Berlin 40 Years On…

Photo of the Brandenburg Gate by Thomas Wolfe

Two weeks ago I was in Berlin just a week before the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I couldn’t help but remember my very first trip to Berlin in 1970 when I led a group of American experts, professors and students on a study tour of Urban European Development.

We had traveled from Amsterdam to West Berlin on the overnight train and after two days studying the revival of West Berlin, we crossed into East Berlin.  The Wall had been quickly erected in 1961 and East Berliners could not longer cross into West Berlin while we, as international travelers, could cross only on the S-Bahn (elevated City Railroad) or by car at Checkpoint Charlie.

After touring a revitalized West Berlin we boarded the S-Bahn at the Zoologischer Garten Station and crossed the border into East Berlin.  From the train one could easily see the Wall and the “dead zone” with the East German guard towers.  At Friedrichstrasse Station we got off and passed through East German customs where we were required to exchange 25 West German Deutsche Marks for 25 East German Marks.  Of course the real value was nowhere near one to one but it didn’t matter for there was little one could buy.

We walked from the Friedrichstrasse Station down side streets towards the Brandenburg Gate.  The contrast with West Berlin was striking for the shops were few and their windows had little to offer.  Unter den Linden, once the great ceremonial boulevard of Imperial Berlin, had been rebuilt in a uniform sterile Soviet architectural style.  We did have a look at the famous Museum Island which had housed the impressive Prussian Museums but was bombed out in World War II.  Little did we know that it would be almost another 40 years until the last of the museums would be rebuilt.  So, after walking around a bit longer we scurried back to the S-Bahn and the bright lights of West Berlin.

Over the next 40 years I must have visited Berlin a least a dozen times often for the ITB tourism exhibition.  After the fall of the wall in 1989 it took a while for the momentum of change to grow.  Susan and I recall emerging from the U-Bahn Station at Potsdamer Platz in 1993 to find that the cleared open area “dead zone” by the wall was still there.  But all of this changed quickly and today Potsdamer Platz’s with its dynamic modern skyscrapers is the symbol of the New Berlin.

The newly reopened Neues Museum in Berlin

This recent visit just prior to the 20th anniversary was a striking contrast.  The Neues Museum, the last museum on Museum Island to be rebuilt, had just re-opened after years of reconstruction and we quickly obtained tickets to view its great Egyptian and Roman collections.  Stunningly displayed within the ruins of the old 19th century building was the bust of Nefertiti and other amazing items from the collections.

But the even more amazing was that East Berlin has once again become the true heart of the united Berlin.  While the former West Berlin is still lovely and full of life, the surge of development in the Mitte District in just 20 years has created scores of offices, hotels, restaurant and shops and the once sterile Unter den Linden is again thronged with scores of people night and day.  And the artistic and cultural revival is equally dynamic.  Perhaps Berlin is today Europe’s most exciting capital city.

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