A Berlin Prediction, 1988

Carol and I visited Berlin in December 1988, a matter of months before the Wall came down. We’d met someone on our honeymoon earlier that year who happened to work at the British Embassy in West Berlin, and she invited us to stay with her and her boyfriend, a corporal serving with the UK military police.

When we were asked if we wanted to visit East Berlin during our stay, of course we said yes. Especially as we’d be visiting not as tourists, but as guests of a member of the British Army exercising his right to ‘patrol’ East Berlin, just as members of the East German military had the right to patrol the British, French and American sectors. That was the agreement.

So after completing some paperwork and exchanging money, we climbed aboard a sort of troop carrier and entered the East via a military checkpoint. It was all very Le Carre. “I suppose the East German police will want to take our photos,” I said to our MP host. “They already have,” he replied.

A bid for freedom, 1961

Exploring on foot, we found the city profoundly depressing. Not dirty particularly, just shabby,  unloved and monochrome. And this was despite the city receiving a disproportionate amount of investment from the East German government, the idea being that tourists and anyone viewing from the West would think life for people in the East wasn’t too bad after all – why, some even have cars! God knows what it must have been like for communities away from the city and that largesse.

The changing of the guard, 1988

Everyone we saw looked miserable. They stared at us with barely concealed hostility, only partly because our host, the MP, was obliged to wear full military uniform. I’ve no doubt we were discreetly followed by ‘agents of the state’.

Standout memories:

  • A large food store proudly showing off neat pyramids of tinned pineapple in every window, as if to proclaim ‘we’ve even got these!’ A quick look inside revealed that basically they ONLY had those
  • Buying a Russian fur hat in the department store. I put it back it as it was too small, but the shop assistant – a terrifying woman with shot-putters’ arms – had other ideas. She replaced the hat on my head and twisted it back and forth with such strength that it cricked my neck. I had to buy the bloody thing, but spent the next three days having to turn my upper body to look at things
  • Changing money at the actual exchange rate, rather than the artificial rate set for tourists. There was maybe a tenfold difference between the two, which meant we could buy whatever we wanted at ludicrously cheap prices.
  • So, a suitcase stuffed full of tinned pineapple! No. There was very little we wanted. But we did find a record shop. It stocked a big range of classical LPs, plus some imported US jazz albums provided they didn’t show black people on the cover. I bought about a dozen for roughly 70p each
  • Learning that the Wall featured small doorways here and there. We were told that East German police had been known occasionally to burst through and drag startled West German citizens back to the East, never to be seen again

Don’t stand there, you idiot

  • Also being told that at certain popular escape routes, the cylindrical top of the Wall could rotate, so that if any potential escapees did manage to get that close and that high, they wouldn’t be able to get a grip.

We came away from our brief visit convinced that it would be years before the Wall would be demolished, an opinion based largely on the wild disparity between the two countries’ currencies. People would ask, do you reckon the Wall will come down any time soon? We’d exchange knowing glances. No way, we’d say. How wrong we were.

Berlin postcard

The original Checkpoint Charlie

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