Right there is where the end of the earth used to be: That double line of bricks that runs across the street, under the big yellow bus, past the pretty girl with the gray scarf and right, up the street toward the Brandenburg Gate. The strip, maybe 10 inches wide, is where the Berlin Wall ran from 1961 to 1989. Then, it was literally the edge of the world, the dividing line between two completely separate universes, in which even things like the “laws of economics” weren’t so much laws as opinions.
They say that the wall went up overnight, which of course isn’t quite the case. The border was put in place at the end of the war, the wire was strung in 1961 and the wall followed in 1965. But the border was closed very quickly, August 13, 1961, and without warning. In the memories of Berliners, it happened in a snap of Khrushchev’s fingers. There are stories of women visiting their mothers in the Eastern sector who woke up to find themselves separated forever from their husbands and children in the West.
Unless of course, the family was willing to come across to the East. Few did, but hundreds—no one is sure how many, died trying to run, drive, climb, jump, vault or dig their way across to W. Berlin. About 5000 made it.
In a couple of places, they’ve left stretches of the wall in place. It’s not very impressive. It’s about 12 feet high and made of reinforced concrete panels. The portions I saw weren’t very thick either. Supposedly there was a bulldozed open space on the East side of the wall, but there’s no sign of it now. The buildings on both sides come right up to where the wall once stood.
They also say before the wall fell that the East was gray and dirty, endless unpainted concrete blocks. Now, maybe the East is a little denser and the buildings a bit higher and newer, but it has the same look as in any other German city—spotless and prosperous, full of pretentious art and modernish architecture. My cab driver speaks perfect English, and as we drive, he says, “East. Now west. East, again.” I cannot tell the difference.
You cannot see the difference in East and West from ground level, nor can you see it from above. The cocktail party last night was on the fourteenth floor. From that vantage point Berlin looks flat, a little like Milwaukee, filled with houses and five-story business blocks interrupted by dozens of church spires. It is also a capital city, full of beautiful parks and grandiose gilded statues honoring Prussian military victories. It is hard to believe that this same city was a complete wasteland just 70 years ago, although the Germans have dutifully preserved a ravaged church for comparison purposes, complete with bomb holes and scorch marks.
Most of the people working in the hotel are young. Many are blonde, thin, tall and broad-shouldered, with sharp cheek bones and tapered square jaws. They all look like they belong on recruiting posters, gazing upward toward the sky with confident smiles. Everyone I meet is lovely and gracious–polite and friendly, with perfect teeth. I show up to breakfast at 10:58 and ask if they are still serving. The girl looks surprised, “Why of course. Breakfast is until 11.” In Berlin, eleven means eleven, by golly and she has no idea why I find it so funny.
It is hard to believe this city was a bombed out smoking ruin, but it’s even harder to believe that it was ground central of one of worst horrors in history, a horror designed and directed from right down the street. Literally right down the street. From the window, I recognize the columns of the Reichstag. Of course, Berliners have saved examples of the horror, too, in the form of the cells where the Gestapo tortured people.
Half the people at the conference are Jewish, and I quietly ask a few how they feel, and the answer seems to be: We will never forget. But that was then, this is now. It is a good answer, I think. Too many countries are torn apart by people killing people for something their grandfathers did to each other. Nothing will ever make Berlin’s past OK, but people, cities and even countries have to move on.
It’s a beautiful spring day. The TVs in the cafes are showing the trial of the neo-Nazi mass murderer in Norway. Every once in awhile someone will glance at the TV and shake their head. The plazas are full of laughing school kids. Smiling tourists snap photos with iPhones. One kid tries on a cheap replica Red Army hat made in Turkey. A tourist declines an offer to buy a small chunk of the wall as a souvenir.
Here in Berlin, they have decided to treat history as they treated the wall: Tear it down, but clearly mark where it used to be.