My 1989 trip to East Berlin


For the residents of the ideological prison known as Berlin, Hauptstadt der DDR, 1989 began as bleakly as every new year had done for decades.

A blanket of bitter cold chased the people from the streets, while the Soviet-controlled state stole the hope from their hearts.

For the traveller, East Berlin was the closest you could ever get to Narnia: a frozen, monochrome land of shadows. And one of the most thrilling places I have ever been.

Just reaching the capital of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) was an exercise in weirdness.

I flew on TWA (ask an elderly relative) from Gatwick to Frankfurt, and transferred to Pan Am (ditto, only an even older one) for the flight to West Berlin.

Only American, British and French airlines were allowed to connect West Germany with its isolated fragment of territory deep inside the eastern bloc.

“Are we about to land?” asked my neighbour as the jet began to descend only 15 minutes after take-off from Frankfurt.

Pausing only to roll and light a cigarette (I told you they were weird times), I explained that flights on the air corridors between the west and Berlin were capped at 10,000 feet.

After bumping along at low altitude for another half-hour, the plane landed in what was, from an East German perspective, Las Vegas with bells and Christmas lights on.

To infiltrate East Berlin was a relative breeze: you walked into Friedrichstrasse station carrying DM30 (about £10) and a western passport, and followed the signs for the Grenzübergang.

You paid DM5 for the right to enter West Berlin, and exchanged the rest for East German marks at a rate of 1:1 (the black market rate was four times more beneficial).

With a tiny amount of this softest of currencies, you could buy an S-Bahn ticket to Alexanderplatz, the hub of East Berlin, and pay your respects to the giant representations of Engels and Marx – remembering that the vile DDR wasn’t the actual fault of the authors of The Communist Manifesto.

Or you could go down the pub, preferably after procuring some black market marks. First choice: to the Last Resort, as Zur letzten Instanz translates.

This ancient hostelry, which started serving in 1621, was the closest communism came to convivial.

I made some new comrades. At the end of a cheery evening, one said: “In the morning, you can cross to the west. We never can.”

Approaching Checkpoint Charlie the next morning, my breath melted into the mist that swirled around the frontier in the manner of a spy thriller.

The crossing from communism from capitalism was like trying to sneak through a valve the wrong way. Beneath the glare of floodlights and the even-more-intense glares of frontier officials, you encountered check after check after check.

Passport? Money? What is in the tin? (Tobacco and cigarette papers, of course. Want one?)

No smiles. This deep wound in a great city was the Cold War front line, and one of the most lethal places on earth for those without the right papers.

Before the next winter had taken grip of Berlin, my friendly Berliner’s despondency had been proved gloriously wrong. 

Some very brave people rose up against the crumbling facade of communism – assisted by the government in Budapest, which lifted the Iron Curtain just enough to let in some light and let out some East Germans. And by 9 November in that fateful year, the Berlin Wall was breached.

I have since crossed more ideological divides with valve-like qualities: from the breakaway state of Transnistria into Moldova, and from California into Mexico – though I won’t be breezing across the DMZ from South Korea to its northern neighbour just yet.

Courage and humanity can breach barriers. Thirty years on, it is deeply sad – and really quite weird – that some are intent on building more.

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