When East Met West

When the victorious Allies took control of Berlin at the con­clusion of the War in Europe, few would have guessed at the troubles that its inhabit­ants were yet to face. Already traumatised by the Second World War and the Nazi re­gime, the city would go on to become the ideological bat­tlefield of the Cold War, […]

When the victorious Allies took control of Berlin at the con­clusion of the War in Europe, few would have guessed at the troubles that its inhabit­ants were yet to face. Already traumatised by the Second World War and the Nazi re­gime, the city would go on to become the ideological bat­tlefield of the Cold War, East meeting West in the barren death strip of the Berlin Wall. Although Berlin had been split since 1945, with the So­viets controlling the East and the Western Allies (the U.S.A., France and the U.K) in charge of the West, the reality of a divided city would not be fully realised until the 13th August 1961. Overnight, So­viet police and soldiers sealed the border in an attempt to curb the mass emigration out of struggling East Germany.

The impact was unimagina­ble: families, friends, lovers, co-workers… all strands of so­ciety felt the isolation and the division. The massive construc­tion of the Berlin Wall became an ever-present reminder of the city’s imprisonment. It is a separation that even today requires reconcilia­tion – ‘Ossis’ and ‘Wessis’ still struggle with the challenge of reuniting a nation that had been divided for over 40 years. The reminders of communist rule dominate the city cen­tre – the shining bulge of the Fernsehturm; the captivat­ing boulevard of Karl-Marx-Allee and its ‘People’s Palac­es’; the iconic ‘Ampelmann’.

However, the most permanent marks are left upon the inhab­itants themselves. Germans used to refer to a ‘Mauer im Kopf’ – ‘a wall in the head’. It’s a complicated issue: Marx­ist against Capitalist; ‘ostalgie’ against surveillance, fear and persecution; the political reali­ties of unemployment and the uneven distribution of wealth. As the new generation of Ber­liners reach adulthood, the city feels as if it is finally ready to bring down these psychological walls. Berlin is building a future that isn’t dictated by the trau­mas of its history, but instead is defined by the artistry, innova­tion and optimism of its citizens.

It has been just 20 years since the Berlin wall fell, and the city has had to deal with many is­sues in that time. Huge waves of immigration and an explo­sion in both arts and infrastruc­ture have all contributed to the breathtaking diversity of Berlin. However, these changes have also created new divisions that need to be confronted. Today there are approximately 250,000 Turks in Berlin, and their influence here is as ubiq­uitous as their schwarma and doner kebabs. But until recent­ly there were few attempts to integrate this new social group into the city as a whole. Igno­rance and occasionally open hostility still exist in some areas.
Development projects, espe­cially in the East, are ongoing: Potsdamer Platz, for example, was only begun in 1995. Unfor­tunately, Berlin is broke. One estimate from a few years ago put the state’s debt at over €60 bil­lion. Funding for its reconstruc­tion comes largely from other German Länder and the EU. Liberal Berlin has long at­tracted creative youth: today independent, international artists come to set up private galleries, and there are almost 150,000 students registered here. They give Berlin its repu­tation as a world art hub. The city is their workshop, but pro­jects designed to galvanize Ber­lin’s economy threaten their in­dependence. The city needs to find capital investment without destroying the mood of cultural innovation that drew so many to the city in the first place.

Almost everything in Berlin is unique and tolerated, not least the openly gay mayor who described the city as “poor, but sexy”. His observa­tion is certainly true for now, but in its attempts to solve the former, characteristic Berlin risks losing the latter. This is truly the time to visit.­

Text by James Gill and Joshua Davidson

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