Archive for the ‘Germany’ Category

city-lit Berlin book launch (London)

In Berlin Wall, Germany, Running on November 25, 2009 at 11:23 am

This Friday will see the launch of city-lit Berlin at London’s Goethe Institute. The anthology is inspired by the atmospheric German capital which has captured so many writers’ imaginations – including mine.

I have been lucky enough to have some of my Berlin blogging included, alongside some pretty heavyweight names in modern literature. The book has been collecting great reviews, and my own modest contributions were singled out for praise in this FT review.

If you’re around – do please come along.


city-lit BERLIN

Book launch
Friday 27 November 2009, 7.30pm – 9pm
Goethe-Institut London, Library (First floor)
Admission free, but please reserve a place by phoning
Tel: +44 20 75964000

A small celebration of momentous events

In Berlin Wall, Germany on November 24, 2009 at 10:15 pm
Domino theory.

The 9th November anniversary celebrations in Berlin were nothing if not a spectacle. Brown, Merkel and Clinton gave speeches at the highly symbolic Brandenburg Gate that had lain in no man’s land during the Wall era. Gorbachev chatted to Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Lech Walesa broadcast live from the Reichstag.

Then 1,000 brightly-coloured ‘dominoes’ – each deliberately reminiscent of a section of the Berlin Wall and each decorated by artists or children – were toppled in a line that ran all the way from Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburg Gate and almost the Reichstag. Fireworks lit up the sky over the Tiergarten to finish off the official commemoration on this cold and wet night.

Mission accomplished all along Ebertstrasse.

But it was around 11pm that night at Bornholmer Strasse where a low-key sense of history could really be felt. Here, at around this this time of night 20 years ago, the border had given way: countless East Germans had heard the botched announcement about the lifting of travel restrictions and – only half-believing it – came to see if it was true.

As S-bahn trains rumbled underneath us, small groups were scattered along the pavement of the Bosebrucke bridge where tens of thousands of eager ‘Ossis’ had streamed across for a taste of what they had been denied so long. There was a murmur of conversation as paper cups were filled with wine and memories mulled over. Every so often a passing car tooted while candles glowed around the base of a monument commemorating the event, serving tonight as a focal point for another cluster of pensive drinkers.

People massed here on the eastern side, the approach to Bosebrucke.

A man sniffed, eyes moistening, as he explained in German how he had sat in a traffic jam here for hours that night. Only a few months beforehand his father had died, not living long enough to see this marvellous moment in modern German history. At moment that, he said, had actually been more emotional than his father’s death. He shook his head again and again, and said that he came here ever year. It was as if he couldn’t quite believe that it had all really happened.

Elsewhere, four women and a man made a toast. I asked them why they had chosen to be here, and not at the city centre razzmatazz? Two of the women had been 21-year-old Berliners in 1989, making the crossing here that extraordinary evening, and their friends had brought them here to remember it.

They struggled to articulate their feelings: “Er… toll (wonderful),” said one. “Ja, toll…” “Surprising!” offered the other. Growing up with Russian as a second language their English was very limited, so one of their friends from the former-West Germany translated what had happened:

“They were studying in Cottbus, two hours from here. They heard about what was happening here in Berlin – their home town – and said ‘It’s incredible, we have to check out if that is reality?’ They came straight to Berlin, and Bornholmer Strasse was the only place they could think to go. So they came here and it was open! They went to Ku’dam [W. Berlin’s Kurfurstendam] and it was really incredible.”

The five were all friends now; the three who had not lived in the GDR wanted to get a feel for how it must have been to be in the first wave across the bridge: “I said ‘I want to see the way you came to West Berlin 20 years ago. I want to translate that feeling for myself.’”

That feeling was still visible, as I walked across the bridge and back to the subway station, on the face of the man whose father had just missed the Wall’s demise. Even though he had been here at Bornholmer Strasse to enjoy it himself, be needed to stay a little longer to really believe it.

Hohenschönhausen: silent scream

In GDR, Germany, Stasi on November 4, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Only one of three floors...

At a recent workshop given by volunteers from London’s arts radio station Resonance FM, they were at pains to point out that silence is not always a bad thing. A short pause can sometimes say much more than a hundred words ever could.

I was reminded of this comment today in the former Stasi prison Hohenschonhausen. The guided tour had ended and, as it grew dark outside, I was left alone on the 2nd floor of the interrogation block. Door after brown padded door lined either side of this long corridor till the dark lines they made converged like rail tracks or cross hairs.

This is where disoriented prisoners were brought – one at a time so as not to pass anyone on the way – to meet their one source of human contact: their interrogation officer. Listening to the litany of offences against human decency the guide reeled off, a sense of revulsion welled up inside; coupled with the uncomfortable thought that sensory deprivation and water torture in unknown locations still goes on today. And sometimes closer to home than we’d like to think: ‘extraordinary rendition’ has a much nicer ring to it than kidnapping, though.

Shocking though they were, the allegations of forced-abortion and exposure to deadly X-rays were almost superfluous: given the exent of the methodical application of more mundane methods of destroying the individual. Dissenters and would-be escapees to the West were more commonly crushed by the application of mental cruelty, under the guise of ‘operative psychology’.

But what lingers now in the memory is that silence; a silence that was not even broken by a buzz from those harsh fluorescent lights; a silence so intense you could hear the hum of your brain’s electrical impulses in between your ears.

Minutes seemed like hours. What must have it been like to endure that for days, weeks and sometimes years? Not knowing where you were, even the guard walked behind you to avoid the tiniest trace of a relationship or connection that eye contact might constitute.

Stepping through the iron gates and out of the claustrophobic grey courtyard, I walked back along the snowy Freienwalder Strasse to the M5 tram stop. Passing a warm and fully stocked supermarket, orange light spilled from snug-looking apartments with lacey curtains and I wondered who lived there. Or more pertinently, who they were and how they lived with themselves?

Of the 91,000 full-time Stasi, 20 people had been prosecuted after the Wall came down. Many of them are living comfortably in that same area; some are doctors and lawyers; most refuse to apologise. And so for the ex-prisoners who lead the tours of this once-secret dungeon, any acknowledgement of wrongdoing they seek must come from tourists and not torturers. ‘Sorry’ is not a word that comes easily to Stasi lips.

Heroes and villains

In Germany, Postcommunism on November 2, 2009 at 9:35 am

In a wonderful irony, a McDonald’s now stands on the corner of Frankfurter Tor on the former socialist shopping showpiece that is Karl Marx Allee. This is where visiting dignitaries were brought, and officials made sure that here – unlike other places – the shops were always.

And yet, in a wonderful twist that seems to say so much about the transition from socialism to capitalism, it does not open until 9.30am in the morning – missing the breakfast rush as commuters head to the U-Bahn station outside.

Speaking of dignitaries, a reunion has taken place between Gorbachev, Bush Senior and ex-Chancellor Kohl. History will probably be kind to all of them, but as one reader comments here, Gorbachev’s back was against the economic wall and he had little choice.

Was he a visionary? By all accounts the USSR was broke and IMF loans were drying up to the Eastern Bloc (USSR and satellite states like East Germany and Poland) when it started to break up in 1989. Historians have also indicated that Gorbachev was not in favour of the break-up of the Soviet Union which followed.

“Between the truth and the legend, print the legend,” is a well known quote. The fact that it is attributed to a number of famous people exemplifies the arbitrary subjective nature of history. The comments board under this article is a mixture of informed debate and puerile mudslinging, but it shows how polarised views can be.

The Monday Demonstrations crowd chanted “Gorbi, Gorbi” in the streets of Leipzig. Whatever Gorbachev’s motivation, on this side of Europe he looks set to go down in history as the man who tore down the Iron Curtain. Further west in Russia, some see him as the man who ruined an empire and weakened a once-great country. Such is history.

Write the Berlin Wall

In Art, Berlin Wall, Germany on October 24, 2009 at 12:08 pm

The energy generated by the anniversary is expressing itself in many different ways, and it’s not just historians who are making hay. Berlin is pulling in artists – or even more than usual – from around the world for projects like Wallbreakers. In the rush to remove any trace of the Wall, little thought was given to future monuments. Everyone was so glad to see it go, no-one considered that part of the border ought to survive as a reminder of four decades of division.

Fortunately, a few sections escaped the chisels of the souvenir hunting wall-chippers and the bulldozers of local authority on either side. Places like the East Side Gallery provide a place to remember, but also a great empty surface for a new generation to express themselves on. Write the Wall outside Tape nightclub is another project where the concrete becomes canvas.

Berlin has its own peculiar energy at any time, but this promises to be a very special month in a very special city.

Hero or villain?

In GDR, Germany on October 20, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Flicking through a broadsheet in a Trieste library, I read that Egon Krenz, leader – very briefly – of East Germany at the time of Die Mauerfall claims he should be congratulated for ensuring there was no bloodshed. Krenz took over as the inertia of the Peaceful Revolution was too much for a government abandoned by Moscow. The day before, I had read a German clergyman’s assertion that media plaudits for the East German church’s revolutionary role had quickly turned to allegations of collusion.

One man’s activist is another man’s agitator; the man at the helm when the government crashes says he was going to bring it down anyway. People are fickle, memories are short and truth is a much a construct as any wall; revisionism is an inevitable consequence of postmodernism. The past is changing: this will not be the last attempt to mould memories of this dramatic time.

Runner’s World UK

In Berlin Wall, GDR, Germany, Running on October 20, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Read my article about running the Innerdeutsche Grenze (internal German border) in the Nov issue of Runner’s World.

Longer and older than the Wall in Berlin, it was just as well defended. This is where NATO faced-off against the Warsaw Pact.

A matter of time

In Berlin Wall, GDR, Germany on October 16, 2009 at 11:17 am

20 years ago today in Leipzig the opening of the Wall was now almost inevitable. The weekly Montagsdemonstration (Monday demonstrations) from the Nikolaikirche were rocketing in size, especially after the decision on 9th October by the GDR government not to use military force against 70,000 increasingly-confident – and determinedly peaceful – protesters.

Gorbachev had made it clear that the Brezhnev Doctrine was obsolete and the GDR government found itself isolated as it realised there would be no reinforcements from an already preoccupied Moscow.

Tonight would have seen hundreds of thousands of East Germans slowly walk through the streets of a city that had a big Stasi presence, singing hymns and carrying candles their now regular non-violent marches around the Tröndlingring.

One can only imagine how they must have felt to be a part of history, to be shaping European politics – about to precipitate the biggest event in German history for 40 years. They were the people.

Leipzig marks turning point

In Berlin Wall, GDR, Germany, Wall on October 9, 2009 at 6:48 pm

With a series of events that includes a recreation of the famous ‘Monday Demonstrations’ that started at the St Nicholas’ Church (Nikolaikirche), Leipzig today celebrates the marches that cranked up pressure on the GDR regime over the course of 1989, eventually leading to the opening of the Wall on 9th November.

9th October was a turning point (see this article for an eyewitness account) when thousands of marchers played non-violent brinkmanship with the authorities – pushing them to see how far they would bend. The authorities had large forces at their dispersal, and were ready to use them. But, for reasons that are still slightly vague – owing to history being a subjective area and of course the regime’s secrecy – this power was not used.

This could easily have been a violent massacre: the East German government had recently praised the response of their contemporaries in China to the Tiannenmen Square protests. But for whatever reason, be it compassion or simply confusion and indecisiveness, the authorities backed down. Maybe they saw the writing on the metaphorical wall. It was the beginning of the end.


Runner’s World Article

In Berlin Wall, GDR, Germany, Running on August 17, 2009 at 4:28 pm

The run along the border is due to appear as a feature in the UK edition of Runner’s World, the UK’s leading running magazine. Issue TBC soon.

Look out for more updates to the site soon.