In Berlin, it’s a whole new city, but the Wall’s traces remain

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified a building that was torn down to be replaced by a replica of the Hohenzollern palace. It was the Palast der Republik, which was a parliamentary building, not a presidential palace. This version has been corrected.

September 4, 2014

It’s taking forever to get to my friend Tony’s apartment.

It’s been 25 minutes at least since we got on the U-Bahn in Berlin’s Mitte district, and still the subway stops keep coming — Potsdamer Platz, Gleisdreieck, Bülow Strasse. Aargh. We’re going to be so late, I think, listening with one ear to the Valley Girl chatter of the 20-somethings across the aisle and wondering where all these American kids in the city are coming from. Not to mention the Swedes and the Poles and the Frenchies and Spaniards and Israelis and Russians. And all the ones whose languages I can’t identify. It’s a veritable mini-U.N. here in Germany’s capital. Amazing.

Next stop, Zoologischer Garten. Four more to go. Oh man, it’s going to be 40 minutes before we get there. We should have left earlier. Why is this taking so long? It never took this long to get around before.

Well, of course it didn’t.

That’s because “before” was more than a quarter-century ago, when the Berlin I knew was half the size it is today. You know, in the days of the infamous Wall, which cleft the occupied city in two and turned West Berlin into an island of freedom in a communist sea.

West Berlin was Berlin back then. “I’m going to Berlin,” I’d say — just Berlin — whenever my reporting job sent me there from the West German capital of Bonn. And that other half-city, over the wall? That wasn’t Berlin. That was East Berlin, a forbidding fortress of a place, gray and lifeless, brooding and dull.

If you go: Berlin

Our Berlin, by contrast, was bright and shiny, chic and fashionable. I’d flit up and down the Kurfürstendamm, the elegant shopping avenue, and have lunch at the Hotel Kempinski and shop at the famous department store KaDeWe, and sometimes I’d head to Checkpoint Charlie for a quick incursion into the East. (And hold my breath until I got back out.)

And it never took long to get anywhere, because eventually you always ran into the Wall. Which my hotshot foreign-correspondent colleagues and I knew would never come down in our lifetime.

Until — shock — it did.

And now it’s been 25 years — exactly 25 on Nov. 9 — and it’s all just one big, sprawling city, open and free and exhilarating, construction booming and change all over the place. But hoo-boy, it has. Taken. So. Long. to get across town, from our hotel in the former East Berlin to Tony’s place in Charlottenburg, the heart of the former West. And I’m wondering, as we get off the U-Bahn (which couldn’t even run this far back then) and make our way down the leafy streets, do people even think of the city that way anymore? You know, here it used to be East Berlin, and here it used to be West. Do they remember the Wall?

Because I still do.


Tootling around Berlin on a Trabi-Safari, tourists pass the Brandenburg Gate in what was East Germany’s most common vehicle. (Gordon Welters/for The Washington Post)
Checking out Charlie

I can’t believe it. There’s a circus at Checkpoint Charlie.

By which I mean, Checkpoint Charlie is a circus. Well, what used to be Checkpoint Charlie.

There’s a big crowd milling around in the street at the intersection of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse. Tourists are streaming in and out of the souvenir shops surrounding the little booth that stands on the spot where American MPs used to check my papers whenever I crossed into East Berlin. It’s not real — just a replica of the original guard booth that stood here in 1961, when the wall first went up. (Naturally — you want to play up the most dramatic historical moment.)

It comes complete with a stack of sandbags, a copy of the original sign ominously warning, “You are leaving the American sector” (the real one’s in the nearby House at Checkpoint Charlie Museum) — and actors in military uniform who’ll gladly pose for a photo with you. For only — I squint to read the laminated sheets dangling from their waists — “2 euro; 3 $U.S.”

Sheesh. This is a little cheesy, no? Here? At the former gateway to grimness?

Oh, what a melodramatic party poop I’m being. That was then! This is now, and now, there’s no shortage of takers for those photos. My husband and I watch a steady stream of folks join the two handsome phony young guards with their rifles — a young blond woman, a couple of kids who strike a thumbs-up pose, two giggling and grinning teenage girls.


During the Berlin Wall era, Checkpoint Charlie was the major crossing point for foreigners into East Berlin and a symbol of the city’s division. Today, you can have your photo snapped — for a fee, of course — with actors in military uniform in front of a replica of the original booth. (Gordon Welters/for The Washington Post)

Lots of other people just click away from the sidelines. They’re all going to end up with the same photo of — hmm. A fake Checkpoint Charlie. But hey, better a fake one than a real one, don’t you think? And you know, all the photogs seem pretty happy with it. Like they’re celebrating, even.

As well they should be. This is a place that keeps the Wall’s demise alive, and there’s an air of revelry all along Zimmerstrasse approaching the checkpoint intersection. “Curry at the Wall” shouts a big sign topped by a Berlin bear holding up a giant sausage, advertising the city’s signature street food, currywurst (sausage covered in curry-infused ketchup). As we pass the Trabant museum, a couple of the little rattletrap East German cars, painted in kooky neon patterns, come tootling down the road. They’re back from a tour, the drivers going “honk, honk” on the tinny horns and waving like celebrities.

Man, what a tourist trap. Capitalism with a capital C.

And I love it. It’s freedom!

The Wall remembered

But Bernauer Strasse, on the other hand. Here, the memorial to the city’s 28-year division by concrete is much more sober. No tourist-trapping here. But also way fewer people. (Coincidence?)

We walk up in the morning through Prenzlauer Berg, which was Dissident Central in the East German days. Then, it was dark and gray and empty, the prewar buildings still pockmarked with bullet holes. I was stalked by the Stasi — the East German secret police — here. But now it’s prettily spruced up and cheery in the August sunlight, and the idea that someone would be following you with suspicious intent is just ridiculous.

As we arrive at the memorial stretch where the Wall stood, I hear a tour guide across the street: “So over here was West, and over there was East,” he says. Aha!

I’m standing in what was East Berlin, on the now-grassy ground of the former “death strip” behind the Wall, staring at the side of a building adorned with the gigantic blow-up of one of the most famous photos of an East-to-West escape — a helmeted East German soldier leaping over barbed wire into freedom in 1961. Happened just a little ways from here.


People take a close look at the East Side Gallery, a preserved section of the Berlin Wall. (Gordon Welters/for The Washington Post)

Behind me, a German mother is explaining a relief model of the Wall and the area to her young children. Well, sort of. “See, these are buildings, and these are the streets,” she’s saying, leaving out the Wall. Oh well, her kids are so young, anyway. Probably they’re all just out for a stroll on a lovely day.

We walk along the route of the Wall, which is marked by a row of upright metal rods, past young girls turning cartwheels on the grass, blithely oblivious to the past. But my husband is fascinated by all the round metal “coins” in the sidewalk that commemorate East Berliners’ escape attempts — successful and not so — over the decades. (There were so many.)

We pass the modernist Reconciliation Chapel, built in 1999 on the site of the 19th-century Reconciliation Church that the East Germans blew up in 1985 (just four years before the end!). And then there it is — a preserved section of wall. My husband shoots a few snaps of me in front of it (it rises straight from the sidewalk and towers above my head), and then we cross the street and climb up an observation tower to look down on the re-created death strip behind the gray concrete.

Yup, that’s what it looked like — dirt and barbed wire and a watchtower, and on the far side, another wall. It’s a scene I saw lots of times in years gone by.

But it just seems unbelievable now.

Traffic lights and terror

I’m just gaga for Ampelmann.

“Oh, Tony, your traffic-light guy’s wearing a little hat,” I remark as we cross the street after dinner. A strutting little behatted green “go” figure has just taken the place of his arms-spread-wide red “stop” counterpart. “That’s so cute.”

“Oh yeah, that’s Ampelmännchen,” says Tony, a British journo friend from all those years ago who’s never left Berlin. “He’s Eastern, you know. Just about the only Eastern thing that’s been adopted citywide. It’s the only thing they won out on.”

Ah, yes. After the Wall came down, the West with all its glitz and money invaded the East and took over, and the poor Ossis, or East Berliners, felt overrun and overwhelmed. It’s nice that at least one Ossi creation has united and conquered.


The behatted Ampelmännchen — “little traffic-light man” — is one carryover (and an adorable one) from the former East Germany that can still be spotted across the city. He’s nearly achieved cult status. (Gordon Welters/for The Washington Post)

It helps that he’s so adorable. In fact, Berlin’s official bear mascot had better watch out: A couple of days after I notice Ampelmann (that’s “traffic-light man” in German), we’re on our way to busy Alexanderplatz (the “hub” of East Berlin, where I hardly ever saw a soul in the “before” days), and there right on the main drag is a whole store devoted to the little fellow! I can’t resist. I stock up on Ampelmann gummis and T-shirts and place mats and mugs as my husband grouses, “I can’t believe they have a whole store devoted to a traffic light.” But of course they do. It’s capitalism!

And it’s moving across the East. There’s construction and cranes everywhere. In the Mitte district, the formerly forlorn heart of Berlin that was mostly trapped behind the Wall, they’ve kept the massive communist-built TV tower on Alexanderplatz. But down on Unter den Linden, the Kempinski chain has rebuilt the ruined Hotel Adlon as a five-star celeb center. (“That’s the Michael Jackson hotel!” says a breathless bicycle tour guide. Referring, no doubt, to the infamous episode when the late singer dangled his infant son from a hotel window.) And the huge, boxy Palast der Republik, the parliament building that the communists built after razing the war-damaged royal Hohenzollern palace, is — outta there! To be replaced by . . . a replica of the Hohenzollern palace. Oh, the irony.

And Berliners know from irony. “If we didn’t have the Wall and the TV tower and the Brandenburg Gate, there’d be no tourism in Berlin,” says Frank Barleben, pedaling us in his velotaxi down to the East Side Gallery (another preserved section of Wall, this one covered in artists’ murals). He gives me a wink. “Do you think Walter Ulbricht” — the East Geman president who ordered up the Wall in 1961 — “thought of that?”

No, I bet he did not. Nor do I imagine that he imagined a museum of East German motorcycles. And a store that sells East German products (scratchy dish towels, anyone? — although, I do have to get a couple of these matchbox-size Trabis for the nephews). And the interactive DDR Museum, which is jampacked when we visit. I’m crushed in a line inching its way through the first exhibits toward the noisy Trabant in the corner. No way I’m going to get a chance to “drive” it, though, given that crowd of kids pressed up around the cardboard on wheels, as it was known.

And what’s with all the kids? Do they even know what DDR stands for? (That would be Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the official German name for East Germany.) Maybe not, but they’re all over the place, fighting to weigh themselves on the scale in the model East Berlin apartment (careful, the phone’s tapped), and sitting behind the big bureaucrat’s desk in the office space, and peering into the ersatz dissident’s prison cell with its spare bed and toilet.

Woo-hoo, they’re having fun. And they’ll never know what it was really like.

Not like at Hohenschönhausen, a former remand prison far in the depths of the east. It takes us forever to get there, too — 40 minutes in a taxi! And you can’t miss that you’re in the former East — check out all the shoe-box architecture.


A padded cell at the Stasi prison Hohenschönhausen, in the former East Berlin. (Gordon Welters/for The Washington Post)

The walled-in red-brick prison complex in a tree-lined residential neighborhood was where dissidents and other political prisoners were brought to confess to their “crimes” before being formally tried or expelled from the country. Back in the day, says our guide, Björn, it didn’t appear on any maps, and the houses all around it were occupied by Stasi agents and their families. So no nosy Parkers would sniff around, inquiring about what went on behind that wall, you see.

Ooh, that’s creepy. Like from a movie, no? (In fact, the place had a role in the 2006 movie “The Lives of Others.”) But this was no movie. The whole place is creepy, especially on this gloomy, rainy day, with the windowless cells in the basement, and the antiseptic halls up above, and the metal doors with their peepholes and the cramped, caged outdoor cells where the prisoners took their “exercise.”

There’s nothing interactive or theme-parky here. It’s just the real thing, chilling in its drabness. After reunification, the government wanted to demolish the place, Björn tells us. “But former inmates rose up and protested,” and the place opened for tours in 1994.

To keep another piece of the real East Berlin alive. If you care to remember.

Through a glass clearly

“It’s like sitting on top of history.”

This is my husband on our dining choice for the evening — the restaurant on the roof of the Reichstag, the German Parliament building.

It’s historic, all right — the Reichstag, not the restaurant. The Nazis are famously believed to have burned it in 1933, then blamed the communists and other “troublemakers” so that they could consolidate their power. In 1945, it was seized by the occupying Soviet troops, who planted their flag on the ruined roof. After the Wall went up, just yards away, it sort of sat there, just an occasionally used West Berlin event and exhibit space. But when the Wall fell, it was the scene of joyous, triumphal celebration.

And now it’s back, and wow. I never would have thought I’d be sitting here in a glitzy contemporary restaurant, chowing down on a fine meal and enjoying the panoramic views of Berlin, which will be even better when we get to the top of the glass dome that now crowns the building. Which is, of course, our after-dinner plan.

Along with tons of other tourists’, apparently. That dome’s a big attraction; I can see the people snaking their way up and down the ramps to the top. My favorite factoid from our sightseeing bus tour: The dome’s glass represents transparency in government, and the visitors walking inside it show that the people are above the government. (Take that, East Germany. Oh right, you don’t exist anymore.)

We’ve spent most of this day in my old stomping grounds of West — er, western — Berlin (now a.k.a. City West), doing all the things I used to do — shopping at KaDeWe, lunching at the Kempinski (now Kempinski Bristol), strolling the KuDamm — and it felt like old times. But these times are better, for sure. So what if it takes an eternity to get across town?

I mean, what a thrill to walk right through the Brandenburg Gate, from former West to former East, just like that. I’m thinking this as we stand in the dome and stare at that monument, all lit up and glowing in the dark below. I bet all those young people we see there every day, crowding the Pariser Platz like a German Times Square and gabbling in their cacophony of tongues, don’t give it a second thought.

That whole East-West thing? So 25 years ago.

Though perhaps not quite erased yet. The next day, we’re walking down the Friedrichstrasse and pass a young 20-something couple on bikes consulting a street map on a corner.

“Oh,” says the young man. “We were in the West.” He sounds confused. “But it looked like the East.”

You’re getting there, Berlin. Maybe just another 25 years.

Zofia Smardz is deputy editor of The Post's Travel section. She joined Travel after eight years editing provocative opinion articles in the Sunday Outlook section.
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