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Berlin's complicated past—including sections of the wall that long separated the east from the west—is on display everywhere you look. (Photograph by blickwinkel, Alamy)

Living-History Lessons in Berlin

It’s one thing to stand in a place where a historic event transpired a thousand years ago. It’s entirely different to stand in a spot where history was made during your own lifetime.

This lesson resonated for me recently on a mind-expanding cruise around the Baltic Sea. Our voyage included day tours in Stockholm, Tallinn, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Copenhagen. In each city we gazed at grand, centuries-old cathedrals and statues commemorating epoch-making events. And yet in each, history remained somehow cerebral and out of reach—until we reached Berlin.

My wife and I traveled by train from the port of Rostock to Berlin’s central rail terminal, where we met a wonderful guide, Sabine Mueller, who immediately took us to the Brandenburg Gate.

As we stood in the shadow of the iconic arch, Sabine said, “I want to tell you about the night the Berlin Wall came down.”

She recalled a news broadcast aired at 8 p.m. on November 9, 1989, where the East German authorities announced that the eastern borders, including the borders between East and West Berlin, would be opened. She was 20 years old at the time and had been living in West Berlin since she was a toddler.

“People in East Germany listened to these broadcasts, too, and as soon as they heard this news, they streamed to the borders,” she said. “The East Berliners were afraid that the decision might be reversed at any moment [and] wanted to take advantage of it while they could.”

“The next morning I was awakened at dawn by a phone call from my friend. ‘We have to go to the Wall!’ he said. ‘Why?’ I asked, still half asleep. ‘Because they’re tearing it down!’”

Sabine paused and goose bumps ran along my body. I was in two places simultaneously, one foot in modern-day Berlin and the other in the newsroom at the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle that long-ago November day as the first reports streamed over the wire. Standing in Berlin in 2014, I felt the same exhilarating breeze I’d felt in 1989 as I read eyewitness accounts from the German capital and marveled that changes beyond my comprehension were sweeping across the planet.

Sabine pointed at our feet, where a trim line of light gray concrete perhaps eight inches wide ran down the street. “This marks where the Berlin Wall stood,” she said. “My city was divided.”

“Think of it,” she continued. “Twenty-eight years earlier, in 1961, barbed wire had been erected overnight. Some East Berliners who had spent the night in West Berlin woke up unable to return home, or faced with the decision of whether to stay in the free West or return to loved ones in the East, knowingly giving up their chance for freedom. Some people who lived in East Berlin but worked in West Berlin suddenly couldn’t go to their jobs. Families and friends who lived on separate sides of the Wall were torn apart.”

Sabine explained with photographs that the Berlin Wall was actually two walls separated by a no-man’s-land that varied in width from about 30 to 500 feet and punctuated at regular intervals by watchtowers and guards. Anyone attempting to cross was shot, she said.

“So you can imagine the euphoria I felt, we all felt the next morning when my friend and I raced to the Wall,” she went on. “There were crowds of people drinking and dancing and celebrating. Some people had hopped on top of the Wall; others were chipping away parts of it. No one knew what the future would bring, but in that moment no one was thinking of the future—we were just intoxicated by the sense of history happening under our feet, in front of our eyes.”

Three hours later, Sabine ended our tour at one of the most substantial sections of the Wall still standing. Alone, isolated, stretching about a city block, it seemed such a frail confection—a long drab wafer of a wall, perhaps ten feet tall and less than a foot thick, that looked as though it could be toppled with a good kick.

I stared and thought of all the lives that Wall had ripped apart, the dreams that it had buried. It was almost impossible to grasp the authority it had once imposed. Indeed, Sabine said her own school-age children found it hard to believe the Wall had ever existed. It seemed so absurd, so impossible.

It was an equal challenge to reconcile the privations of the Communist past with the prosperity of the capitalist present, proclaimed in the bold, corporate-branded buildings and brisk, besuited businessmen we’d seen on our tour. And that was a good lesson, too—that Berlin was resolutely not mired in its past, but had moved on to embrace a once inconceivable future.

As we surveyed that symbolic slice of concrete, Sabine smiled broadly, her eyes alight, and I thought anew of how travel can connect us to history—and to the people and stories that compose it—in the most visceral, heart-pounding way.

I thought, too, of another truth, fundamentally related to travel but soaring beyond it: that no wall can subdue forever the human will.

And as I imagined Sabine dancing and hugging her newly freed countrymen in this very spot in the fall of 1989, these words formed in my mind: Walls fall; people rise.

Berlin’s living history had opened my eyes.

Here are four books that offer eloquent insights into Berlin past and present:

  • Christopher Isherwood’s classic novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) is a stunning, semiautobiographical portrait of pre-Nazi Weimar Germany based on his years as a novelist in Berlin in the early 1930s. By focusing on an intimate cast of characters—a kindly landlord, a Jewish heiress, an English cabaret singer, and a gay couple—Isherwood presents a poignantly human portrait of the city on the cusp of transition, from burgeoning bohemian center to chilling seat of Nazi power.
  • Modern Berlin is one of the main characters in Book of Clouds (2009), by Mexican novelist Chloe Aridjis. Recording the German capital through the keen eyes of Tatiana, an isolated Mexican Jew subsisting on low-paying jobs, Aridjis vividly reveals the unified city’s unsettled spectrum, from the anonymous apartment blocks that mark one part of the former east to the capitalist cranes that dominate Alexanderplatz, and from the haunting Holocaust memorial to the eerie underground parties that bring abandoned buildings to momentarily frenzied life. 
  • Ghost Dance in Berlin (2013), by Peter Wortsman, is an impressionistic memoir cum idiosyncratic love letter to the city. The American-born son of German-speaking Jewish refugees, Wortsman interweaves observations, experiences, and imaginings from a temporary residency on Berlin’s largest lake to illuminate how the city is divided by invisible borderlines and haunted by restless ghosts—and yet remains an irresistibly intoxicating, seductive place.
  • Berlin Now: The City After the Wall (2014) is a new collection of essays by German journalist-novelist and Berlin resident Peter Schneider. Delving deep beneath the capital’s surface, from the cutting-edge club scene to the East Berliner nostalgia for the good old days of Communism to the enclaves of immigrants from Turkey, Vietnam, and Russia, Schneider uncovers the complex and often contradictory character at the contemporary city’s heart.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.

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