Thursday 22 March 2018

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.

Please sign in or register with for free access to Opinions.

Sign In

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss