Monday, 9 November 2015

Berlin Cold War bike ride

Cold War Berlin experienced from a bicycle and my memories of E Germany from 1990.  

On my last visit to Berlin (July 2014) I realised that biking the length of The Wall would be interesting. I then had a reality check when I realised it was 156 km long, so I booked myself on a Fat Tire Cold War Berlin ride after my holiday in Mecklenburg.

The sun was already shining when I got up. I had excellent breakfast of muesli and coffee al fresco in the haedke Markt. Fat Tire bike tours is located in Alexanderplatz at the base of the Berlin TV tower. I was on the Cold War bike tour lead by a young American, Kevin, who had lived in Berlin for 8 years and has friends whom he has quizzed for his talks. He took us on an excellent tour of DDR architecture, E. Berlin and The Wall, giving us anecdotes to illustrate his theme. He was very interested in the ideology and propaganda pushed out by both sides during the Cold War and comparing it with politics now and people’s feelings about the DDR. We started at the Department of Education with a Soviet realist mural illustrating aspects of E German education, I was pleased to see a girl looking down a microscope and a woman in a lab coat which counterbalanced the fertile Soviet woman producing children for the state. We saw a night club used to entertain foreign visitors with a mural depicting the activities of Communist countries around the globe and Soviet reindeers being the largest part. Sputnik twinkled in the sky.

The old guard towers are present and the guards in there were rotated every shift to prevent them plotting escapes. The decorated section of the wall where about 30 artists have done works is impressive and I could have spent a couple of hours there enjoying the art, but there was also graffiti defacing it despite notices prohibiting it. We walked around the huge Soviet memorial in South East Berlin, the main part of this memorial comprises two huge marble triangular shapes, depicting dipped flags, with statues of a young soldier and an old soldier. There were also stone slabs depicting the foundation of East Germany, these were rather horrific with depictions of war in soviet realist style, one with dead man and a woman tied up, in another there were endless soldiers heads. We lunched in a Turkish cafe in Kreuzberg, then biked on the route of the wall. We stopped at the vast new Axel Springer media headquarters which had previously pumped out propaganda to the E Germans. I was touched by seeing the memorial to the attempted escape of teenager Peter Fechter who was shot by guards and then bled to death in Aug 1962 in full views of journalists but nobody was able to rescue him, partly because the E German guards had tried to rescue a man a few days earlier who had then shot them, so after that all rescues were off. Actors as American soldiers now perform at Checkpoint Charlie, this is a strange transformation from something that felt frightening 25 years ago and now has a Disney like feel to it. I saw a line of Trabants being driven along on a “Trabants Safari” as a DDR experience. Twenty five years ago we had overtaken these cars on our bicycles. I had forgotten how small those cars were. In front of the new Berlin City government building and Kevin gave us his version of events in November 1989. The trip was a fascinating ride around the different architecture of Berlin and he used it to explore the social and political structures underneath. I described meeting medical friends from the DDR in Dresden who felt at sea without familiar social structures, their state provided child care had vanished and they said “We have waited 6 years for a Trabant and now there is no queue”. This lament has stayed with me.
This ride brought back memories of my first visit to Berlin in August 1990, 9 months after The Wall came down and we biked from Berlin to Dresden to Prague and ended in Budapest. The roads were poor, little food in restaurants and endless Weiner schnitzel. One could not just turn up at a hotel but had to get permission from the local authorities to stay, camping was forbidden. The American Army was still there but soldiers were all selling their jeans to the Russians who were busy selling their insignia. This ride is a highlight of my visits to Berlin, and I appreciated the multiple layers of recent history that we were able to explore. I was reminded of Rory Maclean’s book about Berlin.(1) (A City Reimagined which I enjoyed reading last year. I also remembered Timothy Garton Ashs’s book (2) about his experience in the 1980’s being spied on and later confronting his accusers that I read in 1997.

1. Berlin, a City Reimagined 2014 Rory Maclean

2. The File, A Personal History 1997 Timothy Garton Ash.

No comments:

Post a Comment