The first time I saw Berlin was in 1960, just 15 years after the end of World War II in Europe. I came for a week of exploring with the other participants in the International Christian Youth Exchange living in Germany for the school year of 1959 – 60, during which I lived with a German family in the small village of Rasdorf near the somewhat larger village of Hünfeld, near the small city of Fulda. Though Rasdorf was on the border between East and West Germany, we had to fly to Berlin, as it was an island of West Germany within the Deutsche Democratic Republic (DDR), commonly referred to as East Germany. While Berlin was technically divided into four zones (American, British, French and Russian), it was administratively divided into the Western Zone, which was part of the Federal Republic of Germany, and the Eastern Zone controlled by a puppet government installed by the Soviet Union. The wall that separated the two had not yet been built nor even thought of at the time.
By then I had lived for the better part of a year within walking distance of a ten meter wide strip of plowed earth that separated East and West Germany – the communist world from the free world – and our village from the next one to the east. The physical scars of the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians called it, were little in evidence in Germany’s villages such as Rasdorf. Berlin, however, was a very different matter.
According to Wikipedia: “Up to the end of March 1945 there had been a total of 314 air raids on Berlin, with 85 of those coming in the last twelve months. Half of all houses were damaged and around a third uninhabitable, as much as 16 km² of the city was simply rubble.” Estimates of the total number of dead in Berlin from air raids range from 20,000 to 30,000. To put it into perspective, the total U.S. causalities in Iraq from March 19, 2003 to May 26, 2015 were 4493.
By 1960 West Berlin had enjoyed considerable rebuilding. But vast areas remained flattened and uninhabitable, though generally cleared of rubble. The now thriving hot spot of Potsdamer Platz, just west of what was about to become the Berlin Wall, was a large vacant space. The Kurfürstendamm, on the other hand, was largely rebuilt and thriving with the steeple of the bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church still standing, as it is today, as a memorial to the horrors of war.
The 17 Juni strasse in the West becomes the Unter der Linden strasse as it passes through the Brandenburg Tor to the East. Its buildings also had been fully restored to their prewar appearance. But not more than one or two blocks on either side was nothing but gutted buildings and ruble. It was a shocking sight. Coming from America, I had never seen such massive devastation before in my life. Of course, today no evidence of the war exists anymore except in memorials and museums. And even the Berlin Wall, which existed from 1961 to 1989, is gone; a small portion of the Wall still remains as a historical reminder for visitors but mainly it has been broken up into inch-size fragments for sale to tourists or used as decorations in hotel lobbies, one of which sits on my office bookshelf.
The apartment building Ito and I are now staying in on Behrenstrasse is just one block south of Unter der Linden strasse and has replaced the gutted buildings I had seen 55 years earlier. As far as I can see in every direction now the area has been fully rebuilt, as very little was restorable. The exceptions are the grand buildings of Berlin’s original and once again city center (Humboldt University, several concert halls, Museums, the Berliner Dom and some other churches).
During our day trip to East Berlin during that first visit in 1960 our group went to the Opera House, which had survived the war, and saw a performance of a portion of opera. I remember the concert very well. They performed the Polovtsian Dances from Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor. It was very familiar to me from the American musical Kismet. Being the naive and skeptical 18 year old that I was at the time, I complained to my companions that those damn Russian’s had stolen these songs. They will steal anything, I said. Learning that the reverse was true soon there after was eye opening.
I returned to Berlin, now divided by the Berlin Wall, in 1976 or so to visit my former wife’s sister Jean and her husband Tom, and then again for the Mont Pelerin Society meetings in 1982 with Milton Friedman and other economists in attendance. By then I was in my mid 30s. Reconstruction continued in the West but little had changed in the East. During the first of these two visits I saw, with Jean and Tom, my first ever full opera, this time in the Western Zone. The opera was Madam Butterfly, a nice introduction to the world of opera. I marveled at the music, of course, but also found it fascinating that I was watching an opera sung in Italian about a geisha who had fallen in love with an American Captain in Japan and I was watching it in Germany.
I returned to a reunited Berlin (and a reunited Germany) after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the USSR several times again for one reason or another. Once was to visit my German friend Moritz Schularick, with whom I will meet again here for dinner on Monday. The burst of construction and development in the newly freed Eastern Zone was amazing. The transformation with each of my subsequence visits was quite pronounced. Younger people no longer refer to the Eastern Zone. The hotel where we are now staying is in what was once part of the Eastern Zone, and is now called Mid Town (Mitte).
We are now vacationing in Berlin because Ito has been reading a lot about Winston Churchill and the Germans in the Nazi government such as Albert Speer, Joseph Goebbels, Rudolf Hess, and Hermann Göring, and WWII in general and he wanted to see the places he has read about. So here I am 55 years after my first visit in 1959 astonished at the city’s history of glory, infamy, courage and pain, destruction and eventual reconstruction and rebirth. Hitler’s famous bunker here where he ended his life together with his new wife Eva Braun and his dog Blondi has been filled in and covered over, but the Germans have gone out of their way not to cover up their treatment of the Jews in what came to be called the holocaust. Still, it feels a bid odd walking and riding around this historic city with its many Nazi ghosts. It is also the city in which brave Germans sought freedom in the West by jumping out of windows over the Wall, digging tunnels under it, and by risking their lives in order to escape the Eastern Zone to live in the West.
The story of Berlin, from then until now, is an example how a people can succumb to inhumane beliefs and behavior, recover their humanity and respect for freedom, and once again flourish. Germany’s long history includes both great and horrendous acts. Within my lifetime the Nazi’s rose to power and threatened the world in WWII, Berlin was completely and utterly destroyed by allied bombing near the end of that war, then occupied by the Red Army in 1945, the city butchered into four quadrants as part of the Allies’ Cold War with the USSR, the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 and torn down in 1989, and Germany was reunified in 1990, subsequently prospering as a free and democratic state. I am grateful to have been able to witness what seems to be a positive outcome to this complicated story.