IHAVE had the good for.tune to know many of the great cities of the Western World—New York, Washington, San Francisco. Rio, Buenos Aires, London, Rome, Paris. But only one haunts me wherever I go: Berlin.
Why? Certainly not because of the beauty. Berlin has always rated way below the others on that score. Attraction? Not in the accepted sense. It is a dull, grey, heavy, rather monotonous city, albeit with a wealth of parks, lakes, woodland and greenery that do much to redeem the heaviness.
Perhaps it is overburdened with memories. Memories of the First Reich, that Imperial Germany which now seems so far away and long ago. Memories of the Weimar Republic, that all-too-fleeting hour between the two wars when Berlin became virtually Europe's cultural capital.
Above all, memories better left unprobed of Hitler's Third Reich—and the final holocaust that left literally half the city a pile of rubble.
It is impossible to look at Berlin without remembering the Third Reich. The innumerable car parks and empty spaces, often cunningly concealed with greenery throughout West Berlin remind one of the fearful last days of the Giitterdiirnmerung that Hitler swore he would call down upon the Germans should he fail.
In East Berlin less trouble has been taken to disguise the yawning gaps and huge, open plots of waste land that even today speak so clearly of the bombings and Russian shellfire that pulverised what was left of a once great city.
Above all. it is the Wall that haunts one. That everpresent Wall, often invisible, rarely as high as expected, yet somehow in West Berlin one cannot escape it. It always feels close and one is perpetually circling round to avoid it—the unseen presence that soon becomes part of the subconscious. A German official described it as Hitler's last and most chilling legacy of all. He was right.
Without doubt West Berlin has staged a remarkable recovery since 1945. The girdle of lakes and forests surrounding the city are as before. In the Grlinewald Forest alone several million trees have been planted, with another quarter of a million along the alleys and avenues to replace those destroyed by the bombings.
Today the many parks, woods and shaded avenues make West Berlin once again a real garden city, while impressive modern architecture does credit to post-war planing.
West Berlin's centre is the area round the Kaiser Wil helm Memorial Church. on the Kurftirstendamm, which in parts resembles an immensely elongated Piccadilly. This church is a memorial, not to the mustachioed anti-hero of the First World War, but to his far more popular grandfather.
It has purposely not been restored, the broken spire serving as a grim warning of the horrors of war. All around there is a curious mixture of tasteless opulence side by side with sleazy tawdriness.
On the one hand, stores displaying the latest Paris models, furs and expensive jewellery, alongside immense models of nudes advertising films, sordid "sex shops," suggestive night clubs. etc.
But there is also the weirdest assortment of dirty, unkempt hippies, complete with beards and waist-length hair, to be found anywhere in Europe (and that's saying a lot). many littering the pavement on one side of the "Ku
damm," as Berliners call it, with a strange collection of trashy rubbish for sale, largely mock-oriental.
Add to this the even more sordid and less opulent area round the Zoo Station, now West Berlin's main railway station and a Mecca for undesirables, and you'll lind the main impression made by the centre leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, despite all the shops crammed with luxury goods and the cafes displaying a huge abundance of gooey cream cakes.
There is just too much affluence and ostentatious wealth. But full marks must be given for the loving care lavished upon the Green Belt and chain of silvery lakes that are the West Berliners' pride and joy.
At first sight all this display of wealth, emphasising the materialistic side of Western capitalism at its worst, seems to play straight into the hands of those controlling the destinities.of Die tiriiben — the people beyond the wall. And indeed one enters an entirely different world. once past Checkpoint Charlie.
Border formalities have been cut to a minimum. You simply enter a crowded but with a long corridor. fill up a form and hand in your passport. Within ten minutes or so the latter is returned with a permit allowing one to spend up to midnight in East Berlin.
You then exchange a minimum of 60p (a disguised form of tax, as all such currency must be spent before leaving) and that is all there is to it.
I found the officials, many of them attractive girls, clearly selected for an exercise in public relations, scrupulously polite, even friendly. Nervous visitors can, if they wish, register with the American or British Military Police before leaving the Western sector, but it would appear quite superfluous nowadays.
One emerges into Friedrichstrasse—formerly a Ber
lin equivalent of, say, Oxford Street—and at once memorries crowd in. Can this possibly be the bustling. crowded metropolitan thoroughfare of former days'?
Now it is just a broad street with here a block of nondescript. drab houses, there a dilapidated building all on its own, then perhaps a couple of isolated, tawdry little shops—and everywhere big, gaping spaces mutely eloquent of wholesale destruction. Virtually no traffic and few pedestrians.
Where a famous hotel once stood. there is a small café selling fly-blown cakes that couldn't look less appetising. Friedrichstrasse Station, once the city's main terminus. looks as sleazy as the other buildings. All in all, Friedrichstrasse makes anyone who knew pre-war Berlin feel like Rip Van Winkle.
Unter den Linden. Berlin's equivalent of the ChampsElysees, has had a good face lift. The imposing Brandenburg Gate. the State Opera, the Princesses' Palace and many of the historic buildings have been tastefully restored or rebuilt. Others have vanished for ever.
Museum Island. containing the Bode Museum with its world-famous "Altar of Pergamon" and other unique treasures of ancient Greek civilisation, escaped destruction, but the nearby Lutheran Cathedral is a mere shell, with greenery and trees growing at a right angle from the upper part of the structure.
St. Hedwig's Catholic Cathedral, on the other hand, which was all but razed, has been well restored and remains a fine example of neoclassic architecture, if somewhat cold.
But by far the most interesting part of East Berlin is its hub, the Alexanderplatz, popularly known as the Alex. Post-war "prestige" building started on a large scale along the Karl Marx Alice, formerly and deservedly known as the Stalin Alice, reminiscent of the dreariest Stalinesque period of Moscow architecture.
Apart from the many huge blocks of "prestige" buildings around this area, far less has been done than in the Western sector to hide the scars of war. and the open spaces arc on a much larger scale still. But the immense cranes and girders all round the Alex, along with endless traffic diversions and the ceaseless whirr of pneumatic drills, are producing results.
Imaginative and far from tasteless skyscrapers are rapidly taking shape and within a few years the Alex bids fair to become Europe's most dramatic, modern city square, of truly titanic proportions.
The youngsters, unlike their counterparts on the "Kudamm," are quiet and well behaved. Moreover, they look clean and tidy. Long hair and beards are out.
At first sight, strange as it
may seem, East Berlin presents a healthier, pleasanter and far quieter picture than the hectic and luxury-obsessed impression. tinged with degeneracy, given by West Berlin's centre, where only the majestic ruins of the Memorial Church bring a touch of grim reality. But flies in the Eastern ointment soon make their appearance.
The peace and quiet is due to the lack of motor traffic, admittedly a very welcome change after Wcst Berlin's swarming cars. The absence of traffic round the Alex is particularly noticeable. and it is possible to cross the almost fantastically wide Karl Marx Alice without discomfort.
Queues of shabbily dressed housewives can be seen outside grocers' stores. Supplies are limited in quantity and poor in quality. Prices, although well below West Berlin's astronomic scale, arc relatively very high for the workers. (An East Berlin worker takes twice as long as his West Berlin opposite number to earn enough to buy a pound of flour, and six times as long for coffee.
Restaurants and cafés arc crowded, but this is largely due to the limited amount of them. On the other hand, a good, if undistinguished, meal can be had for much less than half the price one would pay in any decent West Berlin restaurant, where admittedly gourmet standards are far higher. Transport, too, is cheaper in East Berlin.
In reality, the city's entire transport system runs on Alice in Wonderland lines. The U-Bahn (tube) functions efficiently in both sections, but the two networks are completely cut off from one another. The S-Bahn (overhead electric) is controlled by East Berlin and operates throughout the entire city, as does the main railway line, which is also controlled from the same quarter.
Friedrichstrasse Station, a pale shadow of its one-time self, is the principle border crossing-point for rail travellers. But the S-Bahn, precisely because it is controlled from the East, is boycotted by West Berliners, even though it is cheaper than the Western sector's own transport.
At times it is almost eerie to watch the all but empty trains go by overhead. The absurd nature of this transport system alone brings home the folly of a city thus artificially and nonsensically divided.
Before the last war, Berlin was, after London, Europe's largest capital, both in size and population. Even today, with well over 3,000,000 inhabitants, it is still a great city, yet with enough countryside encroaching upon the urban limits to include several hundred farms. But imagine London with a great wall hermetically sealing off the western half from the eastern and running from, say, Elstree to Surbiton!
It is an odd feeling to stand on the Klein Glienicke bridge, by the narrow stretch of water separating the West Berlin forest from Potsdam, and listen to the rattling of Potsdam's ancient trams in the distance, while knowing that a Berliner has no more chance of visiting Potsdam than New York.
They are two worlds that are fated never to meet. Families separated for a lifetime.
There is even a short stretch of pavement along the road leading to the bridge where you are warned by U.S. Army notice boards not to walk, as it is East Berlin territory, despite the wall behind—the consequences of a stroll along what is no more than a hundred yards of seem ingly ordinary and innocentlooking pavement could be highly unpleasant . . .
Will the two Berlins be reunited one day? Political prophecy is always rash, but despite slight border-crossing alleviations promised by East Berlin for the near future, there can be no such prospect for many years ahead, if ever.
A whole generation has grown up that has never known a united Germany or a united Berlin, and seemingly has little wish to do so. West Berliners are remarkably indifferent about what goes on behind the Wall. while their fellow-citizens over there know that it pays not to think and, if they do, to keep their thoughts to themselves.
A visit to Berlin has a sobering effect. It is a pity that many are deterred by fears of border-crossing formalities, which are now minimal. In West Berlin today one cannot help but feel something slightly unreal, despite a feverish gaiety that often degenerates into depravity and the resilient courage of the people, which no one can fail Somehow all the opulence seems hollow and unsatisfactory—and one has a feeling that at heart the West Berliners know it. They may no longer be living on the edge of a volcano, but is an empty, meaningless vacuum so much better?
East Berlin. on the surface. may seem saner and healthier. Certainly there arc no signs of open profligacy or vice. But it is impossible not to be aware of the lack of liberty. the limited cultural and artistic freedom, the repressive machinery of the police state —and, above all, the dull. drab dreariness spreading like a miasma.
Also that ever-present Wall. which is constantly in one's thoughts. Two worlds that never meet, so close physically and yet so far apart in outlook.
The tourist brochures tell you that Berlin is "worth a visit." It most certainly is. but not quite for the reasons they give. No wonder Berlin, unable to escape from past memories and present tragedies. haunts one ...