The Cold War is Hot Again: A Walk Through Berlin’s Memories
Of forgetting and remembering: One Cold War junkie remembers the city when it was divided by an unforgiving wall.
I still remember a key scene in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a tense prisoner exchange set on the Glienicke Bridge that connects Berlin and Potsdam. The year was 1962 and over the years, it became customary to exchange spies on this bridge during the Cold War.
My first drive past this bridge was far less dramatic – a sudden rainy spell that ruined a ‘photo op’ on a summer’s day in Berlin.
Not quite how I had planned it.
There are few cities in the world that have experienced the Cold War like Berlin. It’s been over two decades since the Berlin Wall crumbled and yet there are multiple reminders that can take you back in time, in an instant. It’s a very contemporary 21st century city with a vibrant nightlife and quirky cafes – and yet, Cold War junkies (me included) can always find that little remnant from a time when this city was divided by a wall that cut through the heart of the city and the hearts of Berliners.
Remembering World War II
Earlier this decade, The Americans (a show about two KGB agents who pose as an everyday American couple in Washington DC) became one of the most watched TV shows in America, suggesting that the romance with the Cold War hasn’t waned.
That’s probably why I wasn’t surprised at the long line for one of Berlin’s underground (literally!) tours.
Berliner Unterwelten organises a bunch of off-beat tours but none more fascinating than a Subways and Bunkers tour that took me to a Berlin netherworld, a parallel universe that was a product of the Cold War. Berlin’s mysterious maze of underground bunkers and shelters were shrouded in secrecy and existed on either side of the wall. Our first stop was Blochplatz, a World War II air raid shelter that was converted into an emergency bunker where over 1,300 individuals could shack up for 48 hours in an emergency.
We quickly jump on a U-Bahn (underground train) to our next stop – the Pankstrasse station. It appears like any other underground train station and suddenly, just like one of those scenes from a Cold War spy thriller, we are whisked away to another underground bunker deep below.
This bunker is more modern, built in 1977 when the Cold War tensions were at their crescendo and the threat of a full blown conflict was imminent. The Pankstrasse Bunker was built with room for over 3,300 West Berliners who could have stayed here as long as two weeks. After much persuasion my guide allows me to snap just a couple of images – the cutlery and some of the beds serve as props for these tours today.
A few of these bunkers have just been recently opened to the public – while many of them are still rumoured to be hidden from the public eye.
Two hours away from the sunlight was enough to make me feel claustrophobic; I can’t imagine how some Berliners spent days hidden from the enemy during the closing stages of World War II. I made my way to Bernauer Strasse, now home to the Berlin Wall memorial and the site of the first Berlin Wall casualty. Ida Siekmann unsuccessfully attempted to jump out of her third floor East Berlin apartment in August 1961, a week after the construction of the Berlin Wall began.
Of Vibrant Street Art & Graffiti Hubs
More than 100 people are believed to have lost their lives between 1961 and 1989 while attempting to overcome or circumvent the wall. A series of signs dot the key landmarks around Bernauer Strasse with poignant images from the Berlin War era. For a moment I was transported back to a different time and place even though I was on a bicycle and not a time machine.
Almost all sections of the 155-km-long wall have been removed – and yet there’s the East Side gallery, a section of the wall that has become one of the world’s most vibrant street art and graffiti hubs. Not surprisingly, Cold War motifs and symbols (like East Germany’s official car – Trabi) are in the mix.
Cold War buffs almost always make a customary stop at Checkpoint Charlie, once the world’s most dreaded border crossing and now a spot where tourists crowd for selfies. There are some old East Berlin neighbourhoods that can still take you back to the cloak and dagger era of the Cold War.
It’s probably why Berlin is my favourite European city.
Getting There and Around
Berlin is connected with frequent flights either via Frankfurt or Dubai or Abu Dhabi from all major Indian metros. The city’s combination of trams and underground trains is very efficient and so is the public bicycle network.
Berlin’s hotels are comparatively cheaper than other European cities like Paris, Munich or London. You could check out cool hostel chains like Wombats (www.wombats-hostels.com) or Meininger (www.meininger-hostels.com) or European hotel chains like NH (www.nh-hotels.com) or Ibis (www.ibis.com)
(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant for a global brand services firm. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)
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