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October 1997

A Letter from Berlin: Here's to the good ole days

Reflections of the reunified Berlin

I have a vivid memory of the past: Whenever I went to Berlin I had the impression that everybody was raving about the future. "One of these days we'll send 'The Russians' to hell and bury Communism forever," the dignitaries in the western half of the city would shout while swinging their fists angrily towards the east. On the other side of town one would be exposed to huge banners bearing slogans like "Socialism will win and the world will be a better one." Naturally, the people of East Berlin were skeptical about this but they, too, longed for a better future. They dreamed there would be a time to travel and see the world. Whereas the people of West Berlin would pray that someday they'd be able to make an excursion into the Mark Brandenburg or pay a visit to Dresden. In the year 1997 the visitor to Berlin can't help but quote Bob Dylan: 'The times, they are a-changin.' As everybody knows, the wall that divided the big city came down. Remember the pictures you saw on TV shortly afterwards? Remember the inhabitants of West Berlin greeting their "brothers and sisters" from the other side of the iron curtain with joy and cheers? Remember the tens of thousands kissing and hugging, drinking and dancing in the streets? Since then, you might imagine, the future lies bright ahead. And when you wander around the old demarcation line, take a look at the no longer threatening guard tower of Checkpoint Charlie or stand overwhelmed in front of the gigantic building site at Potsdamer Platz you certainly can get that feeling. The smell of the future is in the air indeed. But, ironically, the people of Berlin no longer seem to be too enthusiastic about the future of their beautiful and busy, bustling and buzzing metropolis. Near the end of the millennium, 52 years after the war and in the eighth year since reunification, they seem to prefer to dwell in the past. That, at least, is the impression I got while spending two months in Berlin this summer. It was a beautiful, long, hot summer for me. I had the time of my life listening to all those fascinating stories of bygone days that the people of Berlin love to tell. Every now and then, though, when I noticed the strange gleam of love in the eyes of those who, with a bleeding heart, mentioned the days old, I couldn't but wonder if the era of the Cold War was that bad after all. Let me tell you the story of Hans-Peter Brandes, whom I met at a party in fashionable Charlottenburg near Kurfürstendamm. Before I can give you the details please cast your memory back to the summer of 1963 when John F. Kennedy, on the balcony of West Berlin's town hall, held his famous speech with the historic words "Ich bin ein Berliner." Now Mr. Brandes, who is almost fifty and earns his bread producing music, claims to have invented those touching words JFK shouted into the ears of the people in the street and, via TV and radio, all over the free world. It so happened, Hans-Peter told me the day after that party when we met in a café and he unfolded a small assortment of photographs and press clippings, that he and the two sons of the then mayor Willy Brandt, with whom he was friends, were hanging around in the senate guesthouse where Kennedy stayed. The president leaned out of the window and talked to the boys. Then he sought their advice: "What am I to say to the people this afternoon?" To which Hans-Peter suggested: "Just say: 'Ich bin ein Berliner.' They will love it." Hans-Peter Brandes swears that a piece of paper with these very words he wrote down for the president is now in the archives of the Kennedy museum. Want to hear another one? A cabbie drove me to the Radisson SAS Plaza Hotel in the heart of East Berlin, just opposite the mighty and beautiful Berlin Dom, designed by Prussia's famous master builder Schinkel in the beginning of the 19th century. On the roof of a side wing of the huge hotel there is a small penthouse to which the taxi driver directed my attention. "This is where the great terrorist Carlos lived while he got his special training by our people," he told me proudly, adding that he, as a young man, had been trying to make a career in the field of intelligence himself. Yes, he recalled reverently, once he had seen a glimpse of Carlos on one of those long corridors in the dark old Stasi headquarters. Just opposite of that hotel is the Plaza of the Republic with the bronze statues of Marx and Engels. Marx sits and Engels stands. Both direct a solemn gaze to the "Rotes Rathaus," (red town hall) where the senate resides today. It looks as though the socialist leaders protect a weird building situated behind the Palace of the Republic. Once the architectural showpiece of the East German elite, it is now closed because of its high and dangerous amount of asbestos. To maintain the palace with its big, dark-brown glass walls costs DM 60,000 a day. The current administration does not dare to tear it down. "It is part of our heritage to which we have a right"- such is the argument of Erich Honecker's former subjects which nobody in town hall has the nerve to deny. "Ostalgia" is the word that goes round. The people of East Berlin don't want to totally sacrifice their identity to the western way of living. They hate the feeling of being overrun and overruled by the "winners" of reunification, the trendsetters and tastemakers of the West. That is why in recent years there has been a renaissance of typical East German household products bearing the signature of old fashioned socialist charm: vacuum cleaners, scouring powders, hair curlers, butter dishes, enamelled pails and chewing tobacco, to name a few. There have even been exhibitions held to preserve the country. I could tell you more about the new way of looking back instead of looking ahead. Many "Wessies" fondly remember the pleasant "island feeling" of Cold War days. Maybe that's the reason for a rather strange phenomenon: The leading entrepreneurs who pave the way for the German parliament and government's move to Berlin are outsiders from way down south. The spirit of enterprise, no doubt, these days is with a handful of tycoons from Munich who were shrewd enough to go east and make a fortune. So if you ever go to Berlin, be sure to have a coffee at Käfer's in the Reichstag. You'll meet some interesting people there and listen to funny stories from the good old days when the times were bad.

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