I first stumbled across Berlin by complete accident in 1986. I was a 20 year old graphic design student who managed to cobble together £160, mainly by painting portraits of my mother’s friends pets, and set off into the unknown on a hitch hiking trip across Europe. Me and a mate of mine reckoned we could last a month on that amount each, we would pay NOTHING for travel or accommodation, hitch hiking and roughing it in parks etc would suffice – instead the meagre £6 per day would go on food and the odd beer if we were lucky. We eventually visited 10 countries on that trip and lasted slightly longer than the month we had planned.
‘Hitch hike to Berlin? but it’s in the middle of East Germany!’
One day on the outskirts of Amsterdam we were at a service station intending to head towards Frankfurt then eventually Munich when we met a couple of incredibly stoned looking young fellows going home to Berlin. We exchanged pleasantries and the German lads suggested we come to Berlin with them. This was 1986 and the Iron Curtain still totally divided Germany and the Berlin Wall acted as a prison in reverse around the capitalist enclave of West Berlin. ‘Hitch hike to Berlin?’ I said, ‘but it’s in the middle of East Germany!’. ‘Ah’, said the young Berliner, ‘You are allowed to hitch from the West to West Berlin along designated ‘corridoors”. Having had absolutely no intention to visit Berlin, this sounded like a fantastic adventure, heading deep through the Communist controlled East Germany, or The DDR as the natives called it, to the former (and now current) German capital. We all shook hands and agreed, however, four scruffy looking young students were never going to get a lift together in the memory of man, so we decided to split up and arranged to meet at a bombed out church in West Berlin at 10pm that night.
After still what must be the most surreal journey of my life, we arrived in West Berlin to meet our new found German friends. I say surreal as everything was so grey, each motorway exit junction had an observation tower and all Westerners travelling along the route were scrutinised by Stasi and Volkspolizei officers. Citizens of the DDR were only allowed to buy Communist manufactured cars, predominantly the Trabant, so the Volkswagen Passat we were in was viewed enviously by locals as we overtook on the crumbling, poorly maintained autobahn.
What began as an ‘accidental’ visit was to become the beginning of a love affair with one of the most incredible cities in the world I have ever visited, one that has changed almost beyond all recognition since my first visit in the Cold War era of the mid eighties.
Below are some images I have taken during numerous visits over the last 26 years.
The sight of The Berlin Wall whilst still dividing not only the city of Berlin, but Western and Eastern political ideologies remains one of the most incredible things I have ever seen in person in my life. It just seemed so final and dramatic. If you look closely at the picture above you can still see the tram lines running directly into the wall, the same lines would have, pre 1961, carried Berliners about their business across town.
The above image just sums up how grey and dour the Eastern side of Berlin appeared, compared to the vibrancy of the Western side.
The two lads we met hitching on our way to Berlin lived in the Lichtenrade district to the south of West Berlin. This gate in the wall in Lichtenrade was used as a transit route after negotiations with the DDR authorities to transport refuse out of the walled city, no doubt in exchange for large sums of hard Western currency.
The wall consisted not just of one barrier, but an intricate network of security measures to prevent people crossing. Behind the main wall was the ‘Death Strip’ behind which was the ‘Hinterland Security Fence’. The ‘Death Strip’ is clearly visible above, a broad swathe of land populated by watch towers, mines, electrified fences and guard dogs. The poor quality of the picture with it’s scratches and markings are a direct result of me not looking after my negatives properly in this case!
The Berlin Wall became famous for it’s murals and graffiti – that was only on the Western side of course, the Eastern side was painted totally white, to enable border guards to see potential escapees more easily. The section of the wall pictured above, the mile or so long preserved ‘East Side Gallery’ on Mühlenstraße was actually on the Eastern side, to have created such a painting pre 1989 would have definitely landed the artist in prison. The image of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing DDR head honcho Erich Honecker was based on an actual photograph taken when the two met in 1979.
The ‘Stasi’ short for Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry For State Security) were the East German secret police who upheld the communist regime with an iron grip. Anyone suspected of ‘anti state activity’ was liable to be arrested in the small hours then whisked off to the detention centre, pictured above, at Hohenschönhausen, so secret was this place it was on no maps. People from Berlin who were taken there might have only lived 2 miles from the place, but were driven round for hours in the back of a van to give the impression they were in a far off city. Once incarcerated the prisoners were kept in TOTAL isolation until they signed pre written confessions. Methods of mental torture, not physical abuse were the modi operandi of the Stasi in this centre. The facility had a 100% conviction rate, the longest any detainee held out before ‘confessing’ was 2 years, most cracked in a few weeks or days.
Obsessed with monitoring it’s own people, The Stasi numbered more operatives per head of population than any other secret police force in history, above a shot of a watch connected to a Nagra tape machine used to record conversations with suspected dissenters.
During Stasi interrogations, which often lasted up to 20 hours, prisoners were sat on chairs with a detachable piece of felt like cloth. These fabric samples were then sealed in jars and labelled, kept as ‘scent samples’ to aid the tracking down of suspects in the future by use of sniffer dogs.
Prior to the Communist take over of Eastern Germany after the Second World War Berlin was of course the centre of operations for the Nazis. Pictured above is the main entrance to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp to the north of the city. The legend on the gate ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ translates literally as ‘Work Sets You Free’ a cynical slogan used at most concentration camps by the Nazi terror machine. Over 30,000 people died here during period 1936 – 45.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe consists of 2,711 concrete slabs over an area of 4.7 acres. Needless to say it is a very eerie, haunting place.
The public transport system in modern day Berlin really is second to none, having traveled extensively all over the city on numerous visits I have only had to resort to hailing a cab on a handful of occasions. Warschauer Strasse S Bahnhof above was once ‘behind’ the wall in the East, today it is a busy transport hub connecting commuters to all corners of the city.
At first glance it appears the second world war aircraft is almost going to land on the U Bahn train, it is in actual fact suspended by steel cable from the adjacent building.
Taken on my most recent visit whilst working in Berlin, September 2012. I was walking through the Kreuzberg district and happened to see these children.
Enormous gable end mural in the Kreuzberg district. To give an idea of scale, to the very bottom left of the shot you can see a seated mans head just above the roof of the car.
Once a symbol of Communist power, the TV tower in Alexanderplatz is visible from almost everywhere in the city, at 368 metres it is the tallest building in Germany.
Berlin’s main central railway station ‘Hauptbahnhof’ really is an architectural marvel, multi levelled sections bring together transport connections resembling something from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film ‘Metropolis’
And we finally come full circle, from my first visit in 1986 when the sight of The Berlin Wall blew me away, not just visually, but what it actually stood for – to the shots above and below taken 10 days ago, where now, the wall is a tourist attraction in this diverse, artistic, multi cultural city.