Posted by: lucylastic | October 6, 2008

Life is a cabaret my friend………

The film Cabaret, starring Liza Minelli recalls Berlin in the 1930’s – and I imagine it was similar then to the pictures i saw of it going back to the late 1880’s, certainly in the early days of the 1900’s it seemed a grand and imposing city, brimming with history and full of fine architectiture.  Scoot forward 70+ years, and it is a very different Berlin we see today – if life is indeed a cabaret, then i think this one is definitely being performed by the understudies, not the stars – they are most definitely elsewhere.

I said I would come back to Berlin – after my visit there a couple of weeks ago to attend InnoTrans 2008 – the biggest railway exhibition in the world. The exhibition was pretty mind-blowing – it’s so big that there are even trains right in the middle of the ‘Messe’ or fairground – and it makes the NEC or Earls Court look like pocket handkerchiefs.

Q. What’s the river called that runs through Berlin? Rhine? Main? Danube? ‘No’ to all of those – it’s the Spree – have you ever heard of it? I have to confess, I hadn’t, (or, if I ever had, it certainly hadn’t stayed in my mind). Like all rivers in capital cities, it’s pretty big, pretty murky and nowadays, one can take an overpriced ride in a pleasure boat, (with ‘fine dining’ if wanted) to see all the sights that sit alongside the river. But the Spree is a bit different to the Liffey, the Seine, the Thames, even – once part of the boundary between the ‘free’ Allied sector of Berlin and the East, it saw many a dead body fall into its waters – usually shot whilst making a desperate attempt to swim across and escape. In fact, the last person to be shot trying to swim across the river to freedom was a young man, aged just 21, who died in March 1989 – just months before the fall of the Wall in November later that same year. If that doesn’t bring you up short, nothing will – it brought tears to my eyes.

I remember so very clearly watching the pictures of the Wall coming down that night – in some ways, it seems much more recent than 1989 – and the city bears the scars to this day. Bullet holes in parts of the bridges across the river, a memorial wall to all those who tried to escape, the museum at Checkpoint Charlie which has rebuilt some of the original wall alongside a ‘graveyard’ of crosses to mark those who are known to have died.

Deep inside the Brandenburg Gate is a ‘Silence memorial’ – a largish room containing some plain chairs and a tapestry which is meant to represent light breaking through the darkness. It’s non-denominational, but is maintained by volunteers, many of whom do have religious affiliations. It was a sobering place, but one filled with hop and the constant stream of visitors during the 15 minutes or so that we spent there is a testament to the fact that history there has not been forgotten.

I had hoped for a visit to the Bundestag building, but in true Disney fashion, (and with typical German efficiency) the queue was marked with neat ‘1 hour from here’, or ’30 minutes from here’ signs that made up our minds for us – with limited time, we decided not to waste it in a queue! A stroll along Unter den Linden was marred by heavy traffic noise and bezillions of school trips who snaked along with complete disregard for fellow pavement users.

I was in Berlin once before, in 1993, when it seemed fresher, more full of hope, than it does now – then, there were endless possibilities, now it seems to me a place of opportunities lost – opportunities to remodel and recreate the splendour of buildings lost in the split and separation of the sectors, opportunities to unify the city via it’s urban regeneration – instead, Berlin is still very grim in parts, the former free west is very run-down – a result of endless buckets of money going to the east – and the new buildings are random to say the least – where are the good architects when you need them? When I lived in Germany, the Government there created a reunification tax – which started at 7% of income and rose to 10%, it was implemented in 1994 and it was meant to be short-term, but in 2008 the tax is still there and the redevelopment is still not complete and we are fast approaching the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the wall and all that went with it. I hope someone is being held accountable.

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