I have sometimes written on this website about small islands. For example, I have written about my visits to Madeira, Malta, Cyprus and Middle Caicos. Let me now write about a small island with a difference. This small island was not surrounded by oceans like those other small islands. Instead, from 1945 until 1989, it was surrounded by land under the control of communists and was therefore cut off from the western world. During those years, it was a tiny island of freedom inside the vast red expanse of the Soviet empire. This small island was of course West Berlin which, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has been reunited with East Berlin and has resumed its position as Germany’s capital. Pat and I passed through the reunified city for the first time in July 2010. We were only there for seven hours, which is no basis for writing anything at all about such a large and historic city as Berlin. At least Pat has had the wisdom not to pontificate on the subject of Japan, simply because she was once a transit passenger through Tokyo airport! Nevertheless, I must mention some of the places in Berlin, which saw the making of history and of which I was fortunate enough to catch a fleeting glimpse during our visit.
Firstly, there was the Berlin Wall itself, separating East Berlin from West Berlin. A very short stretch of the wall still stands and I filmed Pat touching it. We resisted the temptation to take home a little piece of the wall as a souvenir. We can always buy a piece on E-bay, if need be. Indeed, so many pieces of the wall have been offered for sale on E-bay that one could build many walls with them. Before the wall was built by the communists in 1961, millions were using Berlin as an escape route from East Germany. After the wall was built, thousands still managed to escape to West Berlin though hundreds perished in the attempt.
A guard house now stands at the intersection of Zimmerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse to mark the location of Checkpoint Charlie, the best known of all the crossing points across the Berlin Wall. This was of particular interest to Pat, whose late brother served with US military intelligence in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Much of his time then was spent in the vicinity of Checkpoint Charlie, where his fluent German – free of any foreign accent – allowed him to gather useful information. Today, the guard house is staffed by actors dressed as allied military police with whom tourists can have their pictures taken. Nearby is the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, in which we inspected a number of motor vehicles with hidden compartments, used to smuggle refugees across the Wall.
We also visited the stadium built for the 1936 Olympic Games. There we visited the Bell Tower, which is several hundred feet high and from the top of which we were able to enjoy, not only the stadium itself, but also spectacular views across Berlin. Fortunately the tower contained an elevator, otherwise I would never have made it to the top! When one compares the present view with 1945 photographs showing the total devastation of Berlin, one can only marvel at the recovery.
There are also fine views across Berlin in every direction to be seen from the platforms underneath the glass dome which has recently been built on top of Germany’s parliament building, the Reichstag. It was thrilling to see the Reichstag and to recall its place in history since its construction in 1894. In February 1933, just four weeks after Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, the Reichstag fire started mysteriously and thereby prevented parliament from subsequently using the building. This conveniently enabled Hitler to circumvent parliament and to suspend civil liberties. The Reichstag was badly damaged then and also by allied air raids during World War Two. That war was prolonged by two days in 1945 when 1500 Nazis made their final stand in the Reichstag. The building was later beautifully restored and, since 1990, has been the meeting place for the parliament of reunified Germany.
Finally, we came to the Brandenburg Gate. Built in 1791, it lies to the west of the center of old Berlin. This Gate is the monumental entry to the Unter den Linden, which is the well-known boulevard of linden trees that once led to the palace of the Prussian emperors.
This Gate was the site of the famous speech by President Reagan in 1987, when he challenged the Soviets. “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” cried the President.
The Brandenburg Gate was not the site of an earlier speech by a US President in 1963, when President John F Kennedy proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner – the literal translation of which is “I am a jelly donut”. That speech was made in front of City Hall, when his huge audience perfectly well understood what JFK meant and appreciated the support that he was promising to the beleaguered people of West Berlin.
The story of the Brandenburg Gate recently had a happy ending in November 2009 when the present German Chancellor Angela Merkel, together with Mr. Gorbachev himself and former Polish president Lech Waleska, walked through the Gate to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
So we accomplished much in those seven hours, despite having to cope with a humid temperature of a 100 degrees Fahrenheit. While it is sad not to have been able to take more time to enjoy these famous places, together with many others that are to be found in Berlin, it is far better to have had a fleeting glimpse of them than never to have seen them at all.