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A Walk in Berlin

Published onOct 26, 2023
A Walk in Berlin

It’s early on in the day but already too hot for comfort, and I’m walking along a path bordered by trees that aren’t providing much in the way of shade. On either side of the path, a profusion of wildflowers grows out of the sandy soil: puffs of white blossom, gleaming yellow buds, and small open flowers the colour of faded denim, as if bleached by the sun. I stop every few metres and gaze, trying to identify what I’m looking at, trying to recall nature guides, but most remain nameless, anonymous. I’m more sure of the trees; the birches’ gleaming white trunks, their leaves still green although we’re long past the turning point of the year. To my left, I can see through the sparse trees to distant fields and farmland, but I’m distracted by the denser growth to my right, facing towards the city.

I’m in Berlin, walking the edge of the city as if it’s a tightrope, the path beneath my feet as narrow as the present moment between the past and the future. In spite of the heat, I have an ambitious plan to walk several kilometres along this ex-border between two countries that no longer exist. The path is the Mauerweg, the national memorial built on the site of the former Berlin Wall after the reunification of Germany. Everywhere that was once divided has been stitched together by this memorial, both here in Berlin and right across Germany, from the Baltic Sea in the north to the border with the Czech Republic in the south.

Where I’m walking is not the actual site of the Wall itself—that’s a few metres away, just inside the city boundary. I’m walking on the former Todesstreife, the death strip, in what used to be East Germany. This hundred-metre-wide stretch of land was surveilled by East German guards on the lookout for people trying to escape from the surrounding countryside into the enclave of West Berlin. For nearly thirty years, the Todesstreife was bare of everything apart from barbed wire, blunderbusses, lookout towers, and hidden mines. There is almost nothing left of this deadly infrastructure now—only some lumps of concrete here and there, and, at the point where I joined the Mauerweg from the main road going south, a stump of the Wall itself, an abandoned sentry who insists on remaining at his post.

I am here because I moved to Berlin recently and I’m keen to establish a familiarity with this city, to feel the undulations of its pavements and paths beneath my feet. I’m not exactly a stranger, though, because my relationship with Germany is complicated; my grandfather came from here and had his citizenship stripped from him by the Nazis, as did all German-Jewish people by 1941. As a result, the modern constitution gives people like me the opportunity to reclaim our citizenship, a choice I have accepted. So, I’m not a foreigner but neither am I a local. I am legally German, but I don’t know this country well. I can speak some German, but haltingly. My move here was prompted by the desire to see if I could feel “at home”—whatever that might mean—and by the unsettling acknowledgement that Brexit was isolating Britain from the rest of Europe, while I wanted to remain connected. But I didn’t want to be too prescriptive about what it would take for me to feel at home here, only knowing that I’d always felt at home in Scotland, where I lived for nearly twenty years, despite having no family ties there.

Because of my family’s history with Germany, I cannot turn away from the Mauerweg, and all the panoply of memorials here in Berlin and throughout Germany: the Stolpersteine, brass plaques set in the pavement outside the former homes of Holocaust victims; the dilapidated sections of the Wall sprayed with graffiti; and the vast National Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas) in the heart of the city, near the Brandenburg Gate. The history of Berlin seems too much for one city to bear, like a black hole too massive to escape, and yet a future is being constructed here too. If I’m not careful, I find myself constantly preoccupied by the history of the place and forgetful of that future.

My new flat is in Lichterfelde, just a mile or so north from where I am walking along the Mauerweg, and even in this suburban district with its seventies-era apartment blocks and anonymous chains of shops and McDonald’s, the history is still visible. Across the road from my new home is a patch of wasteland, where some old buildings look like they’ve been caught in the midst of falling down. They have the air of forgotten warehouses, but there are no plaques or signs to tell me what they are—they lurk behind anonymity. I wondered if they were former barracks; until 1994 this part of Berlin was a local centre for the American military, and the nearby “4 Juli Platz,” now an oddly shaped car park, used to be a parade ground.

As it turns out, these tumbledown buildings were not barracks. Later, I learned online that they were a prisoner-of-war camp during the Nazi regime. Despite a sign on a metal fence informing me this is private land, the gate was wide open, so I was able to walk in. I couldn’t resist looking around: a derelict building with cracked windows and a concrete forecourt where the prisoners might have been forced to assemble for roll-call, and everything was silent apart from a distant thump-thump, the sound of a pile driver preparing the ground for “executive flats” in the next field. Berlin is desperate for more housing, and no doubt even this space, with its broken buildings, will be commandeered soon.

Now, on the Mauerweg, I follow the path as it makes a sharp right turn to the north. An information board tells me that the avenue of cherry trees planted on the next stretch of the path in front of me, towards the city, were a gift from Japan to Germany after reunification. This year’s blossoms are gone, the fruit already swelling and growing. Soon I encounter a narrow metal post, a memorial to a young man named Hans-Jürgen Starrost who was shot dead nearby in April 1981 as he tried to cross the death strip. The accompanying notice tells me that in addition to the people killed at the Wall itself, “an unknown number of people died from distress and despair caused by [its] existence.” Nearby, a man, in his seventies perhaps, sits on a bench and reads a newspaper, methodically licking his index finger before turning each page. I wonder which side of the former Wall he lives on, and where he lived before it fell. It’s not so quiet along this section; now I can hear an orchestral hum of bees. Above, swifts dart through the air and scream.

But it’s too facile to imagine a straightforward transformation from military use of this land to a reversion to nature. The Eastern side was always a haven for wildlife, because of the lack of human activity in the strip of no-man’s land between the Wall itself, situated within East Germany, and the actual legal border with West Germany, up to 300 feet away. Almost immediately after the Wall fell, conservationists from East and West met to agree how to preserve and protect wildlife that were flourishing in this no-man’s land: the result was the Green Belt that now runs the length of the country. One of the people responsible for the establishment of the Green Belt, Herr Kai Frobel, grew up in the western shadow of the Wall, and became a keen birdwatcher when he was a teenager. While guards on either side of the border kept lookout from watchtowers high above him, he used binoculars to identify whinchats, a species of bird that were becoming scarce in Bavaria but were still thriving in no-man’s land. The death strip was helping rare species survive.

When I was young, I knew that Europe was divided. The Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain had always been there, since long before I was born. I took a school trip to Hamburg, during which we visited a military post on the West German side of the border. Nobody knew it then, but the Wall would stand for only another eight years before it fell during the afternoon of Thursday, 9 November 1989. It was my first lesson that something so apparently permanent could simply disappear, because people resisted it and did not give up. In the case of the Wall, people in Leipzig, Dresden, and elsewhere in the cities of East Germany spent months peacefully demonstrating. The future is not inevitable, no matter how fixed and implacable it appears from the present.

Behind me on the Mauerweg is a Trümmerberg, one of several artificial “rubble mountains” across Germany, built from the remnants of the bombed cities. There are fourteen such Trümmerberg in Berlin, the result of bombing by Allied Forces in 1945, in which 80 percent of all the buildings in the city centre were destroyed. The present-day city is largely a reconstruction that could only happen once the rubble of these buildings was removed. What we see here is the renewal of a city once dead. In Berlin (and elsewhere in Germany), the rubble was mostly sorted by women because so many men were missing, killed, or imprisoned in POW camps. These Trümmerfrauen, or rubble women, organised the chaos of the broken cities into neat piles. They represent the human ability to engage with ruin and devastation on vast scales, and attempt not to turn back the clock to a time before the destruction, but rather to move forward. Here in Berlin, the Trümmerberge are popular places for walking and outdoor activities, but they have in the past been co-opted for less innocent uses. During the Cold War, Teufelsberg, the tallest of them, was the site of a radar station used by the Americans to listen in on Soviet and East German military activities.

As I walk, I think through tactics that will help me avoid being trapped in the past. I don’t want to be mired in the history, the wars, the fascism, the divisions, the persecutions, the deaths—I’d prefer to look at what is happening here and now. Perhaps it helps to consider different time scales, to study the growth of a birch leaf in midsummer, to pay attention to the length of a phrase of birdsong. To watch a caterpillar inching its way across the tarmac path, which is already damaged and cracked from the pressure of invisible tree roots beneath. The derelict buildings in the prisoner-of-war camp are overrun with weeds and ivy, rendering these structures amphibious, both brick and plant, and it is the ever-changing plant life on them that transforms them from a mute man-made horror to something more bearable.

At the top of the cherry tree avenue I reach the Teltow Canal, which once formed part of the Wall. The canal runs northeast towards the city just south of Tempelhof, the former airport that became famous for its role in the Berlin Blockade of 1948-1949. After the Soviet Union blocked road and rail access to West Berlin, the Allies organised an airlift to ensure that food and fuel reached people trapped inside this sector of the city. At the height of the blockade, a plane landed at Tempelhof every two minutes. The airport finally shut down in 2008, and a lone abandoned plane waits forever outside the Nazi-built terminal. But the building, vast as it is, is merely a sideshow to Tempelhof field. This is one of the largest inner-city open spaces in the world, with the two runways that stretch from east to west, surrounding by flat grassland.

It’s not beautiful, here at Tempelhof. The land is too flat and apparently featureless, and there’s a lot of concrete. The summer grass is brown and scrubby. But when I tilt my head back, I lose sight of the surrounding buildings. It’s a space where the city can pause, regain its breath, gaze upwards at the sky. Passing through its entrance from the traffic-ridden main road nearby feels like dipping into a welcoming pool of water on a hot day. The runways are now used by bikers, joggers, in-line skaters, and walkers. Much of the grass is fenced off as a bird reserve; this is a haven for kestrels and skylarks whose liquid burble I can hear above me.

At the far end between the two runways is a communal garden, a network of allotments where people grow vegetables, teach gardening skills, and simply help each other. This is defined as common land, not owned by anyone. When private investors offered, or threatened (depending on your worldview) to develop Tempelhof, Berliners voted no, and this open space is now protected by law.

The impact of the Blockade is threaded through everyday life here. Even after the lifting of the Blockade, for forty years West Berlin had to function as a walled-in enclave surrounded by hostile territory, with only a small number of routes through which supplies could reach the city from the outside world. As a consequence, people here know what it is like to worry about resources, and are aware that they are not endlessly replenishable. They have had to learn how to reuse and recycle as much as possible, long before this became fashionable. Each neighbourhood in the city hosts centres where people can learn how to fix broken household goods, as well as informal exchange systems that cover everything from books and clothes to unwanted but still edible food (stored and accessible in community fridges).

Food and energy security are ongoing issues in the city that used to be an island. West Berlin has its own power generators, and urban farms provide not only fruit and vegetables but also farmed fish. Berlin honey, from bees that live in hives on people’s roofs, is famous throughout the country.

Walking due north from Tempelhof takes me back across the meandering Mauerweg and into the former east of the city. Near the sombre Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Straße is the Zionskirche, which was host to one of the Umweltbibliotheken, environmental libraries, set up by dissidents in East Germany in the 1980s as a way of gathering and circulating banned information on environmental and human rights. The Zionskirche Umweltbibliothek was the largest and most influential; its members organised readings and seminars, and set up a network with other East German environmental groups.

This activism was triggered in part by appalling damage to the environment, including acid rain and water pollution, caused by East Germany’s industrial policies, and given increasing impetus in 1986 after the accident at Chernobyl and the resultant nuclear fallout across Europe—fallout that was not dealt with or fully discussed in either the Communist or capitalist countries on which it fell. Although the Zionskirche Umweltbibliothek doesn’t exist anymore, it was an important forerunner to Berlin’s environmental justice policy, one of the most detailed of its type in Europe.1 This policy is based on a detailed atlas of different aspects of the city’s environment, including soil, air, and water quality, traffic volume, land use, and population density, and aims to prevent citizens’ exposure to environmental pollution, as well as ensuring their access to environmental resources, regardless of where they live.

These activities are reminders that we are not starting from scratch, that people can and do work together—even in the most damaged of cities—to help each other and to protect their environment. It is the transformation on all scales, from the personal to the countrywide, that gives me hope for the future. A country that has transformed itself, has built itself up after the physical and moral abyss of the Nazi era and the subsequent division, is able to decide its future. Each individual act of shifting a pile of rubble, sharing food, growing a plant, paying attention to a bird, has its consequences.

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