In a bleak 1956 winter, Berlin was freezing, fragmented and fraying at every edge. With the Airlift six years past, the city was intrigue-ridden, dangerous and governed by military proconsuls of the victorious Allies. But nobody in the wildest stretch of imagination could have envisioned a Wall six years later.
Before the Wall, visitors—few in number—wandered freely throughout the legendary cradle of the Hohenzollern dynasty. The Tiergarten, Kaiser Bill’s hunting preserve, contained a few brave saplings, otherwise having been shorn by Allied bombs, Soviet artillery and firewood-gleaners.
Visitors oriented themselves to political geography by streetlights and shop windows. Curved light poles were all located in the West. Neither bananas nor Coca-Cola could be found in East shops. An industrial lump of wreckage—Hitler’s former chancellery and bunker—marked the edge of the Soviet sector. In the somewhat happier West, Berliners were looking forward to summer when they could sip the raspberry-tart berlinerweiss beer in Kurfuerstendamm cafes that were soon to become the symbol of resurgence.
THEN CAME 1961: Hitler’s former bunker had sprouted tufts of grass visible across Berlin’s latest indignity – the Wall. No longer did visitors wander freely through all sections, or even venture dangerously near the fraction of the city that had become East Germany’s capital. Checkpoint Charlie stepped upon the stage of history and grew into a maze of guard towers, steel-plated emplacements and tank traps. Without much else in the way of consumer goods to boast, East Berlin had a plentiful supply of bananas—and Havana cigars.
To accommodate reporters, spies and ultimately the tourists, “Charly,” a watering hole, emerged a short distance from its famous namesake. By 1990, Lily the barkeep had seen it all: the dangerous faceoff between Soviet and American tanks…Defecting East German border guards leaping the barricades with their burp guns shoulder-slung or, more ominously, vopos dragging escapees back behind the Iron curtain…Tearful reunions and, finally, wild dancing atop the wall when it and East Germany crumbled.
TODAY, BERLIN IS ECCENTRIC, but unified. All that remains of Checkpoint Charley’s to recall the bad old days is a misleadingly benign panel of the Wall and, despite little encouragement from the city fathers, an excellent private museum. Berlin wants to forget its cloak-and-dagger past; the tourists want to remember. The scar is healed, and the tourists must search out someone whose memory predates 1990. On the site of Hitler’s chancellery sits the Holocaust memorial, which by intent or chance resembles the 1956 wreckage of the bunker.
Perhaps the most poignant reminder of how bad things got during the Cold War and how good they’ve become is the Glienicke Bridge. This graceful old span stood virtually abandoned on the city’s outskirts until 1962 when Col. Rudolf Abel, on involuntary leave from the KGB, and Francis Gary Powers, a U-2 pilot who had not been working in his specialty either, passed each other as exchanged spies. Today anyone can stroll in the footsteps of these two gentlemen and continue onward to see Potsdam’s Sans Souci palace, Germany’s answer to Versailles.