Part I: Thanks Gunter

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
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Trip End Mar 09, 2008


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Flag of Germany  ,
Monday, July 23, 2007

I like history. I like German stuff. So Berlin has been a city I have wanted to come to for years. It does not disappoint. We had already planned a week here, and before long we extended this to two. It would be easy not to leave at all. (We will do a couple of entries for Berlin, so nothing from Claude in this one. You can stop reading now Bert.)
 
Arriving in Berlin on our railpass, we immediately made the very economical and unromantic decision to get out of the city on a daytrip so as to maximise the value we got from our unlimited number of trips that day. And so it was we found ourselves 30km outside the city at Potsdam before without even a chance for lunch. Oh I lie. I made time.
 
In so doing, my first impression of this city could not have been better: a 2 euro kebab served by a gently smiling 'George' from Glengarry Glen Ross (Alan Arkin) (esoteric I know, but I have to paint the picture, look him up on IMDB). When I approach his stall I can hear he has a CD on playing Barry Manilow's Mandy.
 
Right then I knew this was going to be my kind of town.
 
Potsdam's Sanssouci Park is essentially like Kellyville's McMansions writ large. Successive emperors - Friedrich or Wilhelm, the family creativity only extended to two names throughout hundreds of years - built palaces, summer palaces, opera houses, Chinese novelty palaces, you name it palaces in this park. They're not small either - two of them are on the Buckingham Palace scale.
 
I had wanted to visit Potsdam as the site of the Potsdam Conference and Declaration where the WWII victors got to divide the spoils. It must have been amazing in that era. At least one of Roosevelt, Churchill or Stalin must have been eyeing one of those palaces as their own. Joe got them though, and as a result they look like hell now.
 
As a result of this excursion, we get to Berlin proper quite late in the day. But we had had a sensational schnitzel and beer meal in the soft evening rain at Potsdam and the tiredness was a well earned one.
 
The next day, we found straight away that Berlin impresses in the true sense of the world. Everything is big, and this is not a Nazi construction thing, as only one of their buildings remains. Its big in a grand designs of the Prussian empire kind of way.
 
Now my pre-20th century German history isn't good. The fact that they had only two names for their kids, even the girls (Fredericha and Wilhelmina, think about it), is about the sum. But visit Berlin, they'll fill you in. I need to make the confessional disclaimer that many of the best lines here have been stolen from a guide we had, but as I chose to go with her I am still entitled to partial ownership. It was an easy choice: it was her or an Australian bloke going for the cheesy board shorts and GDR army surplus jacket look. Ahhh, a history yobbo. No, dude, no.
 
As inferred, we took an excellent free walking tour to start our visit: excellent as we chose to go with Charly (an American graduate student living in Berlin) to get an overview of the city. I know one blog entry in ten turns into a history lesson: I'm sorry, but this is that entry. Please bear with me, this city is as much fun as Pyongyang once you get the back story. But you need the back story.
 
The story of Berlin starts with two guys living in a swamp they decide will be their home. One turns to another and asks what they should call the city. "Berl" is a Slavic word for "swamp", and they were in one, and so was started a 1200 year tradition of Germans naming things with a deft touch for the blindingly obvious. Deutsche Bahn ("German Train"), Deutsche Bank (guess), Der Museum (The Museum) which when they built a new one they renamed the original Altes Museum ("The Old Museum"). This is why the advertising industry is based in New York. 
 
Things don't go so well for Berlin until the Holy Roman Empire send the Hohenzollern family up to straighten things out about 600 years ago. This works a treat, they hung onto 1918. Someone read a copy of The Joy of Tax real early on, used this to fund an army, then figured out the army could be used to conquer more lands, then from this they can collect more tax... you get the picture.
 
Things are going so swimmingly after a few generations one Friedrich (Friedrich The Soldier I think, but don't quote me) decides the Pope can get stuffed and he makes himself a king (the Pope acquiesces to this). The knowledge that one can simply declare oneself a king has left an indelible mark on me. Watch out when I get back, there are going to be some declarations going on: in the lounge, at work, at Thai Noodle Hut. Everywhere.
 
His son, however, is gay. Super gay. I'm-not-interested-in-armies,-actually-Dad- I've-just-commissioned-a-giant-opera-house-for-the-middle-of -your-imperial-city-and-I've built-it-across-the-road-from-your-imperial-armory gay. Dad doesn't take this well, and decapitates his son's "close friend" and organises a marriage. Son warns Dad that an heir is really spectacularly unlikely, but Dad's having none of it. But son Friedrich, trivia buffs, becomes the only leader ever to be called "The Great" (a) in their own lifetime and (b) without needing to threaten the masses. He is a superb military leader. And the Kingdom of Prussia gains in steam and esteem.
 
He dies in 1786, the city now littered with great structures that still stand today.
 
Napoleon barrels in come 1806, and requires his troops to respect Friedrich The Great's tomb, saying if he were still alive Napoleon would not feel the need to come. These were the last civil words in Franco-German relations. Napoleon notes the German's have some neat stuff, and appropriates as much as he can to the Louvre. And so is born the concept in artistic circles of the 'temporary exhibition'.
 
Eventually the little Kingdom of Prussia started to fight its neighbours and win. And win. And win. By the late nineteenth century Chancellor Bismarck looks happily around to his fellow German speaking peoples and says "Look, we all speak German, like great big sausages and wear crazy little shorts and slap each other - how about we all join together and become one big country?". Quickly followed by "Oh, did I mention we just smashed Denmark, Austria and France?". An easy 'yes' decision follows, and now in 1871 you have Germany as we know it.
 
Bismarck - first name Otto thus clearly not in the royal family given their two name only policy - served at the pleasure of Emperor Wilhelm I. He has a son, the creatively titled Kaiser Wilhelm II (another son, Friedrich-Wilhelm, had died within 100 days in office, unluckily for the world). With the most powerful empire in Europe at his disposal he manages to start World War I and lose, thence no more royal family. Their very own Warwick Fairfax of Kaisers.
 
Why all this history? Because it IS Berlin. Magnificent landmarks everywhere: our first sight walking into town is a 70m tall statue of Winged Victory. Nice in itself, but made more amazing when you learn its made out of melted down French canons dipped in gold and then stuck dead centre in the middle of town, and kept there to this day.
 
Why again? The Quadriga - the statue of four horses on the Brandenberg Gate - is a statue that was stolen/ liberated by Napoleon and liberated straight back out of the Louvre and improved by the Prussians by changing the original Goddess of Peace into a Goddess of War, sticking a Prussian Military Iron Cross in her hands (replacing the olive branch there prior), and naming the square under where she looks Parisplatz. For those slow on the uptake with symbolism, that's making your God of War a German (nee Prussian) and having her bearing down on Paris all_the_time. This is made better that, to this day, she stares down and across at... go on, have a guess... 

The French Embassy. 
 
Did I mention history? The Parisplatz square was abandoned as it fell on the East German side and it formed part of the death strip between the two Berlin walls. So that embassy was built post 1990. And still they make them build in the spot with the Goddess of War, holding German insignia, standing there reminding them of just exactly who their daddy is. The French, for their part, design their thoroughly modern and effortlessly stylish embassy in a theme that is clearly reminiscent of a building sandbagged and with gun emplacements (click the photo to enlarge). Touche.
 
How can you not enjoy Berlin?
 
Little elements come out everywhere. While I am forbidden from mentioning Ampelmann, I can mention Bebelplatz. It was here the Nazis organised their first book burning, with students and staff of Humboldt University willingly participating. This is not some $2 Dawkins university, this was the home of Einstein, Planck, Marx and the origin of universities as centres of research to expand the body of knowledge, not merely relay it. The memorial to the event is sunk beneath the square... 20 feet of empty bookcases. And to this day staff and students still act as volunteers out the front of the university selling the books that were burned that night 70 years ago. I found this an excellent memorial in itself.
 
One last one (and its one we haven't visited but its mentioned in the monument museum here): the original is out in the countryside. Its another 100 ft tall statue made at the time of imperial dominance around 1875. It has emblazoned on it: "Victory has put an end to French arrogance", perhaps losing some of the anti-arrogance message by being put on a giant statue, but no one dared tell the Kaiser that.
 
Following an overview tour of the city we spent a day at Sachenhausen Concentration Camp. This is not an experience to enjoy, but ideally its an experience you learn from. And for the hundredth time this trip I found myself questioning the history I had been taught at school now that I was actually a little closer to it.
 
The main point of awakening I had surrounds the question of "how did the world let this happen". It is rarely adequately answered. Yet the world in context in the 1930s was still one of segregation in the US (I never bundled this together with the WWII chain of events), one far less tolerant of any non-white culture in any western country. Hitler started out with a doctrine (and practice) of harsh segregation but not death: as late as 1938 the Red Cross had inspected the camp we were in and declared conditions "harsh but fair". What was there at that time amounted to brutal slavery and total expropriation of Jewish assets: the move to mass murder appearing to come later (from mid 1941 to extremes in mid 1942) when the possibility came up that they might lose with the US now entering the war hence the 'need' for them to develop and go ahead with their 'Final Solution' (death camps and mass extermination). Am I the only one who had a less nuanced view on this after 6 years of high school history which presented this more simply? I have been amazed at my capacity to be surprised about a portion of history I would think I knew the basics of.
 
In need of a cheerier day, the next morning we headed out to the Berlin Wall. While this might sound a little odd, the Berlin Wall is a great day out as you can be guaranteed a happy ending (and some great escape stories).
 
Before coming, I had heard various versions of the events leading up to why it fell when it did, and it was good to hear and read of a history that tied these disparate story elements together consistently and added one element of comic genius in the centre. Gunter. Günter Schabowski.
 
Gunter is living proof of the power of alcohol in bringing people together. But to do Gunter justice, we need to start this tale at the beginning.
 
After WWII, Germany is divided into West and East Germany (easy so far huh?). West Germans are receiving copious amounts of US funding and rebuild quickly. East Germans are receiving copious amounts of Soviet instruction and, well, a lot of Berlin isn't even rebuilt today. Germans are a cluey lot, and pretty quickly start flooding over the border where the West German government happily looks after them. So the border gets closed by the Soviets fairly quickly.
 
But with the main land border closed between the two Germanys, you still have the little matter of Allied West Berlin, located dead in the middle of Soviet East Germany. So its still possible to get yourself across to West Berlin and seek asylum where you can fly out to West Germany. An astounding 2.6m people do this in the next few years (!).
 
Now at this point, a government 'of the people' just banging along helping the proletariat out, may wonder why so many young and smart citizens are leaving everything and running away. It should be a clue. Maybe we need to change something. Maybe its not working. Not these guys: overnight in August 1961 they seal the border in Berlin with a wall. There are great photos at the Wall exhibition of people in houses on the border line making snap decisions to just climb out their window on the Western side. Genius. 
 
The extent of dissatisfaction is captured in a great historic Berlin building. In the 19th century it housed the Prussian Ministry of War, in the 20th Century it was the headquarters of the Luftwaffe (air force). Post war it became the excellently Orwellian Ministry of Ministries. After reunification with Berlin again the national capital, and with a completely straight face, they have made it The Ministry of Finance... yes, the Tax Office. On this building is an imposing Socialist Realist mosaic painting on its facade - the standard group of happy families, beaming workers, abundant corn, good life for all (you know the drill). In front of this, in a clever monument, is a photo of workers taken in 1953 protesting working hours and food shortages. The contrast is of course severe.
 
Genuinely confused with this 1953 protest, the East German government turned to Soviet Russia for help in defusing the situation. Russia says 'hey, no problem comrade, we can fix it' and sent help the next day in the form of tanks: with more than a hundred killed the message was clear. No protests. Bear with me, its relevant.
 
Years go by. JFK visits, starting a precedent whereby (almost?) every US President comes to make a speech about the need for a free and democratic society right in the heart of Soviet territory. Mostly they're genteel about it, bar Ronald Reagan. In 1987 he stares at the cameras and says "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall". Its still on the facades today. (Point of trivia, German monuments and museums note he was met by 50,000 Western protesters during this visit, which Stasi files show were heavily funded by the Soviets through the Stasi, but I digress.) 
 
At the same time, the poor old USSR was flat broke, reduced to looking in the glove box for coins and putting things on dodgy credit cards to pay for things. Quite sensibly, the first thing Secretary Gorbachev does is to tell Soviet satellite states that they should pursue their paths to socialism independently. Figure it out yourselves boys, there ain't no more money from papa.
 
Now most of these states are pretty happy about that. Poland without the Soviet influence is still Poland after all, ditto for Hungary, Lithuania etc. But for East Germany its a disaster - they don't just exist as a country, they'll get swallowed up by West Germany.
 
East Germans, foiled by the Wall, remain a cluey lot, so start taking holidays in newly opening Hungary, which has by now relaxed its border restrictions border with Austria allowing folks to flee to the West. Once again, East Germans are running away from their country. So at this point border controls for East Germans go into total lockdown: no East German can now cross any border, even to the Soviet states where they could previously take holidays. Unhappy people just got made even less happy.
 
Unlike other Soviet outposts, East Germany had continued to allow some freedom of religion: being the birthplace of Luther and Protestantism made this a hard thing to stop. Thus an amazing anomaly existed: while assembling in groups of more than six in any communist state was very much illegal, here you were allowed to go to church. You can fit a lot more than six people in a church. And so a lot of people in 1989 started to find religion, and express some discontent.
 
Eventually there are protest marches - these are amazing people taking a huge chance knowing the fate of protesters in the last 30 years - and they get bigger each weekend until tens of thousands of people are turning out. East German Supremo Erich Honecker doesn't know what to do, and then has a blinder of an idea: everyone likes Gorby, they love Gorby, I'll have him around to speak.
 
But Erich's clearly not been keeping up with the SMH online as Gorby has been telling former Soviet countries to figure things out on their own. So addressing a large crowd of protesters where he is wildly cheered, he tells the East German people that the Soviets won't intervene, that the forces of change are upon the world, and that those who oppose the forces of history will inevitably be crushed by them. So the audience gets the message: we can protest, the games up, and there's no Russian tanks coming to stop us.
 
We're nearly at Gunter, hang on.
 
So the East German government is now in a spot of bother. With now a million plus people gathered for a demonstration they get together for a top level chit chat about straightening everything out and resuming the status quo. They call an international press conference. They book a meeting room. Little triangular sandwiches are no doubt in abundance.
 
Now the plan they came up with was a good one: announce the easing of the hated travel restrictions. But don't announce the fine print, such as how long it will take to get a passport, oh, and a visa, oh, and actually to have enough money to travel anywhere. Bwah ha ha. Dr Evil is still very much alive and well and running East Germany at 8pm on November 9 1989.
 
Now our Gunter loves the odd drink. Gunter starts early most days. And Gunter... misses that meeting. The one where he would have been in on the whole plan, including the bit with the winking about the real plan. Worried by all the other preparations (have we enough chairs? do I get to stand on a podium? have we got everyone a badge?) he doesn't actually turn up to learn the content and context of the meeting itself. He wings it.
 
Gunter, we should mention, was head of East Germany's media and communications directorate.
 
So he stands up in his suit, talks about agricultural production, a new factory and all the usual good stuff for a few minutes and asks if there are any questions. Well, yes, there is a very large question - what do you plan to do about the million people outside?
 
Now this has to be like one of those exam moments when you wonder if you have the right subject's exam paper in front of you. He's a bit ruffled - I knew I should have studied for this! Then he remembers - Yes! I have that piece of paper one of my aides pressed into my hands 15 minutes ago! That thing he was really agitated about me reading... yes, I should really take a look at that now.
 
Pause for a moment, and reflect on the fact that he is reading from a confidential government memo from an always secretive government while live on international television. Also reflect on the thinktank of the German leadership watching this on television upstairs, screaming and throwing poorly made shoes at the set hoping Gunter won't bugger things up.
 
And bugger things up he profoundly does.
 
Gunter, seeing what looks like an answer to the question at hand reads straight from the top. "All travel restrictions on citizens of the German Democratic Republic are to be lifted". Gasps in the room, and then an astute young journalist in the room (whom I believe was Dan Rather) asks "And when does this come into effect?"
 
Gunter could have said nothing. He could still have gotten away with it. He could have indicated 'after a period of review' or something equally meaningless. Anything but what he does do, which is to scan the couple of pages looking for a date, and seeing only the date of the meeting in the top corner, has a guess, leading to the immortal quote "As far as I know effective immediately, right now".
 
Within the hour there are 5000 people at the border crossing at Bernauer Strasse, but you still need a travel document. Statistically in that crowd, someone was likely to actually have the correct travel documents somewhere: and, yes, there were two ladies of advancing years who still had passports and still had papers and were brought to the front. So the barrier opened. Thousands poured through, a flood that could never be checked. Within a year there was one Germany.
 
So for all the pomp, the diplomacy, the strategic plans, the standoffs and the tragedy, it all came down to a significant goof that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. This should teach us all to embrace the chance to have slightly long and well lubricated working lunches and then blurt out the first things that come to mind. It also reinforces for us the seductiveness of Berlin beer and sausages.
 
How can you not love Berlin?
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