything up to about 10 feet from the floor and 99% of it is just of the mindless "I woz 'ere" variety.

There is some street art however that is worthy of note. It may be small or it may cover the side of a house. Some is truly art, sometimes it is used as an advertising medium and sometimes it has a powerful political or ideological message but it is everywhere!

Berlin bunniesSome photos just defy description.







Of course we are only interested in the famous, the artistic or the meaningful!






















The other thing that Berlin has a lot of is memorials. Allegedly the highest concentration of memorials in the world and of course they have a lot to memorialise on both sides of the wall. It is clear that this is a country that is coming to terms with and perhaps even beginning to embrace its dark history. That of course kept Gilly busy.


This sculpture of a mother with her dead son, by Käthe Kollwitz, is the central memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the victims of war and tyranny.

There are also some rather more obscure memorials designed specifically to make you think about the subject. For example there is a glass window set into the pavement in the middle of a square where you could easily walk over it without even noticing that there was anything unusual about it. But this is the square in front of the library of Humboldt University; this is where the famous book burnings took place. Look down into that window and you will see a room of shelves with no books, an empty library. Unfortunately it was rather sunny when we were there so I could not get a decent photograph.

Industrial skyline

 Something else that could easily pass underfoot unnoticed are the stolpersteine or stumble stones. Set into the cobbles, these are found in residential areas and commemorate individual victims of Nazism and tell what happened to them. 





















 There were also opportunities for some dramatic urban landscape photography.   Berliner DomA storm brews over the Berlin Cathedral.


Sometimes it is good to zoom in for a more abstract shot.



















Blue windows.





Coming back to street art for a moment, we visited the East Side Gallery, a section of the Wall consisting of paintings by artists from all over the world. Painted in 1990, the gallery was created after the successful merger of East and West German  artists' associations to represent euphoria and hope in a time of great change.

The Gallery is about 1,300 metres long and covered with 105 paintings, most of the paintings require no explanation, here is a small selection.





















The Kiss: This has arguably become the most famous painting of the East Side Gallery. It is based on a greeting kiss between Leonid Brezhnev, head of the communist party of the Soviet Union and Erich Honecker, General secretary of the Socialist Unity Party in East Berlin.

This photo was taken on 7th October 1979 on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) or East Germany becoming a Communist nation. Why is it that any state that feels the need to put the word 'democratic' in its name is always anything but democratic?

The wording under the painting translates as "My God, help me to survive this deadly love."

The two photographs above are of the souvenir shop at the Eastern end of the East Side Gallery.

Below: The Berlinerdom (Berlin Cathedral) dominates the Berlin skyline.

On the Oberbaumbruke I took several pictures of the brick bridge with yellow trains passing over it before settling on this shot: a close up of one of the towers with patterning behind provided by another brick building.


As I mentioned earlier, Berlin is filled with memorials and perhaps the most disturbing and controversial of these is the 'Places of Remembrance' memorial for a former Jewish district of West Berlin known as the Bavarian Quarter. Here street signs hung from lamp posts throughout the area attempt to bring the reality of the holocaust back into every day life. There are about 80 signs, each one spelling out one of the hundreds of Nazi rules that gradually dehumanised the Jewish population.

One example is this sign, positioned near the exit to the underground station. It says "When there are large crowds Jews must not use public transportation. You are allowed only to take a seat when it is not required by any other travellers. 18.9.1941".

Other signs make such statements as "All Jews are obligated to forced labour", "Jews may not run or own a retail shop" and "Jews may not be members of the German Red Cross".

Enjoying a morning drink, this group seem happy enough as a man walks forward to give them some money, but begging, homelessness and poverty here are common. This shot was taken by the fountain in Alexanderplatz, one of the main tourist areas.

The glass dome of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, is meant to represent the new transparent form of government. It certainly presented me with some wonderful photo opportunities.

I spotted this cartoon in the Stasi museum (the polar opposite of transparent government). The wording says "Peace grows from justice" and I certainly hope that this proves to be the case for the future Germany.

It is difficult to sum up how I felt about Berlin as there are so many factors that may have influenced my view.

It is hard to know to what extent your feelings are effected by being brought up by somebody who spent their childhood looking at the war through the barbed wire of a civilian internment camp in Germany. Or my own childhood, watching war movies where the message was as black and white as the monochrome cinematography.

Arriving in an unfamiliar city you also have preconceived ideas gained through historical knowledge of the horrific events perpetrated from this seat of power and the society who either took an active part or through ignorance, fear or intimidation failed to stop the rise of an evil empire. And of course it is wrong to blame today's generation for the actions of their parents and grandparents.

And then there is the intangible psychic vibe, an instinctive gut feeling that you get about a place. The city itself creeps into your consciousness; the grand historic buildings, the remnants of communist architecture, the graffiti and decrepitude, the museums and the ubiquitous memorials to a dark past which some would prefer to forget.

You could see the city as the phoenix rising from the ashes of its past. There is still some anti-Semitism here, as witnessed by the rally against anti-Semitism at the Brandenburg Gate on the day we left, where Angela Merkel told the crowd that it was "Every German's duty to stand up against Jew-hatred" "enough is enough".

There was also a man who shouted insults at us for photographing the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church as it was the bombs of the Western Allies that had damaged it in the first place.

Despite the museums and memorials full of good intentions I was left with a feeling that maybe the process of being at peace with the past is not yet complete in Germany. Although the vast majority of people were friendly, I left Berlin with an unsettled feeling that I could still sense an echo of both the Nazi evil and the oppressive Communist regime and for that reason alone I am not in a hurry to return.

I will leave you with a final picture; taken at the 'memorial for the victims of the Nazi terror who were murdered in the extermination camps'.


Very moving & beautifully written and stunningly illustrated Jon, a tour de force. Well done
Ann Holland(non-registered)
Absolutely beautiful John. Moving and haunting, descriptive and informative. Stunning work, thank you for sharing. x
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