During the Cold War, East and West exchanged their captured spies on Glienicker Brücke, the so-called bridge of spies. Crossing into East Germany from West Berlin, you were limited to just a few transit routes, for a specified period of time, and you couldn’t leave the track and couldn’t visit anyone in the East without a permit.
West Berliners led a free life, in a part of a city surrounded by a wall. East Berliners were imprisoned inside the Eastern Bloc, and because they couldn’t travel anywhere they wanted to, they were disconnected from the constant flow of information, exchange and influences. This explains why Westerners and Easterners have different collective memories; they even speak the same language in a different way.
In November 1989 the wall came down, and West and East Germans began rediscovering each other; but the socialist and capitalist cultures have been slow to merge. Since reunification Germany has been searching for new patterns of self-recognition. Until the World Soccer Games — in 2006 — Germans felt unable to wave their flag — part of the burden of Germany’s inglorious past, recalling the darkest epoch in European history, the Holocaust and World War II. The past remains present. History and memory are kept alive in schools, research centers and memorials, and also by Germany’s public and private media. The debates about the Holocaust Memorial ended in concrete, and the traces of the wall that once ruled the lives of Berliners are mostly erased. It’s a delicate balance, to retell the complex story it symbolized.
Throughout Berlin the histories of sites, people and buildings create multiple overlays; street names are changed overnight, structures are reshaped and reborn. Newcomers find the empty spaces inviting, ready to be conquered. What they cannot know is the fantastic feeling of freedom that you once had when driving down the Avus into West Berlin after crossing the border. Young men came to West Berlin to avoid being drafted; many citizens moved to that enclosed island to get far away from their small-town families, hungry for knowledge, art, music, literature, theatre, movies, sex and nights at the Jungle club. The former stronghold of the student revolution has been turned into a capital for punks, who listened to the band Einstürzende Neubauten — Collapsing New Buildings — while the union-owned real estate company Neue Heimat tore down entire blocks to reshape parts of the West to look like prefabricated socialist housing in the East. When the federal government moved from Bonn to the new/old capital, another building boom started, and the new arrivals transformed the gray tristesse of the East into a hip place for young baby boomers, just like at home in Cologne or Stuttgart. But the reunified Berlin is still big enough to absorb a lot. It still provides open spaces for everybody — places without borders — “chacun a son gout,” in the spirit of Frederick the Great.