The Berlin Wall – Before and After

My last post, you may remember, was about my visits to my beloved city of Berlin back in the 70s, 80s and, lastly, in 1992 which was just a few years after the Wall fell in 1989. What kept pulling me back to that city during those decades?

Like other Baby Boomers, I had a father who had fought in WW2 and, even though he didn’t talk about it much, it hovered over us. Through reading and at school, I learned about the divided Europe that followed the end of the war. Then, in 1961 as an 11 year old, I watched my family’s black and white TV, astounded by the news reports about the Berlin Wall going up overnight in August 1961 to divide the Communist East from the Capitalist West. Those images stuck in my mind. I couldn’t understand why a country needed to put a Wall up to keep people from leaving and I wanted to find out more.

Around two decades later, in the late 1970s, I moved to Germany to teach Sociology in a secondary school for the children of British Forces stationed in the British Zone of divided post-war Germany near Düsseldorf. That brought me closer to Berlin and gave me the opportunity to visit the city many times to explore this divided city at the border of the “Iron Curtain”.

As well, I had devoured the books of Christopher Isherwood, including his “Berlin Stories” and “Christopher and His Kind”. I was intrigued to discover whether any of that “come to the Cabaret” lifestyle was still there, not to mention, I wanted to discover more about the city’s gay/queer life.

On top of all this, I’m a person obsessed with borders and boundaries – wherever they are. They represent geography and history and tell stories of struggles, wars, politics, gains, losses and compromises. Certainly, Berlin’s boundaries were the gold standard and they needed to be explored.

When I had the chance to first visit Berlin in 1977, I jumped at the opportunity and I couldn’t take enough photos of that Wall and that fascinating city. Keeping in mind, of course, that each photo had a cost attached to it of buying the film and having it developed into slides.

But that was the last post. This post is going to be different. I had told you that I was going to talk about my upcoming October 2019 visit to Berlin – the first visit to that city since 1992. I did go and have a fab time, but I’m reneging on my promise to talk about it here because I have already written about that trip on my Facebook page, creating an annotated album where you can read all about it!

In this post, I want to show you the photos that I took in Berlin on this recent trip where I purposely sought to replicate the same photos I had taken on my previous trips in the 70s, 80s and 90s. I wanted to discover what had changed and what was the same.

Finding the same locations was a fun, but demanding, task. Some spots were easy to find because the locations had hardly changed their look. Others were more challenging because they had been built over or had a completely different look.

What complicated this challenge was that, even if I did find the same location, trying to replicate a photo from previous decades can be complicated. Aspect ratios have changed so getting the scene framed in the same way can be hard. The colouring in film has altered as well. So even though you might get the exact spot, the two photos may not look the same because of changing photographic standards and technologies.

And let’s not forget about the weather and different seasons. The same location may look completely different if it was sunny one day and cloudy – or another season – on another. As you will see!

I want to thank my nephew, Ben, and friends, Renz and Zahid, for their patience in tolerating my fussiness and my demands for many retakes as I tried to get the “perfect” similar photos!

Enough excuses. Let’s get down to it.

Given that we’re in Berlin, we should start with its famous Brandenburger Tor (Gate) right near the city centre. On each visit to Berlin, I was drawn to its classic beauty transected by the stark and brutal Berlin Wall. Below are 4 photos taken in 4 different years: two with the Wall up with a sign reminding us we were leaving West Berlin. As if we could! And two photos with the Wall down. What a difference between the first and last photos. Joy had returned to this city.

The two photos below are taken from the Potsdamer Platz looking towards Pariser Platz and the Brandenburger Gate (West Berlin on the left, East Berlin on the right). In 1992, the Wall had been taken down where I’m standing, but the “no-man’s land” visible below was still empty and undeveloped. On the left in both photos is the Tiergarten and on the right in 2019 is now the large and powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (not visible in the photo).

I am adding the photo below from 1977 because it was taken in the same area as those above, but this time it’s looking over the Wall into the East from the West. The reason I can look over the Wall is because the West provided a viewing stand and tourists flocked to it to get a photo.

“Defeat the red mob”, says the graffiti. Look at the huge gap between the inner and outer Walls. You can imagine that, once the Wall came down, that “lost” real estate was snapped up and built upon. Including, believe it or not, The Mall of Berlin.

If you’ve read my previous post, you’ll know about the marvellous and sexy Manfred, an East Berliner, whom you can see on the right below talking to my friend, George, visiting with me from London. Here we are in what’s called the Nikolaiviertel (Nicholas Quarter). This area in East Berlin was a shock to me because it was an urban renewal project that kept the old Berlin style intact rather than tearing it down and building anew as had been their custom with war damaged areas. And it had trendy cafes to boot. Not something that we were used to seeing when visiting sombre and quiet East Berlin.

Coincidentally, when we were there in 1987 this site was undergoing construction and when I went back in 2019, construction was again taking place! It didn’t make for the best photos. But the tree still stands.

Here Manfred and I are on the Spree River looking towards that Nikolaiviertel in East Berlin. You’ll notice that the glass walled “People’s Palace” on the left in the distance in 1987 has completely gone in 2019, replaced by the Humboldt Forum (explained below). The two photos, although framed almost completely the same and with similar weather conditions, show differences in colouring because of changing technologies.

Behind me below in 1977 was the East German’s Palace of the Republic which housed the Volkskammer, the parliament of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) from 1976 to 1990, along with galleries, cafes, restaurants and a disco! This “People’s Palace” was the Communist state’s way of showing how modern they were – and I have to say that it was impressive.

Following German reunification in 1990, the Palace was closed for health reasons as large amounts of asbestos had been found. Demolished in 2006, it was eventually replaced by rebuilding the Berlin Palace which had been in that same spot but had been virtually destroyed by WW2 bombing.  The magnificent new building (seen in 2019 below) is called the Humboldt Forum and it is almost completed.

Notice how the Axel Springer (controversial German publisher of right wing newspapers) Building on the right below, is built up right against the Wall. People say it was a provocative statement to make sure East Berliners saw what his freedom looked like. That building, so visible in 1981, is obscured by many new buildings in 2019. All the empty real estate has been snapped up and built on.

Given that the bricks on the street in the 2019 photo show where the Wall used to stand, Renz, my friend, is not in exactly the same place as my friend Peter is in the 1981 photo. It wasn’t possible. But I tried!

The devastation of the war is very visible in the 1977 photo below. The Gropius-Bau Gallery on the right needed to be almost completely reconstructed and now it’s a very handsome building. On the left is the Berlin’s State Parliament Building. A wall of buses has replaced the Berlin Wall.

Below you’ll see the scary looking East German soldier on guard at the Neue Wache (New Guard) with my host, Eugen, on the left smiling behind him with an imposter pushing into the photo on the right! And then there’s me in 2019 just being silly.

East Berlin prided itself on its modernity, as I’ve mentioned, and these monumental apartment buildings on the Karl-Marx-Allee (formerly Stalinallee) represented their prowess at urban design – Soviet classicism. I wanted to go back in 2019 to see if things had been altered and, as you can see, nothing had – right down to the trees and fountains. It’s still monumental.

Now I would like to take you to Alexanderplatz in the East, another symbol of the modern East Berlin with its large pedestrian zone. During the GDR, the “Centrum Warehouse” was located here – one of the biggest department stores in the country. I don’t, though, have a photo from the Communist period, but here is one from 1992 shortly after the Wall came down. There’s my partner from Montreal at the time, Jean-Pierre, taking a video of the area and you can see that the West German company Kaufhof has already taken over that department store.   

Finally, we will take a train ride into East Berlin by train from the West. I remember being anxious as I took this train to the East as I knew I would have to face the disturbing interrogation to get into the GDR at the Friedrichstrasse station. As the train entered the East, you could see the Wall and the Reichstag (German Parliament) in the distance with open spaces and intimidating guard towers. By 2019, travelling on that same train line, you’ll see that the Reichstag is now completely hidden by new buildings that have filled up that valuable real estate.

So, how did I do? Was I able to give you a good sense of the difference – and similarities – between then and now? One of the things I did learn on this latest trip is that if you were dropped into a part of Berlin and asked to say whether you were in the old East or the old West, you would be hard pressed to get the answer right – unless, of course, you were a Berlin historian or long time resident. It’s become more or less a unified whole.

Having said that, if you look at this photo taken from space in 2013 by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, you’ll see that the East and West sections of the city are still visible. That is because, I learned, the street lights used haven’t changed from the earlier times of division. In the East, they used sodium vapour lamps with a yellower colour. And in the West, they used fluorescent lamps which produce a whiter colour. And they generally haven’t been changed, so the differences are still apparent.

Berlin 2013 from space

I’ll leave you with a fact that I learned that surprised me. February 8, 2018 marked the day when the Berlin Wall had been down longer than it had been up – which had been 10,316 days. A good landmark to pass.

6 thoughts on “The Berlin Wall – Before and After

  1. Peter says:

    That’s a very impressive commentary Gregg and a lot of work and thought went into it. It gives you an amazing summary of the many changes which have taken place in Berlin over the years.

  2. nickajac says:

    A really interesting and valuable contribution to social (and gay) history, Gregg. I love the before and after shots. Having only recently visited Berlin it’s really interesting to see the differences. Like you, I am interested in the concept of walls that divide man from man. I find the whole subject of borders disturbing and thought provoking. Last year while walking Hadrian’s Wall, I found a fascinating exhibition in Carlisle exploring the many walls that have been and are still being built around the world to enforce divisions. Thanks so much for making your photos available to us.

  3. craigwbarron says:

    There is something profound about before and after photos. They can also pose questions. For example, the Spree River photos, whatever happened to Manfred? He was a significant presence on your previously described visits, and you must have been thinking of him in 2019?

    I like your healthy point of view, someone obviously grounded in the present, and avoiding the pitfalls of nostalgia.

    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Craig. I had tried to track Manfred down for my 2019 return visit but came to a dead end. I did discover he had retired from being a priest and maybe he decided to disappear from social media in his retirement. Of course he might have been much more important in my life than vice versa.

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