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Berlin: falling walls

On the 9th November 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. It is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1938. On that same day, every year, a conference takes place in Berlin called Falling Walls. It is devoted to giving those at the top of their game in the sciences and social sciences fifteen minutes to explain the frontiers their specialist fields. The area covered is wide, from nano-computers to fusion reactors and voter patterns to the use of Sauerkraut juice to preserve manure. Like all the best teachers most of the speakers were able to make their specialty intelligible to the layman and give a real sense of optimism in the extraordinary inventiveness of the human brain. Take the Tokomak fusion reactor being built at ITER in France: they are confident that by using powerful magnets and new heat resistant materials they can contain the vast heat generated, allowing ten times more energy to be harvested in the reaction than went into creating it. Or the process of endocytosis, where drugs can be implanted directly into cells by disguising them as water molecules to avoid rejection. Apparently voters exercising their democratic rights online are 25% more likely to vote for an extremist party than they are in a ballot box. Daniel Liberskind, the architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the new Ground Zero site in New York, a man of protean skills, spoke of his vision for architecture as a way of changing thought processes.

The conference takes place in a building that was once in the kill zone – the no-mans-land through which the wall once ran. Though little of the wall remains its scar is still visible across a city that it once, in many ways, defined. It is hard now to imagine what a strange place Cold War Berlin was: explaining it to children is surprisingly difficult as the concept of an enclosed area containing free people is an odd one. We visited it first in the summer of 1989 when Glasnost and change were palpably in the air. Even during that epochal year two escapees had been shot trying to cross the wall. Everyone is familiar with the famous view of the Brandenburg Gate where the wall sliced across the major artery of urban Berlin; but Berlin is, surprisingly, a city of lakes and woods and while driving in a sun-flecked sylvan landscape it was a brutal experience to run up against concrete, barbed wire and a guard tower.

A visit to the East was a sobering experience. The West was no beauty: sixties’ architecture and the legacy of wartime bombing saw to that, but the brown and grey hues and smells and the rattle-pop of smoking Trabants in the East made it feel as if you had gone from a world of colour to one of sepia monotones – despite the beautiful June day. And the ruins. Even the Unter der Linden, Berlin’s central boulevard, felt like a Potemkin Village with the facades in place but shattered walls and gaping windows behind. The war felt very recent. We sat in a park and watched two old ladies feeding ducks and couldn’t help but imagine the horrors they must have endured during the bombing and rape that accompanied the collapse of the Third Reich. The subsequent forty years of the GDR would have been a grim postscript.

There is one adjective that seems to make its way into any description of East Germany; nasty. It was way behind either Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia in genocide and terror. Its nature was more sinister and creepy - encapsulated in the Stasi, its secret police. There has probably never been a society – except North Korea perhaps – where informing, spying and betrayal was so institutionalized, where so many worked for the secret police. The numbers tell the story. Out of a population of seventeen million people 97,000 worked directly for the Stazi. There were also a 170,000 informers - which makes one informer or Stazi agent for every sixty citizens. This would be as high as one informer for every 6.5 if part-timers were included. In Russia during the Terror it was one KGB agent for 5830; even the Nazis only got to one Gestapo agent for every 2000 citizens.

After the wall came down the Stazi files were opened with results that must still be traumatic. Parent discovered their children had informed on them; spouses betrayed each other – for once not in adultery. Close friendships were destroyed by their revelations. Timothy Garton-Ash, the British journalist and author had been intimately involved in the dissident movements across Eastern Europe during the 1980s. During that time he made many friends in the GDR. He saw his file, found out how many of them had been informing on him and decided to ask them why. The results, described in his book The File, were a picture of the gamut of human motivation and weakness. Some were blackmailed, some were ideologically driven. Others were venal, others weak and yet more couldn’t really say what made them do it other than the insidious corruption of such a society. It is telling that this creepiest of states disappeared leaving nothing but ripples of nastiness behind it.

The renaissance of East Berlin is remarkable – and the more so because of the way in which the traumas of the 20th Century have been incorporated into the physical restoration. A good example of this is the British architect, David Chipperfield’s work on the Neues Museum, designed originally by Stuler and built in the middle of the 19th century - but almost completely destroyed by bombing. The pillars outside are still scarified by bullets and shrapnel and the inside, containing amongst other treasures the immortal bust of Nefertiti and Schliemann’s discoveries from Troy, is often left bare to the brickwork. Chipperfield’s central staircase soars through the remnants of the destruction in the grandest of gestures.

This renaissance also creates its own surprises. As you walk down Friedrichstrasse, through what was the old East, you do so along pavements that could be on Fifth Avenue; the buildings are modern and the global brands are there in force. Then you arrive at the site of Checkpoint Charlie, an outdoor museum of the Cold War. As you continue into what was the Western Sector a shabby dowdiness descends. Graffiti covered walls and the grey concrete aberrations of the sixties dominate. Ironic indeed.
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