Observations on today’s Berlin, and its history; the Berlin Airlift; Allied occupation; the Berlin Philharmonic; liberation from authoritarian climate.

–S. Kraemer, "Berlin Then and Now: Part II" at www.baconspromise.org

Berlin, Then and Now: Part II

The tourist buses that unload passengers at the Pergamon Museum and Check Point Charlie rarely stop at the Maerkisches Ufer (quay) of the Spree Canal.  Here reign peace and quiet accompanied by the gentle slip slap of water on the sides of old river barges.  Showing their age, a few barges have been turned by enterprising owners into  small ‘museums.’  Along the ufer a pair of restored neo-classical urban villas bears further witness to the bustling prosperity captured in the stereoscopic images at the Maerkisches Museum.

If one has only one day of beautiful weather to spend in this city, spend it on one of the low-slung passenger boats that chug along  the city’s canals and  encircling Spree and Havel rivers.  For six centuries these waterways, spanned today by hundreds of bridges, were Berlin’s  veins and arteries.  There may be no finer way to glimpse the vagaries of Berlin’s history since its beginnings in the  13th century as a trading center on the north bank of the Spree River.

A boat cruise around the city offers a slowly moving window onto its many neighborhoods–residential, governmental, commercial, rich and poor.  Here, the overflowing trees, shrubs, and flowers of a neglected garden at the back of a villa.  There, the dreary walls of a factory and workers’ housing.   But suddenly, as your boat chugs past the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy park and passes under the Schoeneberger bridge, there in front of you suspended in mid-air from a crane over the German Museum of Technology, is a Douglas C-47 military cargo plane (DC-3 in civilian usage).  The twin-engine aircraft initiated the flights—one every three minutes—of the British and American life line to Berlin after the Soviet Union,  whose post-war zone of occupation included the city, closed off land access on June 24, 1948.

Almost overnight the western allies’ strategic objective of utterly destroying Germany was turned on its head.  Resisting that other horrific would-be hegemon of the mid-twentieth century, the Soviet Union (1922-1991) under Stalin, upturned U.S. military and diplomatic planning.   Berlin would become a beacon of freedom in the long gray twilight that settled over Eurasia during the Cold War.

Where only a few years before aircraft overhead released a fiery apocalypse, now western allied aircraft alone would supply the food, coal and kerosene the city’s people needed merely to stay alive.   This time  modern technology played the essential role in sustaining life,  instead of raining death and destruction.  It cannot be said of all things, “this too, shall pass.”  But it could have been said of the Gӧtterdӓmmerung that occurred over Berlin at the end of World War II.

Berliners called them “rosinenbombers,” or raisin bombers.   Along with Great Britain’s RAF Handley Page Hastings transport aircraft, the US Air Force’s Douglas C-54 (successor to the C-47) ferried well over 5,000 tons  daily of food and fuel into Berlin from June 24, 1948 until September, 1949.  (Though the Soviets abandoned their unsuccessful blockade in May, the western allies continued to build up supplies in the beleaguered city.)  In all kinds of weather heavily loaded cargo planes flew back and forth through three 20-mile wide air corridors between British and American bases in their respective zones of occupation and two hastily repaired air fields in western Allied-occupied sectors of Berlin.

Romance confers the greatest heroism on the pilots and their aircraft.  But the truly miraculous was achieved by the mostly anonymous magicians of logistics. The organization and improvised equipment necessary to load, take-off, pilot, land, unload, and service over 275,000 flights at the rate of one every three minutes was unprecedented. Wal-Mart, FedEx and United Parcel today would be unable to function without the electronic data exchange systems developed during the Berlin airlift to ensure that every bundle of coal and package of dry milk, flour, sugar, pasta, coffee, chocolates and (of course) raisins was collected, inventoried, assigned, loaded, dispatched, flown, unloaded, warehoused and delivered as intended.

On an autumn day one can walk down Clayallee, once the busy central thoroughfare of the American sector in Berlin, virtually alone.  The avenue is named for General Lucius D. Clay, military governor of the American sector of Berlin and, with President Harry S. Truman, responsible for what was a perilous challenge to the Soviet Union in the early hours of the Cold War.  Only an occasional bicycle, tradesman’s van, or private car disturbs the quiet of what is now an affluent residential neighborhood.

Walking from the nearest U-bahn station to the former Outpost theater where GI’s gathered—and which is now the Allied Museum—one might almost miss the somewhat overgrown marble block engraved with Truman’s name, indicating an abandoned park and playing field.  A few steps further the calm of this place is interrupted by the sight of four horses, frozen in bronze, leaping over chunks of a broken wall.  This monument to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marks the second time for this city that the political acumen of a few, and the patient persistence of millions, overcame on an historic scale the powerful forces of a malign autocracy.

At the entrance to the Allied Museum stands one of the RAF’s Hastings aircraft.  Compared with today’s regional aircraft, it seems small, though its burden multiplied thousands of times was huge.  The museum itself is dimly lit and lovingly tended.  Hordes of tourists throng the “Checkpoint Charlie” guard house on Friedrichstrasse to have their photos taken with latter day ‘guards’ and buy tchotchkes in the shops that flank that historic street.  But to see the weather-worn original guard house one must find the Allied Museum.  Photographs, old letters and diaries, newsreels, recordings, historical timelines–all attempt to retain, for a moment, an ever receding vanishing point in our historical mindscape.

Thanks to the timeless and universal language of music, one needs no memory at all to treasure still one of the glories of Berlin, the Berlin Philharmonic, founded in 1882.  Nearly bankrupt in 1933, the orchestra managed to survive under Wilhelm Furtwängler only by performing music—Beethoven, Bruckner, and Wagner, among others—that Hitler considered emblematic of German genius and power.

Today the Berlin Philharmonic appears on every list of the world’s top orchestras.  It also performs in a building—the term seems inadequate for the extraordinary architectural composition of spatial sections that is its home concert hall—whose pentagonal interior offers excellent acoustics for virtually every seat in the house.  The 1956 Hans Sharoun design manifests another benign aspect of Germany’s recent history:  The outward appearance of the “Berlin Phil’s” own performance space has been liberated from any compulsion to perpetuate the grand architectural style of Wilhelmine Germany.

Also liberated is the orchestra’s programming.  A recent performance paired Alban Berg’s  only violin concerto with Shostakovich’s 8th symphony. Conducted by guest conductor Andris Nelsons, a Latvian, with his countrywoman Baiba Skride playing the Berg on the Stradivarius “Wilhelmj” violin, the performances earned conductor and soloist a long roar of clapping and shouts of praise that lasted until the performers had long gone and the stage lights had been extinguished. But that is what we have now come to expect, once again, from the Berlin Philharmonic.

When she was eleven the little girl from the photograph  made the first  of several return trips to Berlin from the United States, where she  was taken in the early weeks of the airlift.  Piles of rubble still lay here and there interspersed with dreary, hastily built, apartment blocks with shops on their first floors.  Streets were still fairly empty of private cars, as taxis, buses, and bicycles did the job of moving Berliners about.

Coming from a country where bicycles were then used mostly by children, she might have been forgiven during her visit for walking down a specially constructed and marked bicycle lane.  But a policeman strode up to her and, in a harsh voice, berated her for obstructing the bicycle lane.  From the high peak of his German officer’s service hat to the stiffness of his posture and the black shine of his boots, here was a terrifying reminder of an officially vanquished past.

Today Berlin’s streets are as busy as any other European capital’s, but Berliners still make good use of their wonderful bus, streetcar, and subway system.  On concert nights the city sends out extra buses to transport thousands of music lovers to their shrine, and to collect them afterwards to take them to wherever they might want to go.  Nor is the bus a poor man’s transportation.  Women and men in their best finery press themselves into the buses (queuing is not a German trait), and send up their own chorus of loudly voiced opinions about the concert.  Only the elegant Japanese ladies, dressed in traditional coiffure, kimonos, obis and geta, huddle together on the sidewalk as long black Mercedes limousines arrive to collect them.

Of course, after the concert one wants to be sure to wait at the right bus stop.  That same autumn day, before she goes into the hall to hear Berg and Shostakovich, another policeman approaches the little girl—only she is now over a half–century older.  This time he seems so young, wearing a loose fitting wind-breaker and ordinary brown leather street shoes.  A single side-arm is almost invisible at his hip. The stiffener is gone from his service hat.  Again, he speaks first:  “Excuse me, m’am; I forgot my watch.  Could you please tell me the time?”  Age emboldens many of us.  “Well,” she replies, “I’ll tell you the time, if you tell me where the 110 bus to Kurfurstendamm stops.”  He tells her; and she tell him that it’s 7:30.  He thanks her pleasantly, and she continues on her way.



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