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back in the day
The Darker Side of Berlin
When we met in the Officer’s Club at RAF Gatow he said his name was Alex, an engineer with the British Army in West Berlin. He offered to show us around the city at night and the weekend when he wasn’t on duty. Alex spoke German and drove an old black Mercedes Benz two-door coupe. It had been an SS Officer’s staff car during the war and still commanded respect around the city. When we approached a major intersection, controlled by a West Berlin policeman standing on a platform in the center of the road, Alex flashed the car’s headlights. The policeman stopped the other traffic and waved us through with a salute. When we visited a nightclub along the Kurfurstendamm Alex parked on the sidewalk and the doorman watched the car while we were inside. He was a regular at the clubs where inter-table telephones were used to meet the local girls, buy them a drink or ask them to dance. I was young with little money so just followed Alex.
It was fourteen years after the Battle of Berlin destroyed most of what was left of Berlin after the Allied bombing raids. Rebuilding the city was moving slowly. I was not prepared for the devastation we saw and was nervous about the Soviet threats to recognize the East German government and force the Allies out of Berlin. It was obvious that a lot was happening in the shadows and darkness of the city that was effectively divided into east and west. A visit to the Military Liaison Office, to let the officials know we were in Berlin, added to my concerns when their response was unexpectedly abrupt. They told us that as we were civilians we shouldn’t be in Berlin and if we did get into trouble with the East Germans or the Russians they could not help us. The Army officer did not record our names and suggested we return to West Germany. We continued to explore West and East Berlin during the day and the nightclubs on the Kurfurstendamm at night.
For many years afterwards I struggled to articulate what I saw in 1959 so turned to Christopher Isherwood’s description of West Berlin (The Berlin Stories: New Direction Books, 2008). Like many others, I read The Berlin Stories after I had seen the 1966 Broadway show and the 1972 movie Cabaret with the outrageous Sally Bowles and the very “camp” Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub. Isherwood had lived in Berlin in the early 1930s and returned in 1952 when he wrote:
…the Kurfurstendamm was one of the still few areas of relatively intact prosperity. At the end of it, the nineteenth-century-Gothic Memorial Church looked more Gothic than ever in its jaggedly pinnacled ruins. The Tauentzienstrasse beyond was like an avenue of shattered monuments. Through wide gaps between formless mounds of rubble, you got views over the great central desert of destruction, and saw the Sieges Saeule rising forlornly from the treeless, snow-covered plain of the Tiergarten, which was dotted with bizarre remnants of statuary: a uniformed general, a naked nymph on a horse. In the background, the skeleton of a railroad station showed up starkly; and against the blue winter sky, a red flag fluttered from the Brandenburger Tor, entrance to the Soviet sector. There was something double strange about this landscape. It is strange enough to see a vast city shattered and dead. It is far stranger to see one that is briskly and teemingly inhabited amidst its ruins. Berlin seemed convinced that it was alive; and, after a few hours there, you began to agree that it certainly was….The fronts of the buildings were pitted with shrapnel and eaten by rot and weather, so that they had that curiously blurred sightless look you see on the face of the Sphinx.
Isherwood was describing West Berlin. The eastern sector where the iconic buildings had once stood was a different city because little had been done to rebuild them or remove the rubble from the grassed over blocks of land. Isherwood wrote:
Berlin…had an intensely dramatic doubleness. Here was a shadow-line cutting a city in half – a frontier between two worlds at war – across which people were actually being kidnapped, to disappear into prisons or graves. And yet this shadow-frontier was being freely crossed in the most hum-drum manner every day, on foot, in buses, or in electric trains, by thousands of Berliners commuting back and forth between their work and their homes. Many men and women who lived in West Berlin were on the black list of the East German police; and, if the Russians had suddenly marched in, they couldn’t have hoped to escape. Yet, in this no man’s land between the worlds, you heard the usual talk about business and sport, the new car, the new apartment, the new lover…. Berliners love to talk…in rich, confident tones…with a blunt directness which is both rude and friendly – and even in their grumbling there is a note of pleasure.
The population of Berlin declined from about 4.3 million in early 1939 to 2.8 million by August 1945. Many Berliners had fled to West Germany to escape the Russians. During the day there were few young men in the streets, mostly older men and women sweeping the streets. Before the war Berlin’s nightlife was centered on the “cabaret mile” on Friedrichstrasse, near the train station, and Alexanderplatz. There were over 250 bars, variety theaters, nightclubs and cabarets on Friedrichstrasse – many places where you could not take your grandmother. After the war Friedrichstrasse and Alexanderplatz were in the Soviet Sector so the nightlife was centered on the Kurfurstendamm in West Berlin. Most of the customers in the nightclubs were Allied military personnel in civilian clothes. The cabarets were expensive especially if you were generous enough to buy drinks for the girls or “boys”. East Berlin had its own currency, the Ostmark, and the black market exchange rate with the Deutschemark, used in West Berlin, was 5 to 1, sometimes 10 to 1. Many West Berliners took the risk and travelled on the U-Bahn to East Berlin to buy cameras made at the old Zeiss factory at Jena in East Germany to resell in the west, alcohol and other goods, or just to change money to give to relatives in East Berlin. The black market was thriving, despite the efforts to stamp it out, and the Stasi closely watched travelers to and from East Berlin especially at night.
After a few drinks at a nightclub on the Kurfurstendamm Alex suggested we take the U-Bahn to East Berlin to check out the night life there and see if I could buy a camera. We left the Mercedes and walked to the U-Bahn station at Wittenberg Platz where we caught a train that made four stops before heading north into the East Berlin sector.
The train stopped at Potsdamer Platz, just inside the Soviet Sector, where several workers heading home boarded, careful to not sit close to us. Two men in gray coats with matching caps joined the train and sat at the end of the car on the wooden seats facing the other passengers. After a slow passage under a small section of West Berlin the train accelerated and turned east back into the Soviet Sector, stopping at the Stadtmitte station on Friedrichstrasse and then Spittelmarkt where we decided we should get off to find a Brauhaus and a bathroom. When we came out of the station the sky was dark and menacing. We were at the eastern end of Leipzigerstrasse near the River Spree so headed towards the river where we found a small Brauhaus. We could just hear accordion music from inside; it was almost drowned out by the loud voices. The tables in the small beer garden were empty as light rain was beginning to fall so we walked through the open door into a dark smoke-filled room. The noise stopped as everyone turned to look at the two strangers, except the accordion player who continued to belt out some unknown tune. We approached the bar where Alex asked if we could have a drink. The old man behind the bar nodded so we asked for two Pils from the tap. He was disappointed when Alex paid in Ostmark. After we took our first sip of the beer we turned around to look at the others in the room. They were all poorly dressed men except the two wearing gray coats sitting at a table in the corner smoking, their caps on the table in front of them.
No one was talking; they were staring at us except the accordion player who looked down at his keyboard. We quickly finished our steins of beer and ordered two more. Alex looked around the room until he saw the “Abtritt” sign on a door at the back of the room. Without a word to me he headed for the door. I felt flushed and nervous so turned my back on the room and continued to empty the stein. My bladder was rapidly filling with beer and becoming uncomfortable. Conversation in the room was now in hushed tones as the beer drinkers looked at me and the two men at the corner table. After what seemed to be an excruciatingly long time Alex came back into the room with a smile on his face and pointed to the door with the sign and said: “It is in there.” I walked as quickly and comfortably as I could to the Abtritt with its large concrete hand basin, two handles on the wall above it and a large wire rack to catch the false teeth of any unfortunate person who needed to empty his stomach of beer too. Relieved I returned to the bar. We felt more comfortable but the quiet patrons of the Brauhaus, except the accordion player, did not so we thought we should leave and walk to Alexanderplatz in search of more excitement. It was darker outside and the noise level inside increased as we left.
We walked across the island in the middle of the River Spree and the Muhlendamm Bridge into the Nicolai Viertel (quarter), the original Slavic town of Berlin on the eastern bank of the river. The winding, medieval, cobblestone alleys and streets were difficult to follow so after we passed the ruins of an old church the second time we stopped to check the direction of Alexanderplatz. Few street lights were working but we could see a rebuilt civic building on our right and a damaged old cathedral over to our left so Alex was sure we were not lost. The old buildings lining the narrow streets were built out over the sidewalk to provide shelter in the winter and outdoor dining in the summer. Small groups of men were huddled together under the shadows of the balconied facades, smoking and watching us. Some called out and Alex replied: “Nein”. He didn’t tell me what they were asking, just they were not selling cameras. One group followed us for a short distance so we walked faster. Others stopped talking and watched until we disappeared around the corner. We could see the silhouette of an old church and Alex commented it was the Marienkirche, one of Berlin’s oldest churches rebuilt after the war, so we were close to Alexanderplatz. We were now almost running towards the lights in the square, looking behind us to see if we were still being followed. There didn’t seem to be anyone there.
Alexanderplatz was an open square dissected by trolley bus lines and wires with one large department store and a train station. It had been one of Berlin’s nightlife centers in the 1920s and now was the center of East Berlin. It was near the beginning of the wide boulevard, Stalinallee, East Berlin’s show piece of Russian designed apartment buildings and stores. I had explored the area by car during the day so felt a little more comfortable there than in the narrow, sinister streets of the Nicolai Viertel. We found a noisy Brauhaus near the U-Bahn station and pushed our way through the crowd to the bar. When Alex ordered beers the barman knew from his accent we were not from Berlin. He asked in German if we were from the west. Alex replied that we were from the British Sector and produced a pack of American cigarettes from his coat pocket and slid them across the bar to the barman hoping we could remain anonymous. The barman’s face lit up and he announced to the crowd in a loud voice that we were “Britishers”. The noise level dropped as faces turned towards us. He held up the pack of cigarettes for everyone to see. The expressionless faces nearest to us turned into smiles as they asked Alex for cigarettes. He produced four more packs and handed them out. No one was selling cameras. The noise level increased as the cigarettes were shared amongst a few who then turned their backs to us. No one wanted to risk talking to the “Britishers”. Just after midnight we decided to catch the U-Bahn before the curfew in East Berlin. It was a short walk to the station where we boarded the train for Potsdamer Platz. The train was empty except for two men in gray coats and caps who boarded the train behind us. The old train rattled and creaked as it made its way slowly west, stopping at empty stations before it pulled into Potsdamerplatz. The two men left the train and stood watching us. As the train passed them on the station Alex waved and said goodnight but there was no response. I didn’t get my new Zeiss camera but I smiled for the first time that night.
Alexanderplatz Fernsehturm Marienkirche and Dom Berlin
It was fifty years later when I decided to walk the same path in Berlin and identify the damaged buildings I had seen in the darkness. I walked along Leipzigerstrasse to Spittelmarkt but could not find the little Brauhaus, crossed Museum Island and the River Spree into Nicolai Viertel to find the old church that was a pile of rubble in 1959. It was not hard to find among the narrow cobblestone streets, cafes, restaurants and bars. The Nicolaikirche, the oldest church in Berlin, and the streets around it, had been restored in the late 1980s. The civic building I saw through the half-light in 1959 was the Rotes Rathaus (Red City Hall) and the cathedral “to the left” was the Berliner Dom. The Marienkirche was a magnificent image against the clear blue sky but it was now dwarfed by a huge TV tower, the Fernsehturm, and Alexanderplatz with its modern buildings. I walked slowly towards Alexanderplatz, enjoying the spaciousness, new buildings and arcades filled with stores and cafes. After a large cappuccino, some souvenir shopping and a beer or two in a cafe, I found my way to the U-Bahn station and caught the train back through Potsdamerplatz to the Kurfurstendamm. The store where I bought my East German Zeiss (Pentacon) camera there in 1959 was gone, replaced by a Starbucks café.