The Berlin Wall came down at the end of 1989. A year later we took the night train to Berlin to see what was happening in the city. More than twenty years after that we went back to see how the city was doing. It had changed immensely and was looking great.
There has been a town on the right bank of the River Spee since the thirteenth century. It grew into a city of merchants and eventually became the capital of Germany. During the Second World War much of the city was destroyed. At the end of the war Germany was divided into four sectors governed by the British, USA, France and the USSR. Berlin was similarly divided.1 In 1948 the Soviets imposed a blockade, blocking access by the Western powers to the three sectors of Berlin which they governed - no freight was able to move by road, rail or water. No such restrictions could be placed on aircraft, however, and the blockade was overcome by the Berlin Airlift, flying goods to the beleagured inhabitants. The success of the airlift was an embarassment to the Soviets, who eventually removed the blockade in May 1949.
Cold War tensions had escalated since the end of the war and in 1949 the western allies merged their zones to form the Federal Republic of Germany, including their western zones of Berlin. The Soviet zone, including east Berlin, became the German Democratic Republic. A border thus came into being, not only between east and west Germany but between east and west Berlin. As the situation worsened the border between East and West Germany was closed, but that between East and West Berlin remained open until in August 1961 this border too was closed and construction of the Berlin Wall.2 Berlin, completely surrounded by the GDR, was encircled by a physical barrier. Despite Soviet claims to the contrary, the wall was essentially a means of stopping East Germans escaping to the West.
By 1989 Communism was no longer viable in East Germany. On the 9th of November the Wall was breached. The scenes were jubilant as East Berliners were freely able to cross into West Berlin and sections of the wall were torn down.3 East Germany and its politics were demolished along with the Wall and on the 3rd of October 1990 the two Germanies united to form, once more, a single country.
On the 7th December, 1990, just two months after the reunification of Germany, we took the night train from Basel to see what was happening in the city. We had no idea what to expect but found a city with lots of budding entrepreneurs - selling off bits of the Wall and lots of Military items, mostly uniforms. We'd heard there was strong anti-Russian feeling but didn't actually see any of this - we met some very jovial Russians who persuaded me to buy a Russian ice hockey shirt (it's languished in a drawer ever since!).
On arrival in 1990 we had breakfast in a cafe near the station, later in our visit we had lunch at Ka De We, the iconic department store, and in both places the waiting staff were extremely rude and yelled at customers (not us thankfully). One evening we tried to get tickets to go to a concert and went to the wrong place - the receptionist here was also extremely unpleasant. Yet one evening we had a meal in Kempinski's and arrived in a downpour - the waitress couldn't have been nicer providing lots of serviettes to dry my hair. Excellent meal too!
In 1990 we stayed at the Hotel Metropol, a supposedly 5 star hotel at 150-153 Friedrichstrasse - a block of a building but OK for a few nights. At breakfast we could see across the street some kind of factory belching black fumes! It was a few blocks north of Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse, so technically we were staying in "East Berlin".
The Brandenburg Gate at the west end of Unter den Linden - a beautiful wide boulevard named for the lime trees which line it - was commissioned as a peace symbol by Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II and completed in 1791.4 It was damaged but not destroyed in the Second World War.
At the time of our visit in 1990 the famous four horse chariot or Quadriga was missing from the top of the gate. In 2013 it was back in place.
Around the Brandenburg Gate in 1990 people were selling all kinds of stuff from makeshift stalls: Russian Matryoshka dolls - those which open to reveal another doll - gas masks, tools and stacks of military uniforms.
There were also supposedly bits of the Wall for sale, with supporting photographs, but whether these were real or not we couldn't tell.
Strasse des 17 Juni stretches west of the Brandenburg Gate and there is a wonderful statue here of a girl facing the Gate - she looks as though she is calling into the East. This lovely statue is "Der Rufer" ("The Caller or "The Crier") by Gerhard Marcks; inscription on the pedestal: "Ich gehe durch die Welt und rufe 'Friede, Friede, Friede" ("I walk through the world and cry peace, peace, peace").5
Bordering the road is the Tiergarten, a vast park with, at its centre, the Victory Monument, the Siegessäule, which survived the war virtually unscathed. It commemorates Prussian victories at the end of the nineteenth century and at 67m high it can be seen from quite a distance.
On Simonsweg in the Tiergarten there is a memorial to the Romany people - upto half a million were killed by the Nazis. The memorial takes the form of a still, dark pool of water with a triangular stone at its centre representing the badge that concentration camp prisoners wore.
On the north side of the road stands the impressive Soviet Memorial which hadn't changed at all in 23 years except there were no guards in 2013. It has a fine statue of a Russian Soldier and nearby the first two Soviet tanks to enter the city. In 1990 the memorial was guarded by two Soviet soldiers.
In 1990 the temperature was of the nostril-freezing variety - unbelievably cold. At times I couldn't feel my feet and had to stamp up and down the pavements to make sure they didn't die on me.
I was almost too cold to take photographs.
South west of the Tiergarten is another fine modern sculpture, this one on Tauentzien Strasse is "Berlin" by Brigitte and Martin Matschinsky-Denninghof, 1987, so it was created before the Wall came down. It marked the city's 750th anniversary.
Aside from being a very striking sculpture, it beautifully frames the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche or Memorial Church which was badly damaged in the Second World War and left as a memorial.
In 1990 we travelled north west by U-Bahn which we used a lot - then it was very scruffy, the machines didn't always work, everyone looked miserable and there were lots of tramps. In 2013 it was vastly improved, clean and efficient.
We visited a Russian Orthodox Cemetery (U-Bahn to Holzhauser Strasse) which had been established in 1892 and has a lovely cemetery chapel of brick with beautiful blue cupolas.
West of the city Charlottenberg Palace was a welcoming respite in 1990 from the relentless reminders of war, built in 1699 and the favourite of Queen Sophie-Charlotte, wife of Friedrich Wilhelm I. Much enlarged during the following century, the building exterior is beautiful but the interior is very much in the baroque style which is not to my taste at all. However, a highlight was discovering the famous painting (one of five versions) of "Napoleon crossing the Alps" by Jacques Louis David.
In 1990 we did not go into the Reichstag - I'm not sure it was even possible.At that time it was not yet the seat of government. In 2013 it was one of our must-sees as the new dome looks fabulous.
The building was originally completed in 1894 but was severely damaged in the Second World War. There was already a glass and steel dome which had to be demolished in 1954 after a fire damaged part of the building in 1933 and further destruction caused by WW2 bombing raids.6 Essentially, after the war, the building was in ruins but underwent reconstruction in the 1960s.
After reunification on October 3 1990 it was decided that the Reichstag would become once more the seat of parliament. The building was restored by the British architect Sir Norman Foster and included the magnificent new dome.
We ordered tickets online before travelling to Berlin so it was very efficient and no queuing. The reflections from the glass are mesmerising. From the roof of the building there are wide views over Berlin.
The interior is a photographers dream with fabulous curves, grids and silhouettes.
Part of the Berlin Wall stretched along Ebertstrasse south from the Brandenberg Gate to PotsdamerPlatz. Nothing remains of it here now except a mound of earth marked by an information board. This area was a complete wasteland in 1990. At that time we tried to find the location of Hitler's Bunker from where he directed operations at the end of the Second World War. It was located in what would become East Berlin, east of Ebertstrasse, south east of the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate.
At the time we weren't sure if we were in the right place, but there was a film crew there who also seemed to think they were at the correct location. It was a huge, desolate patch of ground with a bump in it where we think the bunker was and a wide strip where the Wall used to be. Now (2015) I think we were in the right place - the mound in the photograph is identified as the location of the bunker but since the area was levelled by the Russians after the war, nothing remains to be seen.8 Probably just as well.
Just south of where we were looking for the location of Hitler's bunker, we found large sections of Wall, probably Niederkirchnerstrasse which leads to Checkpoint Charlie.
This famous checkpoint between the Soviet and US sectors is now throughly reconstructed, though in 1990 it looked quite different. Checkpoint Charlie was the border crossing between East and West Berlin for foreigners and Allied Forces military personnel.
We went to the interesting little museum at Checkpoint Charlie, well worth a visit, mainly about escape attempts. We thought we might take another look in 2013 but felt the entry charge was ridiculously high and it looked to have been thoroughly modernised so we gave it a miss.
Along this section of the Wall there were many people selling items of military uniforms.
North of the city centre we went to Chaussee Strasse where there used to be a border crossing, it was all very bleak but interesting - in some places it felt like walking back in time 50 years, which, I suppose, isn't surprising! All apartment blocks, no grass or trees except in a cemetery. On to Bernauer Strasse where the official demolition began in June 1990. It was very atmospheric, but also cold and wet so we retreated to KaDeWe for lunch.
Though we did not see remnants of the Wall on Bernauer Strasse in 1990, when we returned in 2013 a large Berlin Wall Memorial park had been constructed. Metal markers run along the Wall's original location.
The Wall was actually two walls separated by a wide corridor of cleared land which became known as the "Death Strip".
At the southern end of the Memorial park, at Ackerstrasse, original pieces of Wall separated by Death Strip are enclosed by steel walls and can be seen from a nearby elevated viewing platform. It is the most atmospheric site giving a real impression of what the Wall was like.
At this section of the Wall apartment buildings were situated very close and many people tried to escape to the west when the Wall first went up. They jumped from windows into rescue nets held by the West Berlin fire department, or slid down ropes. There were injuries and deaths. The buildings were evacuated shortly afterwards.10
Potsdamer Platz has undergone a huge transformation and is now a very busy area with modern high-rise buildings.
An international team of architects, led by the Italian Renzo Piano, designed the new buildings in the Potsdamer quarter.11
I was on a bit of a mission when we passed through Potsdamer Platz to seek out the nearby Hansa sound studios on Köthener Strasse. This is where David Bowie recorded "Low" in 1976 and "Heroes" in 1977. Bowie's "Berlin Years" were also the inspiration for "Where Are We Now" from his brilliant 2013 album "The Next Day". They are located in the Meistersaal. The door was open so we wandered in but couldn't get to the actual sound studios.
On the east side of Ebertstrasse, between Potzdamer Platz and the Brandenberg Gate, is the atmospheric Holocaust Memorial. Up to six million European Jews were murdered by the Nazis, simply for being Jewish, in events leading upto and during the Second World War.12
The memorial is in the form of a Field of Stelae, designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman and completed in 2004. It is composed of over 2,700 concrete blocks, vaying in height, but all 0.95m wide and 2.38m long, set on gently undulating ground.13
One cheerful aspect of the city in 1990 was the Christmas Market - I'm sure it's much bigger now!
Christmas lights were strung around the roofs of little hut-style stalls selling colourful Christmas goods.
Near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church there was a line of stalls selling lots of different types of traditional German Christmas food and drink.