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Thursday, 14 September, 2000, 14:01 GMT 15:01 UK
A farewell to Berlin
Celebrations in 1999 of the 10th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down
Celebrations marked 10 years of the wall coming down
As Germany approaches the tenth anniversary of reunification, BBC Berlin correspondent Caroline Wyatt bids the city farewell.

From my living room window in east Berlin, if I crane my head far enough, I can just make out the transparent glass dome on the rebuilt Reichstag Parliament.


No one knew if the next world war would start here, in this city of spooks and the ghosts of Europe's past

At night, it is lit up like a beacon, full of visitors winding their way up to the very top. From there, you can look down at the black, red and gold flags of the united Germany - and across a city changed beyond measure, capital of a nation still searching for answers.

In 1982, aged 15, I remember stepping off the train in West Berlin. It was a sullen, grey autumn day, and the TV tower in the east, which loomed over the city, had been swallowed up by the clouds.

It was very much the secretive Cold War place of a John le Carre spy novel - a city dancing on the edge of a volcano. No one knew if the next world war would start here, in this city of spooks and the ghosts of Europe's past. But the customers settling down to an evening at the all-night bars and strip clubs around the station did not much seem to care.

The car which met me at Zoo station flew the Union Jack. It had been sent by the British Military Government, where my father had started a new job. On the streets, everywhere, were soldiers - British, American, and French - each ally ruling its own sector of the city.

Worlds apart

It was possible, as a west Berliner, to forget the Wall existed. You had to make a special journey to the end of the town to see it; the bus only went as far as the Reichstag - there, the road stopped dead.

Reichstag
In the new Berlin the Reichstag got a serious makeover
The disused German Parliament stood forlorn, surrounded by weeds. It overlooked the concrete monstrosity that ran through what was once the heart of the city, separating two ideologies, and countless families and friends.

Dorothee, a west Berliner who had sat next to me on the bus, just shook her head when I asked if she thought the Wall would ever come down.

"Not in our lifetime," she said.

As I went through Checkpoint Charlie just a few minutes away, the smells of freshly baked bread and real coffee from the last western café were rapidly replaced by the unmistakable odour of communism. A sour, tainted smell, tinged with noxious fumes from the sputtering Trabant engines. Out of the first café in the east - on Unter den Linden - wafted the smell of overcooked cabbage, disinfectant and drains.

Even the air was a choking yellowish colour - from the brown-coal heating, and a thousand factories busily pouring out waste, as East Germany sought to become the communist success story. But the pale, expressionless faces of the people on the streets told a different story.

Crossing back into the west later that day was like emerging from a black and white film into a world of Technicolor - the tacky neon signs at Zoo Station seemed suddenly welcoming. Even the brightly-lit ads on the bus shelters, were a sign of home after the drab, grey streets of the east.

Dashed hopes

Almost exactly 11 years later I returned to Berlin for the BBC, to find a city in transition. The Wall had come tumbling down, changing the face of Germany. And that new face was not always attractive. Every day seemed to bring news of factory closures and racist attacks, as Germans struggled to come to terms with their new world.


Eastern gratitude towards Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of unity, was running out fast

Travelling through the former east German towns of Brandenburg in 1993 was a lesson in quiet despair. The miners who had made their living digging the brown coal were on hunger strike, in protest at plans to shut down their industry. The glittering prosperity they had seen on western television had proved a bitter illusion.

Equally, the champagne welcome given to easterners in 1989, as they spilled into the west joyfully hooting their Trabants, had long since run dry. Now came the real business of uniting two wholly disparate cultures and economies; a more costly task than anyone had imagined.

In one home, a miner's wife already talked longingly of the good old days of communism, when both she and her husband had jobs.

She had no idea what their two children would do when they left school. Nothing was certain any more, she told me. No children had been born in the village for four years; life was just too unpredictable.

wall
East Germans were welcomed to the West
"Look at all this," she pointed to the gleaming video recorder, and the equally glossy new fridge. "I used to think this would make us happy.

"But now we're just second class citizens, waiting for handouts from our rich western cousins."

Eastern gratitude towards Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of Unity, was running out fast. Even on the campaign trail in 1994, his ventures east from quiet, leafy Bonn attracted equal measures of cheers and jeers. In Leipzig, a furious Mr Kohl had to be restrained from punching a protester who had thrown a rotten egg, spattering the Chancellor's voluminous jacket.

The poor cousins were starting to make their anger felt.

To westerners, it seemed incomprehensible. New motorways, shiny new banks, billions of deutschmarks - what more could the east want?

Rebuilding the Wall

I went to Leipzig to interview an eastern comedian, a sad-eyed man with a walrus moustache, whose routine consisted almost entirely of anti-western jokes.


All agreed that foreigners should not be in Germany - even the sweet-faced blonde girl hovering shyly at the back of the group

His family had just been evicted from their home of some 20 years, by their new western landlord. To him, that was what democracy meant.

He told a bitter joke, about a genie coaxed out of his bottle to grant one wish each to a western and an eastern German:

"Build me another Wall," begged the Wessi, "Even higher and stronger than the one we used to have."

"And your wish?" asked the genie of the easterner.

"I want an even bigger one than him!"

Racism

On the way back from Leipzig, we stopped off in a pretty eastern town to interview its only black resident. He was an asylum seeker from Mozambique, who had lived in Germany for some years. A month earlier, he had been pushed from a train by a group of drunken young skinheads.

He spoke to us on condition that we did not show his face or use his name. He was too scared to leave the house. Anyway, his newly-amputated leg made movement difficult; it had been crushed between the platform and the departing train.

Demonstration extreme-right members of Germany's National Democratic Party (NPD)
Germany still has an extreme right-wing element
We tried talking to the youths at the local pub. No one had seen anything, though few were shocked by the attack. All agreed that foreigners should not be in Germany - even the sweet-faced blonde girl hovering shyly at the back of the group.

The community's social worker assured us that economic deprivation lay at the root of such attitudes.

Yet, by British standards, there was little obvious poverty. The houses were freshly painted, no graffiti in sight, and many balconies were colourfully decked out with orderly geraniums. For all the talk of foreigners taking their jobs, there was only one foreigner in town - and he had no intention of staying much longer.

By now, Helmut Kohl's government, in power since 1982, seemed to have run out of energy and ideas. Cosy Bonn was a million light years away from the raw, chaotic east. And in the mid-1990s, civil servants in the last days of Bonn worried more about their own grudging move to the new capital than the problems of the disaffected eastern young. Though occasionally, those problems did impinge.

One fearful civil servant asked me if it would be safe to drive his Mercedes through east Berlin. If he drove fast enough, I assured him, he would probably be okay.

I have no idea what happened to him, but I suspect he may have taken out extra insurance just in case. This, after all, is a country obsessed with safety, and law and order.

Germans take out more insurance - against everything - than any other nation in Europe. Avoiding risk is a national hobby. Woe betide the tourist who crosses the road on red.

Likewise, a sign at Frankfurt train station lists 12 rules to be obeyed, the last of which is that passengers are asked to refrain from flying balloons. Apparently, they might become entangled in the power lines.

But the young seem less averse to risk. They find a united Germany an easier concept to live with.

New confidence

In cities such as Berlin, the presence of foreign soldiers is just a distant childhood memory - communism, just a word they learn in school. The western Allies have long since pulled out, the Russians too - leaving Germany to determine its own future and make its own mistakes. A new generation is in power, the chancellor of unity in disgrace.

As united Germany approaches its 10th anniversary on 3 October, it does so in a mood of national questioning.

So much has been achieved, but the task that remains is huge. The city of Berlin is testament to that. It is less of a building site these days: the landscape of cranes which pierced the skyline around the Reichstag is slowly thinning, as new skyscrapers emerge from what was a border wasteland.

And attitudes here are changing, albeit slowly. These days, yuppy civil servants happily crowd the east Berlin cafes below my flat. From the open doors come the enticing aroma of real coffee - the old smell of drains banished for good.

Other reminders of the past, though, are everywhere. My favourite building on the corner, not yet yuppified, is still pockmarked by the shells and bullet holes of World War II. I hope they do not change it. The elderly east Berliner who runs the fruit and veg shop downstairs says she too is rather fond of it that way.

As for that other grand old Prussian building, the Reichstag, it has also managed the transition rather well.

In a gesture which says much for Germany, its politicians agreed to leave intact the graffiti scrawled on its columns by the victorious Russian army in 1945. Mostly, they are the scribbles of young and barely literate soldiers - "Ivan, aged 16 and a half, was here" is the general message.

But Germany's willingness to acknowledge such a dark period of its past at the very heart of its new democracy displays a self-confidence and a humility which bode well for the future.

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See also:

07 Sep 00 | Europe
Berlin Wall officials freed
09 May 00 | Europe
Trial over Berlin Wall shootings
09 Nov 99 | Europe
Memories from the Wall
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