Berlin 1983

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Dateline Berlin: June 1983

Photo of the Berlin Wall in Kochstrasse, with a watchtower in the backgroundImagine London divided by a wall that stretches from Watford in the north, through the West End, to Croydon in the south.  Imagine that wall encircling every London borough west of the City.  Now imagine that the Tower of London and Houses of Parliament are in two different countries, and that a passport is required to travel between the two.  If you can imagine this, you start to get an idea of what happened to the city of Berlin.

Berlin was politically divided at the end of World War Two.  To emphasise this point, and to stem an escalating flow of skilled labour from the eastern sector, it was further physically divided in 1961 by a wall.  Fleeing the Republic became a criminal offence, and the people of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany or the GDR) were effectively locked into their country.  The western powers felt there was little they could do, and once the furore settled down it seemed as though people didn't really give Berlin a second thought.  Nevertheless, despite this business as usual attitude, Berlin was one of the most militarily sensitive places in the world.

The Berlin Wall was not just an international frontier between two countries, it was also the front-line between two completely opposed ways of life.  It was the border between communism and capitalism, totalitarianism and democracy, and ultimately it also represented the boundary between war and peaceful co-existence for the superpowers.

Berlin's situation was, in reality, quite bizarre. West Berlin - a lively and cosmopolitan city by any measure - lay 110 miles inside the borders of the GDR.  It was geographically closer to communist Poland than capitalist West Germany.  Served by only a handful of road, rail, and air corridors, it nevertheless functioned with zest and enthusiasm.  It was hard to imagine whilst strolling along the Kufürstendamm that only a few miles away lay the heart of a staunchly Leninist-Marxist state, whose inhabitants were forbidden to visit the western half of the city unless they were privileged citizens and loyal party members.

Photo of watchtower guards looking at me with binocularsRealising how much we had come to accept the Berlin situation as normal, I decided I would like to see the place for myself.  It was 1983 and the cold war was still in full swing.  Russia and America continued to periodically trade insults, Poland's struggle with the Solidarity trade union continued to look like a potential international flashpoint, and the days of Gorbachev and perestroika were still a few years away.  I decided the best way to really get the feel of the place would be to travel overland, so I booked passage on the Nord Express, a train that linked the Hook of Holland with Moscow travelling via Berlin and Warsaw.  The journey would take 21 hours.

There were some practical problems associated with such a long journey.  First of all there was a long and rather tedious ferry crossing, but more of a nuisance was the fact it was necessary to cross several national borders, and this was in the days before the European Union relaxed internal border controls.  These circumstances ensured that throughout the journey you couldn't expect to get more than a couple of hours sleep.  The Dutch and West German borders were easy to negotiate, but the East German border would be another matter altogether.  Because of the transit restrictions in force in 1983 only two trains a day were permitted on the route - often at inconvenient times. This meant I could expect to reach the Helmstedt / Marienborn border crossing at 3 o'clock in the morning.

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