Berlin 2011

The dream of tomorrow's child.

I am not a city person. My favourite types are the ones whose populations can be measured in thousands, or if possible, just hundreds. Spending several days on a city break will only happen by choice in a city that has enough things of interest to make it worth enduring the bustle, and that inescapable feeling of standing out like a tourist's sore thumb. Despite having a stifling population larger than the entire country where I choose to live, at about 3.5 million, Berlin is one of those cities.

As the current capital of Germany ... er ... Deutschland, it is of course an important city, but the interest for me lies in its history as the focal point of three of the World's most significant conflicts. It was the seat of the Keiser and German government during World War I, the seat of the Nazi government in World War II, and the site of the most significant border during the Cold War. WWII and the Cold War are the parts that have left their most obvious marks on this city, and will be the parts that this fairly long gallery will concentrate on.

While I have covered the Nazi regime fairly extensively in my Auschwitz gallery, this is the first extensive visit I have made to a Cold War heritage site, and as such, it will be covered in significantly more detail.

At the start of the Second World War, Russia (more on terminology in a moment) was on the same side as Germany, but switched sides after a couple of years, after Germany turned on its former ally. Once the Allied Forces won the Second World War, Germany was divided up into four segments, occupied by the UK, France, USA and Russia. It may seem very odd to allow the Russians to be in control of any part of Germany, when they had previously been working with them, but nobody wanted to argue with such a powerful country. As the German leaders had turned on the Russians, the Soviet forces (correct terminology) are reported to have taken their revenge on the German civilians during and after the final stages of the war with various personal attacks, such as rapes and brutal forced labour. And then they were put in control of them.

The Russian segment covered the eastern side of Germany. Berlin lay within the middle of the Russian segment, but being the capital city, it was split into four sectors of its own, with East Berlin being the Russian quarter, and West Berlin being split into three, controlled by each of the UK, France and the USA. The intention was for it to be only a temporary arrangement, and that Germany would be reunited within only a few months, or perhaps years. In 1948, the Soviets blocked the access routes for supplies to West Berlin, the Berlin Blockade, in an attempt to encourage the western powers to hand over control of their West Berlin segments. In response, the British and USA air forces airlifted supplies to West Berlin, 200'000 flights in a year, upto 4300 tonnes per day. After a year, the Russian forces backed down, but from then on, the Russian-controlled Germany was treated as its own country; the German Democratic Republic (yeah, democratic) - known as the GDR or East Germany in English, and the DDR in German. The other three segments were collectively managed as West Germany. Due to it being surrounded by East Germany, West Berlin was temporarily deprived of its captial status, and Bonn became the temporary Capital. Temporary.

Starting before the war, Russia had been expanding to gain control over several more (primarily East European and central Asian) countries, such as the Baltic states, Ukraine, etc., and was known as the Soviet Union. Indeed, even today, the Berlin tourism industry is very careful to refer to the occupying force as the Soviets, not the Russians, in order to avoid offending current Russia. But at the heart of it, the Soviet Union was primarily under Russian control. The countries controlled by the Soviet Union (such as East Germany) were collectively called the Eastern Bloc.

The Cold War had begun. There were agreements to make sure that supplies could reach West Berlin, through East Germany, since before the Berlin Blockade. There were agreements to allow civilian access from one side to the other. There were agreements. There were. But the communitst Soviets and the capitalist (USA) Americans were polar opposites, following completely incompatible political ideologies. I am not a politically minded person, but I see both the benefits and the pitfalls of both extremes - a view which even to this day could earn me a no-entry to various countries.

Capitalism allows a person to own their own property, to be given financial rewards for their hard work. The ideal is that the hard worker gets their money, and a lazy worker does not. It allows choice of lifestyle to suit what you have earned. But it is at the same time the ultimate in greed and selfishness; those who can wield their money can use it to devastate competing businesses and destroy lives, for just a little more financial gain. There is no promise of help for fellow citizens in desperate need, financial or otherwise.

At an extreme, Capitalism invariably means the polarising of society, the wealthy who can largely do whatever they want, and the poor who struggle to survive, and cannot seek help when they are in need of it. In practice, the hard worker who deserves the financial gain is never the one who receives it. The hardest workers are often also the poorest, working several jobs, and forgoing medical treatment, just to make ends meet. The ones with the money are the ones who know how to play the system, or who just got lucky, and are rarely the ones whose contribution to society matches their return from it.

On the other hand, Communism asserts that everyone is important in a society, from the toilet cleaner and street sweeper, to the doctor, to the shop clerk, to the teacher. All are equal, all are needed. All deserve the same recognition, and the same benefits for their work. Those who are in need of help should receive it.

It's an honourable ideal, but rarely, if ever, matches reality. The laziest worker still gets the same reward as the hardest worker, so what's the point in trying hard? It encourages workers to simply perform at the bare minimum. If the least attractive jobs will pay the same as a more attractive job, who would bother to do the least attractive jobs; why risk your life in a dangerous mine if you can sell tickets instead, and earn the same reward? And there is the problem. To ensure that communism works, everyone must agree to do what they may not want to do, purely for the benefit of everyone else. When people do not agree, they must invariably be forced to do what society needs them to do. There can be no choice. The ones who decide what each person must be allowed to do, what each person has been allocated, suddenly become more powerful than others, who are supposed to be their equals, and that is where the corruption and power hunger begins.

At an extreme, communism also implies that people cannot have different aspirations; if one person wishes to own a boat, they will not be able to work harder to earn the required extra. They are not any more important than anyone else, who cannot afford that boat. A person who prefers the taste of a more expensive food brand cannot have it, because that would not be fair for everyone else who has to have the cheaper brand. A person who needs little nourishment receives the same allocation of food as a person who needs more. At an extreme, communism does not even recognise that a person can have their own belongings; everything belongs to everyone. You share the boat, you share your house, you share your toothbrush.

The USA and Soviet Union became more and more paranoid about each other, and each drove themselves further to their own extremes, frequently imprisoning (or executing) those of their own country who disagreed - or appeared to disagree - often without trial. Each began to build extensive stockpiles of devastating nuclear weapons, and advancing technologies to be used just in case a war broke out between them, fueling the public with propaganda and censorship to ensure that they only saw things from that country's perspective. The Cold War could have become a real war at any point. Stuck between them, with a circular border, was Berlin.

A lesson from the Nazi regime had not been learned. Ideals aside, extremes of any kind carry a danger of oppression and loss of liberties, of lives being lost in the attempt to escape from the extreme. Berlin carries the scars and the warning; the only hope, the only option, is to find the balance between the extremes. And above all, allow people the freedom to choose.