East Berlin

Sunday Times 1995 (ish) 

 

The S-Bahn  train pulls out of West Berlin's  Zoobahnhof station and heads east  over the Landwehr canal. As the train gathers speed a punk wearing combat gear gets up and heaves open one of the doors. Hanging on with one hand, she lets her body swing out over the tracks. Directly below us you can just make out the last remnants of the Berlin wall, defunct since 1989. 

 

It doesn't look like much, this wall, or rather the few remaining stretches that haven't been smashed up and sold off to tourists. It's not that high, not that thick, and it's hard to believe that it divided one of Europe's great cities for twenty-eight years. Though of course it wasn't just a wall  then - it was  barbed wire, seachlights, dogs and armed soldiers too, all backed up by a regime  that had turned a huge section of its population into police informers.

 

While the wall was up , East Berlin was hardly a fun place . I visited it briefly back in 1984 and  it seemed almost a caricature of the greyness of communism.  Prices were cheap but it was hard to find anything  to spend your compulsorily purchased ostmarks on.  You could go to restaurants and observe the surreal levels of rudeness in establishments where employees positively put off customers, because  it didn't make any difference to their earnings whether anyone  ever came in to the place or not. Then you could go to the  supermarket near Alexanderplatz where the DDR had made a pitiful attempt to compete with the wonders of the west and ended up creating something that looked like  the Merthyr Tydfil Co-op circa 1956. You could drink pretty good beer but it was so cheap it didn't make much of a dent in the ostmarks, so you'd end up lugging back boxes of those cute enamel  Lenin badges or stacks of recordings of Brecht/Weill songs.

 

Now, more than ten  years later, I'm going back to see  what's  changed since the wall came down, to find out whether East Berlin has, like Prague,  become a playground for bohemian westerners, or a just another grey ghost town. The first  thing that hits me is that, when the  train rattles into Friedrichstrasse station,  in the heart of the old East Berlin,  you no longer have to run the gauntlet of stone-faced security men before queueing up for day visas and the compulsory exchange of money. 

 

These days you just stroll out of the station onto the street and choose between exploring the (pricey) antique market under the railway arches straight ahead, or turning right towards Unter Den Linden and finding yourself in the midst of Freidrichstrasse's remodelling as a grand boulevard, complete with its very own Galeries Lafayette (open already) and  Planet Hollywood (coming soon).  Which is fine if you like the idea of  city centres becoming internationally  interchangeable shopping malls.

 

There's very little to show  here for the forty-odd years of communist rule. The statues of Marx and Lenin have mostly disappeared, and I begin to wonder whether all that awaits East Berlin now is the chance to become more and more  like West Berlin.  But at the northern end of Friedrichstrasse, I find that one cultural hero of the old DDR still retains a presence.

 

Bertolt Brecht was already a world-famous dramatist when in 1949 -  after a career that had seen him driven out of his native Germany by Hitler and out of the USA by McCarthy's witch hunt -  he elected to spend his remaining years in East Germany. The theatre that he founded,  the Berliner Ensemble, still stands, just to the west of Friedrichstrasse, north of the River Spree, and still puts on his plays.

Another couple of hundred yards north, past that inevitable symbol of western bounteousness, MacDonalds, the serious Brechtophile can visit his last home, the Brecht Haus. Every half hour there's a tour of the seven rooms he lived in with his wife and collaborator, Helene Weigel. Downstairs there's a restaurant where you can eat dishes allegedly based on Weigel's recipes, and, once you've eaten there, you can do as I did and walk next door to the cemetery where Brecht lies buried in a zinc coffin.

 

It's a fascinating place,  the Dorothee cemetery. A small green enclave in the heart of the city, it already boasted the philosopher Hegel amongst its denizens when Brecht made the decision to be buried there. Before he died  he predicted that his choice of burial plot would start a fashion and so it proved.  What few cultural luminati East Berlin could boast, after the war, are all buried here -  Helene Weigel along with Brecht's other lovers and collaborators, Ruth Berlau and Elisabeth Hauptmann, plus the artist and originator of the political photomontage, John Heartfield, and the composer Hanns Eisler.

 

Their gravestones suggest a competition for the most austerely anti-religious memorial.  Brecht himself has a simple chunk of reddish rock  pointing upward. Weigel, buried next to him, has a more rounded stone. Heartfield has a  simple plinth with a runic H carved into it, But Eisler takes the biscuit with his perfectly minimal  granite cube. On which someone has left a single rose. Red, of course.

 

Standing here it strikes me that Brecht's death, in 1956, marked the end of the line for East Germany. One of the few men willing and able to speak up for artistic liberty under communism, he died in the same  year that the Hungarian rising came and went, just as  Stalin's crimes began to be common knowledge. This was a time when the regime  could and should have   responded to the winds of change. Instead it  became ever more repressive, and more and more East Germans started leaving for the west.  The building of the wall in 1961 was the final act of isolation and withdawal, and from then on , East Berlin was stuck in a time war until, in November 1989,  the wall came down; and with it, out of the blue, cameWende - freedom.

 

Walking through the old Jewish quarter, the Scheunenvieertel,  the transformation is remarkable. The main street, Oranienburgerstrasse, is now lined with cafes.  There's plenty of seating out on the street, and all of it taken up by people who look like graphic designers. Further on, there's a great hulk of a building , a former department store which, at first sight , looks to be burnt out and derelict. A closer look reveals that this is Tacheles, the alternative arts centre that has spearheaded a new wave of highly organised  squatting  in the area. Tacheles sports a  cafe, a disco,  a cinema and a number of galleries and artists' workshops.

 

Confronted by the choice between avant garde art and the cafe I go for the latter. Cafe Zapata, on the ground floor of the building, is a dark, cool place and on  a sunny late afternoon it's almost deserted, so I take my espresso and head out back to the garden with tables   around a mutant sculpture garden, doing its best to resemble a post-apocalyptic adventure playground.

 

The people on the next table are drinking beer from the outdoor bar  and conducting some kind of activist committee meeting, and I'm left to ponder on the Tacheles aesthetic, which seems to run to distressed metal things,  and, uh, more distressed metal things. There's nothing particularly different about any of this - there are plenty of places in Ladbroke Grove or SoHo or the Bastille full of twisted metal furniture and junk sculpture - it's just that in Berlin, this stuff looks like the real thing.

 

For East Berlin seems to retain a  memory of two world wars played out across the heart of Europe, This is a place where history has not yet been airbrushed into heritage. Looking at the area around Tacheles I can still see gaps left from wartime bomb damage

And later, carrying on a little further down the main street I come to the Neue Synagogue. A big, proud structure built in the 1860s, its newly restored dome remains a city landmark, but its bulk bears sad witness to the fact that Berlin once had a large, thriving Jewish community.

 

The Neue Synagogue was badly damaged in the anti-Jewish rioting of Kristallnacht in 1938, but saved from complete destruction at the hands of  arsonists by the efforts of the local police chief. However, the Nazis closed it down a couple of years later, and it was then gutted by Allied bombing.  For  forty-odd years the DDR goverment left it there as a ruin, before the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht shamed them into beginning the restoration.

 

Today the Synagogue still has to have a permanent police guard outside it to protect it from the attentions of neo-Nazis, though in the daytime there is no sign of any such folks around. In fact the streets of Berlin are quiet remarkably quiet by the standards of most cities, and the only people likely to accost you in this neighbourhood are eager owners of art galleries.

 

Next to the synagogue there's a sophisticated restaurant, the Cafe Oren, specialising in vegeterian kosher cooking, and  popular with media types. A few doors down is the Cafe Silberstein, all sushi and more twisted metal chairs more suited to looking at than sitting on, but boasting a pleasant courtyard with simple wooden benches that makes for a good place to drink and watch the artists amble by.

 

Round the corner in Grosse Hamburger Strasse there are a couple of pleasant, old style German eateries.  I stopped at one of them for an old-style German repast of schnitzel, potatoes and salad washed down by some  fine beer, and all for not much money at all, Then I walked over the road and had a look at the Jewish cemetery. Or rather the place where the Jewish cemetery used to be before the SS  smashed the gravestones and dug up the remains. Now there's  nothing here but a memorial to the dead of the  concentration camps.

 

The houses around Grosse Hamburgerstrasse and Sophiastrasse, the heart of the area, are now almost all restored; what were once squats are now elegant apartment buildings. Carrying on north to Ackerstrasse I come to the Village Voice bookstore, a handy place to pick up English-language reading matter, and in my case to sit out a sudden rainshower while drinking a Radeberger Pils - one of the few staple products of the DDR to find a continued market  after reunification.

 

By now evening is closing in so I walk back down Auguststrasse, with its selection of alternative art spaces, and pick up a U-bahn

to take me to my next stop, a drink with Berlin's leading crime novelist, Pieke Biermann. Biermann's a veteran of the Berlin 'szene'  - a feminist and leftist whose dark, millennial cop novels have won her a hatful of prizes. She's cynical about the idea of East Berlin becoming a fashionable hangout - 'Who goes there? Tourists I guess.'

 

There's an unmistakable note of rancour in her tone.  To find out why I take the tram up to Prenzlauer Berg. Even under communism Prenzlauer Berg was a bohemian area, and a focus for anti-state activism during the last years of the Honecker regime. The fact that an area with such a history of radicalism should now be full of modish watering holes is doubtless what bothers long-time leftists like Biermann.

 

I decide to start my visit to Prenzlauer Berg by checking out a place called Pasternak that has become something of a byword for the yuppification of the area ('That fake Russian place, ' said Biermann when I mentioned it.  'They don't even know to serve vodka with salt and bread and yet they call it Russian!') And it turns out to be  very nice. Not so much the food, which is so-so, but the ambience. There's a terrace facing the area's major landmark , the looming Wassertum (water tower),  and a dark red interior that manages to be both chic and womblike. There's the usual fine selection of beers and plenty of vodka for those prepared to eschew the bread and salt. As to whether it's touristy, it seemed to me to be so only in the sense that it's fashionable and people have probably come here from all over Berlin, but not in the sense of it being a pitstop for coachloads.

 

Next stop is the rather more laid-back Bla Bla, an old guard Prenzlauer Berg bar that started off as just someone's living room. It still boasts sofas and armchairs but has spread into two rooms and offers a decent range of spirits.

 

Prenzlauer Berg, with its atmospheric gas-lit streets and its legions of cafes and bars may not be the radical centre it was - too many cars, expensive new places replacing old neighbourhood bars, and so on - but as a place to spend an evening strolling from bar to restaurant to bar it's delightful..

 

By now it's around midnight and time to go investigate what the new East Berlin offers in the way of clubs. So, for the first nightspot of the evening, I head for Deeroy's Hifi at the KulturBrauerei. The KulturBrauerei is yet another alternative arts centre,  housed in an old brewery just off Dimitroff, the road that separates the fashionable part of Prenzlauer Berg from its quieter northern reaches.

 

Deeroy's Hifi is a reggae sound system specialising in sixties and seventies classics. It's packed and friendly and  reminds me of how much reggae was the music of the disaffected youth in Eastern Europe. I once stayed in Warsaw with a student who was writing a thesis on the works of Toots And The Maytals and spent years fruitlessly trying to persuade the Polish government to send him on a fact-finding trip to Jamaica. And all those Rasta lyrics about Babylonian oppression never made so much sense as when heard  amid the grey Stalinist heart of Poland.

 

It's two a.m. now, though, and time to exchange seventies utopianism for nineties brutalism. Yep it's techno time. Techno is the ultimate machine music, a stripped-down sound that mixes German electronic music with Motor City rhythms. It may be a sound born in Detroit but its current home is certainly Berlin.

 

Specifically its current home is around the Berlin wall. Techno's mean machine aesthetic works best in big empty spaces, old car factories in Detroit, former bunkers in Berlin. The place I'm heading for, Tresor, is housed in the shell of a big old bank, right opposite what was once Goering's Air Ministry. Later, it became a DDR goverment office, as one might guess from the mural full of happy workers on its wall.

 

Inside Tresor I head straight for the bar next to the ground floor disco. The noise is boneshaking, the music apparently pure beats, with just the occasional  sampled voice thrown into the mix.  The mood though is friendly, and less overbearingly fashionable than it is in London. But then it dawns on me that what I am listening to - deafening though it may be - is not techno but house music, relatively commercial fare. There's nothing for it:  for the full techno experience I'm going to have to head down to the basement.

 

The basement is reached by a low-lit staircase that takes me down into what were once the bank vaults. The stairs bring me out into a fluorescent corridor that eventually brings me out into a bar. The noise, by now, has reached a point at which, if you were try it at home, your neighbours would not be calling the police but a structural engineer to help hold their house up.

 

When you enter the main room, the  music is pure rhythm, with not a scrap of melody in evidence.  The room is completely dark, apart from a strobe that flashes unsually slowly. This effectively puts a delay on my vision and means that the first thing I do is to bump into somebody. And if that isn't disorientating enough the room is gradually filing up with the acrid fumes of dry ice. Fair enough, I think, I know when I'm beaten.

 

Back upstairs the house tunes suddenly sound positively melodic and I find myself amid a crowd of dancers. Not that they're dancing in any conventional way - the thing to do, it seems, is just to  let the titanic volume sway you back and forth like a reed. After a while of this,  I decide to explore a little more and  eventually come out into a garden  strewn with exchausted techno-heads. Turn to look around and the lights of the building sites are everywhere - for just up the road is Potsdamer Platz,  where the corporate might of Sony is spearheading an epic work of construction, so that in five years' time the centre of the city will again be changed beyond recognition.

 

Next morning, it being a Sunday and me being moderately hung over, it's time for some culture. First stop is Anhalter Bahnhof, once the main railway station, now  reduced to a fragment of wall. Wartime damage? Nope, it was blown up in 1952 because someone wanted to buy the bricks, a reminder of the desperate state the city was in after the war.

 

Just north of here is the Martin Gropius Bau, an imposing building currently hosting an exhibition of quite staggeringly hopeless modern art, the kind of stuff that makes Damien Hirst look like Leonardo. To the north of the building runs a surviving fragment of the wall and to the east there's the old site of the SS headquarters, now housing an exhibition called The Topography Of Terror.

 

Feeling as Sunday sombre as can be, I catch  another bus along Unter Den Linden, the monumental boulevard that runs east from the Brandenberg gate. Towards Alexanderplatz its name changes to Karl Liebknechtstrasse and, as I get off the bus there, I ponder on what the communist leader would have made of having a brand new branch of TGI Friday's on his street.

 

The area around here was intended as the showpiece of the old DDR. All traces of the old Alexanderplatz - a teeming, commercial crossroads - were erased in the early sixties, and a vast expanse of windswept concrete put down instead. The whole area feels like  the Newport, Gwent, bus station writ extremely large. There are a couple of gloomy supermarkets, a big glass hotel, a fountain that was apparently a favoured hangout for prostitutes, and that's about it.

 

However, a couple of hundred yards south is the one genuinely memorable piece of Communist architecture in Berlin:  the  Fernsehturm TV tower.  This extraordinary monument to the space race, a huge silver ball stuck on a thousand-foot high pole,  was completed in 1969.  Today, it's  an invaluable landmark, wherever your are in East Berlin. And if I had any kind of head for heights I might just have taken the lift to the revolving restaurant at the top.

 

By the late 80s the DDR had realised that a) tourism could help its ailing economy and b) bloated westerners weren't impressed by  huge swathes of concrete modernism. So they built the Nikolaiviertel,  a slice of instant heritage, a reconstruction of a corner of old Berlin that had been bombed out of existence.

 

And it's worked - up to a point and rather belatedly . This is the one place in East Berlin that is infested by coach tour tourism. I stop for a beer'n'bratwurst in a place called Am Nussbaum, a weirdly detailed replica of a famous sixteeenth-century pub. On the next table a couple of Japanese tourists are being forced, by a guide rather excessively committed to local colour, to drink Berliner Weisse, a sour beer served with an infusion of foul-smelling green syrup. 

 

For the afternoon I had planned a trip to Treptower Park, four or five miles south east of the city centre, alongside the River Spree, and home to a funfair, a riverside pub, and a gigantic memorial to the Red Army dead - the scarcely imaginable 305,000 Russian casualties of the Battle Of Berlin. Only trouble is the trains all seem to stop around halfway there.

 

So I'm left standing on an S bahn platform in the middle of nowhere surrounded - for the first time this weekend, I realise - by real Ossis (the slightly derogatory term former West Germans use for former East Germans). It's easy to spot them : they have the look of the urban poor everywhere, with their snow-washed denim and bottle-dyed hair. And looking east from the station platform I'm suddenly aware that the bulk of East Berlin is just an endless vista of grey tower blocks - grim suburbs like Marzahn which have yet to feel much benefit from reunification. Of course things have improved: East Berliners need no longer fear their neighbours informing on them.  But mass unemployment, as East Berlin's factories close down, one after another, is a hard price to pay.

 

It's a point made again that evening when I meet a journalist named Heinrich Knobloch in a Prenzlauer Berg bar called Kommandantur. Kommandantur has a reputation as an Ossi hangout, so my Rough Guide tells me. It takes me a moment to realise how odd that is. Shouldn't all of Prenzlauer Berg be an Ossi hangout?.  It is after all in the east. But no,  just five  short years after the wall came down,  it's still  seen as something of a novelty that the area's long-term inhabitants should frequent any of its bars. Heinrich tells me that this  attitude is currently breeding a considerable sense of local resentment:  "For a lot of the people round here who threw rocks at the Stasi back in 1989, all this" - he waves at array of chi-chi watering holes around us - "is not the better life they were fighting for."

 

And on that note I head back to my hotel, feeling just a little guilty at how much I've enjoyed this couple of days in East Berlin, and wondering how things will have changed if I go another ten years between visits.