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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Twenty-one: Berlin

Michael Palin - New EuropeThe choice of Berlin as capital of the new Germany is geographically interesting, as it orients the centre of German government firmly to the east. Thanks to Stalin's insistence that after the war, Germany's eastern border should be pushed back to the Oder-Neisse line, Berlin is far closer to Poland and the Czech Republic than it is to Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt or Hamburg.

The city, which stood for so many years as the emblem of divided Europe, now signifies the healing process, not just of Germany, but of Europe as a whole.

There are so many symbols here, from the Brandenburg Gate to the Holocaust Memorial, the new Reichstag and the Wall itself, that I feel in danger of being overwhelmed by Significance. What I need to do before I go is to unfreeze history and meet and talk to some people who live and work in Berlin.

Two young actors, Olaf Rauschenbach and Jörg Pintsch, give me a whistlestop tour of east Berlin in an open-top stretch Trabant (which could be another metaphor for reunification - the ultimate socialist car given the ultimate capitalist treatment). Both men are married with three children each. They still see Berlin as a city of two halves and Jörg, particularly, finds the east 'more authentic', and preferred by a lot of younger Berliners to the comfortable conservative consumerism of the west. He was in London recently and not enchanted.

'Eight pounds to go in Saint Paul's Cathedral!'

With one of them playing the 'Westie' and the other the 'Eastie', they perform a dialogue, interspersed with song and poetry, about the two sides of their city.
As we drive past a preserved strip of the Berlin Wall on Mühlenstrasse, covered in graffiti, and photo opportunities for tour groups, they tell the story of the barrier that the GDR called 'The Anti Fascistic Protective Wall'.

'Just imagine, in 1960 alone 200,000 citizens from the GDR left their home country on a 20p train ticket for the golden West.'

'And that's what you call a haemorrhage, and the loophole has to be closed up tight.'

'At one o'clock at night, Central European time, 13 August 1961, workers start to erect the installation for democratic Berlin.'

'On the eastern side, a 3-metre-high border fence, and a death strip, meticulously raked and smoothed over in order to make footprints clearly visible, and then the Wall itself, 4 metres high with a round tube on top.'

'Just imagine you are eighteen years old, liable for military service and also convinced that socialism is the right thing for a young GDR.'

'Somebody comes stumbling over the wire towards the Wall, directly towards you. You have three possible ways to react. The first is, put up your gun and shoot the guy dead. The second is, you put the gun aside, risk the contempt of the working people, and believe me, an officer's standing behind you who will take the necessary action. The third is to try to do your duty. You call to the runaway, no reaction. You give a warning shot. No reaction. You take aim and you shoot him.'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Twenty-one: Berlin
  • Country/sea: Germany
  • Place: Berlin
  • Book page no: 280

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