Tag Archives: U-Bahn

The Berlin Wall — what's gone and what remains

The 20th anniversary of the Cold War’s most tangible symbol celebrates the end of a fearful era, but the healing of Berlin is far from done.

One of the last remaining fragments of the Berlin Wall, near the old Checkpoint Charlie.

When you travel, you find out how much you thought you knew. I’m reminded of that as I watch Germany celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It was 20 years ago today. The confused, unraveling dictatorship in East Germany finally allowed its citizens to cross freely through Checkpoint Charlie to the west. But after so many years of living in a divided city, thousands of East Berliners had no patience for the gate.

Television flashed the images around the world — joyous Berliners, east and west, climbing onto and over that cold, evil thing, dancing, singing, weeping. Total strangers hugging and kissing, sharing bottles of wine. No more risking prison or death just to be with your loved ones. It looked as if all Berlin were out there celebrating.


Indeed, the whole world celebrated that night, and for good reason. If you’re just a teen or a 20something, you have no clue what that sight meant to those of us who had grown up with the Cold War.

Berlin was Ground Zero for the ongoing face-off between America and the Soviet Union. Our gang, NATO, versus their gang, the Warsaw Pact. Think Crips and Bloods, but with nuclear weapons. And both sides claimed Berlin.

Berliners must have felt as if were living on a knife’s edge, on a bullseye, all those years.

Now, it was over. The sight of Berliners dancing unhindered on the Wall meant that the imminent threat of global nuclear holocaust was gone. A generation that had been holding its collective breath since Hiroshima could finally exhale.

And after 28 years of ruthless division for the sake of ideology, Berlin was whole again — or so it seemed at the time from my comfortable distance.

When I visited Berlin for the first time last summer, I realized just how wrong I was.

This is still a divided city. You see it. You hear it. You feel it. Take a U-Bahn subway train from the west deep into the old East Berlin and it feels as if the spiritual temperature of the place has dropped to near freezing.


Where the western half has the look and feel of a city, the east, with its endless rows of same-same apartment blocks and broad, straight boulevards suitable for tanks, seems more like a giant army base. Any social ill that Berlin suffers — unemployment, alcoholism, whatever — is usually worse in the east.

While looking for the Stasi museum, I wandered into a Ramada hotel on Ruschestrasse. It was a Sunday afternoon in July, the height of tourist season.

The only sign of life inside was a lone desk clerk, who promptly disappeared. In the restaurant, rows of rectangular tables more suited to an army mess hall, and all empty. No waitress. No cook. No diners. No sound. The nearby bar was full of warm, dark woods, rows of liquor bottles behind the bar — and devoid of life. A corridor of wood columns, inset with mirrors, led to the guest rooms, but no guests.

You felt as if you were on the set of a Stephen King horror film, only there were no cameras — or at least none you could see.

A slowly eroding section of the Berlin Wall. The emotional divides between East and West Berlin also are wearing away, but only gradually, even after 20 years.

Even worse are the expressions from older East Berliners who actually long to return to the “good old days.”

There’s a bar dedicated to Stasi, the justly infamous East German secret police. East Berliners have made a cult figure out of their electric crosswalk symbol and even given him a name, Ampelmann.

The Germans have a word for all this — ostalgie or “ostalgia” instead of nostalgia, a play on the German word “ost,” which means east.

However you say it, it’s insane.

The German government is putting up ultra-modern office buildings, apartment towers and shopping arcades where the Wall once stood, trying to fully reconnect the two Berlins.

It’s going to take a lot more than that. The Wall did more than just physically divide Berlin. It split its soul in two.

In many ways and in far too many people, the Berlin Wall is still up.

And had I never gone to Berlin, I never would’ve known.

This is one of the reasons why you travel. The classroom, the documentary, even the writings of a mad blogger, can show you only so much.


East Berlin’s Spy Central

Building 1, once HQ of the East German secret police Stasi, now the Stasi Museum. The entrance is hidden behind the concrete latticework facade.

East Germany’s secret police, known as Stasi, stole secrets out of West Germany and spied on almost everyone in East Germany. Their headquarters is now a museum.

From street level on Normannenstrasse, it’s just a bunch of drab Soviet-style office buildings in the former East Berlin. But from 1950 to 1990, this may have been the most feared address in Europe.

This was headquarters of East Germany’s Ministry of State Security, best known by its German acronym: Stasi.

Stasi Museum guide explains a coat worn by Stasi agents. One of its zippered pockets concealed a tiny surveillance camera. Smile!

They called themselves “the sword and shield” of the country’s communist party. Not the nation, the party.

Building 1 is now the Stasi Museum. No markers identify it. No street signs point the way to it. Many who live nearby claim to be unaware of it. But the moment you leave the Magdalenenstrasse U-Bahn station, the whole sinister complex is balefully staring down on you.

If you want a feel for the realities behind the Cold War, you start here.

Stasi thoroughly penetrated West German counter-intelligence, and gave the CIA some black eyes, too.

When the Russians wanted to examine an American air-to-air missile, Stasi agents stole one off the wing of a US jet fighter and shipped it whole to Moscow to be reverse-engineered.

Display showing a special briefcase used to surreptitously hold and fire a Czech submachinegun. Left, the case itself.

Even West German successes against Stasi tended to rebound against them. One of their most popular heads of state, chancellor Willy Brandt, was forced to resign in disgrace after his closest adviser was exposed as a Stasi agent.

Imagine George Bush waking up one morning to find out that Condoleezza Rice was a KGB “mole.” That’s how big the scandal was.

In West Germany, Stasi spied on the government. In East Germany, they spied on everybody.

As many as one out of every ten East Germans — and one of eight East Berliners — was a Stasi operative, employee, contact or informant. Guided tours, in German or English, will show you how they did it.

Fake rock used for remote eavesdropping. The red circle indicates where the microphone was hidden.

Eavesdropping equipment hidden in fake rocks. Miniaturized cameras sewn into neckties and zippered jackets. Cars rigged to shoot infrared photographs through their doors. Submachine guns small enough to fit in a briefcase — and rigged to fire from inside it.

Paddy wagons disguised as delivery trucks, mail trucks, bread trucks, some with fancy curtains fixed to their windows.

They bugged offices, schools, homes, churches, even cemeteries.

They literally sweated “suspicious” people during interrogations and then released them, collecting their perspiration in cloth swatches. Those bits of cloth, cataloged and preserved, were to be used by Stasi dog teams to hunt them down at some later date.

Stasi officers didn’t arrest people. They made them vanish.

Then there are the drains in the floor, in rooms where it makes no sense to have drains…until you remember the Soviet style of execution.

The condemned is led into a room and made to kneel in front of a drain. The executioner puts a gun to his head and fires.

The tour doesn’t tell you about that part.

Stasi had its own 9,000-man armored regiment, separate from the regular East German army. Its loyalties were to Stasi first, the party second.

The desk of Stasi chief Erich Mielke.

The East German nation presumably got the bronze.

If Stasi was East Germany’s idea of the FBI, the man who ran it, Erich Mielke, was their J. Edgar Hoover. Ruthless, paranoid and a stone killer from a young age, he had dirt on almost everybody.

He also controlled a fund estimated to be worth close to $40 billion.

Take the U5 subway train to the Magdalenenstrasse station on Frankfurter Allee. Walk up Magdalenenstrasse to Normannenstrasse. Turn left at the corner and walk to the first driveway. Turn left into the drive and walk behind the latticework facade to the entrance.

Admission is 4 euros for adults, 2.50 for children.

And yet it was here, not at The Wall, that the division of Germany died in November 1989.

When East German citizens, led by a pro-democracy movement called New Forum, began mass street protests, the regime had plans in place that could’ve made Tienanmen Square look like a block party — and at the heart of those plans were Stasi and its special regiment.

But at the moment of crisis, the East German leadership froze. Their Soviet mentors basically told them “You’re on your own.” Angry East Berliners converged on Stasi headquarters. The Wall fell.

East Germany was done.

For all their anal-retentive surveillance, Stasi had utterly missed the unraveling of the East German state — until it collapsed on their doorstep.

They didn’t miss everything, though. Stasi’s secret $40 billion stash has never surfaced.

There are suggestions now that key Stasi officers played both sides in East Germany’s downfall, preventing the government from triggering its doomsday plans while stalling the angry crowds long enough to let their cohorts shred millions of documents.

Today, volunteers using special software are piecing those documents back together. You can read about their work in this 2008 story from Wired magazine (many thanks to my good friend Agustin Armendariz for pointing me to it).

Twenty years on, a reunited Germany is still periodically rocked by the revelations in those documents.


Berlin, first impressions

An old city with a young vibe, Berlin will take you unawares.

Berlin's oldest bridge over the river Spree, near the Reichstag

If, like me, your impressions of Berlin were formed by watching way too many World War 2 documentaries, Berlin will take you by surprise. Physically, very green, lots of parks and lots of trees, many of which line the river Spree that winds through the city.

Beyond that, Berlin has a really young, energetic, sexy vibe to it and an ethnic diversity you wouldn’t expect in the capital of the nation that gave the world Nazism and the “Final Solution.” Maybe this is Berlin’s way of saying “in your face, Adolf” to the Nazi legacy.


All this youthful energy is good compensation for the air travel getting here. The flight into Berlin TXL on Delta was a perfect storm — if you’re a masochist. Old-fashioned seats with no entertainment system built into the backs, just enough legroom for a hamster and narrow enough to give Twiggy a thrill. Surly flight attendants. Loud, obnoxious teenagers just across the aisle whose every third word was an F-bomb. The lady sitting in front of me spilled her cabernet sauvignon all over my foot.

This flight was part of a super-cheap package from Go-Today.com, which means it wasn’t my choice. Otherwise, I would’ve looked up the seating on SeatGuru.com or one of the other airline seat Web sites. Whatever. We made it.

Summer weather in Berlin will be instantly familiar to anyone from New York, New Orleans or Washington DC — sweltering heat and so humidity that you feel like you’re swimming standing up. You can lose five pounds just waiting for the light to change.

Berlin has been in the midst of a building boom for a long time now, and the recession doesn’t seem to have slowed things down much. In most directions you look, you can see construction cranes.


Much of Berlin looks very modern, as you’d expect from a city that received regular visit from hundreds of Allied bombers during “the war.” You can still see reminders of those days — churches with blackened, broken spires, buildings with bullet holes.

But you also get the feeling that even if Berlin hadn’t been bombed and blasted into Europe’s largest rubble pile, the city would still be hell-bent on renewing itself, as if it were trying to put as much aesthetic distance as possible between its past and its future.

The fall of the Berlin Wall gave Berlin another excuse to break out the cranes and give itself a new look. The area of Potsdamer Platz, which had been just on the east side of The Wall, today looks more like the set of Bladerunner, but updated by about 30 years — ultra-modern high-rises and arcades like the Sony Centre.

But go a little further into the former Easter Berlin and you find conditions not much changed from when The Wall as in place.

Like other European capitals, getting around is easy. Berlin’s subway system is the U-Bahn. Their city-suburban trains, that run on the surface, are the S-Bahn.


Hit the KaDeWe department store. KaDeWe is the acronym (spelled out phonetically) for Kaufhaus des Westens. This is an old-school department store of the type you used to see all over the States before America was “malled” to death. Think Harrod’s in German.

Three floors of this place are devoted, in whole or in part, to food, including a sixth-floor food court that staggers the imagination, with prices that are lower than you’d expect for the mother of Berlin department stores. On Saturdays, the only weekend day that Berliners get to shop in KaDeWe, the mobs are so huge that you can barely move.

Next up, a hop-on, hop-off bus tour around the city.