Sunday 28 May 2017

The terrible rise and glorious fall of the Berlin Wall

John Kampfner

It is the smell I most remember. The first time I emerged from the quizzical glances of the border guards at Friedrichstrasse station, I was confronted by the noxious fumes of the Trabants and the other cheap and polluting cars. The streets were almost empty, just a few middle-aged folk scurrying home with their mackintoshes and briefcases. I was less than a mile from the glamorous shops of the west, but I could have been in another world.

On August 13, 1961 -- 50 years ago to this day -- construction started on the Berlin Wall. By the time I arrived in the city in the summer of 1989, an entire generation had been brought up in this make-believe world. For all the attempts at brainwashing, they could tune into what was really going on via West German TV -- but they could not speak out; they could not travel. Those who tried to flee were gunned down from watchtowers.

History talks of inevitability, but nobody knew then how quickly the Wall would be dismantled. When I was assigned a flat overlooking Checkpoint Charlie, the location was so sensitive that only members of the Stasi and the odd foreigner were allowed to live there. I was preparing for upheaval, but the fortification that had divided city, country and continent looked as invulnerable as ever.

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