Peter Bills: Beyond Starbucks and Armani Berlin remains divided

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A newly-renovated apartment building (L) and one in a dilapidated state stand in Berlin, Germany. Photo / Getty Images
A newly-renovated apartment building (L) and one in a dilapidated state stand in Berlin, Germany. Photo / Getty Images

Sunday morning in Berlin ...

The cold, clear night, with temperatures of -7C, has delivered an impenetrable frost. Here in the old eastern sector of the city, I gaze upon an apartment block clearly rooted in the grim times of Soviet-occupied East Germany.

It is 21 storeys high, of uniform design for this part of the city. A small children's playground, with three or four rusting items of equipment, was the old communist regime's only concession to any obvious entertainment. In that sense, not so much has changed.

Perhaps there are slightly smarter cars parked at the front of it now, compared to the shabby, dirty Trabants which once filled the eastern sector. But the ferro concrete block is omnipresent this side of where the wall once stood; it has a grey, depressing vista which even democracy and so-called freedom in this city cannot obscure.

But I digress. Berlin, we are told, is a new city, a vibrant, flourishing capital which is fast banishing all traces of its once divided self.

In part that is true. The last time I was here, the wall still stood and you faced the intimidation of the East German border guards, their firearms bulging out of heavy winter overcoats.

In those times, humour was as absent as hope. In the old eastern sector of the city, even 20 years after the wall had gone up, there were few lights and only cowed, subjugated souls to see. It was depressing.

I recall, at the end of one December day in the east, spying the lights on a Christmas tree above Checkpoint Charlie, at the end of a long, dark street. If ever the light of hope amid the darkness was made manifest, that surely was it.

Today, of course, the minefields, barriers and machineguns that were omnipresent around the border are no more. Just like the wall, except for those sections preserved for gawping tourists.

The first few hundred metres of Friedrichstrasse after Checkpoint Charlie, in those days still a grim reminder of the war with shattered buildings and bullet pocked walls, have been transformed. Gaudy neon lights jostle for attention; there are the familiar western high street chain shops like Zara and Starbucks.

In and around Unter den Linden, too, the international designer shops proliferate: Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Gucci and Boss. Yet leave the glittering lights, cross into Leipziger Strasse and head off down that road and a pall of gloom again invades the senses.

The architecture is drab and dire, the living conditions in these vast Communist-inspired tower blocks spartan. Such abodes are a crumbling relic of an old East German regime that sought to subjugate and intimidate its people, infiltrating spies and informers into every office, each home. To this day, many families continue to feel the mental anguish of those times.

It is undeniable that parts of the old eastern sector have been transformed by the millions spent by a German government which was unified once more after 1990. International hotels now own sites that were once closed to the prying eyes of most outsiders and the ubiquitous cranes peer down from vast building sites.

Yet all these are cosmetic elements. Freedom is a fraud, a fantasy unless it truly invades the minds of human beings. And to watch the law abiding Germans about their everyday business, you honestly wonder how deep this freedom goes among those once trapped in the eastern sector.

There remains, in the eyes of the outsider at least, a seeming reluctance to challenge authority. People continue to follow the rules; they form orderly queues, stand stock still on empty road junctions because a small red icon tells them to do so. Only when the colour changes do they dare to walk.

But perhaps this is deep in the German psyche. And perhaps it will only be the young generation, born as the wall was coming down and therefore not encumbered by the rules of a repressive state, whether it be the Nazis or, after the war, the Communists, who will truly throw off the yoke of repression when they reach maturity.

The greatest irony in this city of oxymorons is parts of the western sector, once seen as the Valhalla, are looking shabbier and more dated than some parts of the east.

So much money has been lavished upon the eastern sector that areas of the west, like the once elegant Kurfurstendamm, begin to look dilapidated. Maybe that points to one hitherto unimagined scenario. Even wealthy Germany, the financial engine of Europe, is starting to run out of money in these times.

- NZ Herald

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