When the wall come down in ’89 it was the greatest party of all time.
As I watched it on TV in living room dressed in my pyjamas I desperately wanted to be there. There’d be no awkward standing by the hors-d’oeuvres. No chit-chat about what you did for a living. No, you actually got to stand on a concrete wall and hack at it, providing you had a sledge hammer handy of course.
So when I arrived at my hotel just off Alexander Platz, East Germany’s main square, I couldn’t help being just a little excited. Checkpoint Charlie was just a mile down the road. All I had to do walk across it and, who knows, some of that old party spirit might just rub off.
And yes, maybe I’d watched too many black and white movies starring Trevor Howard and Alec Guinness, but the suspense was killing.
I walked past the luxury department stores and gift shops, and found myself staring at, well, nothing. All that remained of Checkpoint Charlie was a hoarding of black and white 48-sheet posters, showing how it used to look. A group of school children milled nearby as a teacher tried in vain to tear them away from their mobile phones.
The hut was there, but it looked more like a brand new shed from B&Q, serviced by a couple of out of work actors dressed as soldiers. Presumably to give us all something to look at before we bought a piece of wall in the nearby gift shop. Funny thing; every piece on display was covered in citrus-coloured graffiti. Very pretty. Very fake.
I sat in Einstein’s café, drinking latte, watching the fake-soldiers pose in front of the fake-hut for the tourists. Not the Einstein café you read about in the guide books you understand; the louche gambling establishment from the roaring 20s; but the chain. I might as well have been sat in Starbucks.
The next day I headed through Bernauer Straße station at the other end of town. Still searching.
When I arrived I felt distinctly odd. It wasn’t just the fact the station was stuck in a 1930s time-warp, but something else. I found myself taking pictures without knowing why.
When I got back to the hotel later I looked it up on google. Turns out Bernauer Straße was one of Berlin’s Ghost Stations on the very border of East and West. Sealed in 1961 to prevent East Germans escaping to the West, it remained that way till reunification in April 1990. Guards were ordered to shoot to kill on sight. And they did, though in 1962 twenty nine East Berliners managed to crawl through it to the West. No wonder the place gave me the chills.
From there it was a short stroll to Mauerpark, where I finally saw what I’d come for.
Rows of metal struts pierced the grey sky where the wall used to be, the concrete long since gone. It looked like the rib cage of a dinosaur.
It was hard to tell what I was looking at as I stood on what used to be a patrol road, the remnants of two walls either side of me, an old watch-tower nearby.
Lacking any real focal point I wandered over to a giant wrought-iron frame. On it where photographs of the people who’d been killed trying to escape. Most of them invested with that polished glamour you only see in old black and white photos.
A few children were running about on the patchy grass, blowing bubbles, having their own little party.
I felt ashamed for wanting the wall intact. Suddenly glad of the fakery.
It should be hard to find.
One can only hope the new walls springing up all over Europe eventually suffer the same fate.