Enchanted Isle - Martin Griffin

An account of the conditions in West Berlin in the early 1980s by a visitor from Ireland.

Originally published in Ekomedia's Squatting in West Berlin.

TRAVELLING THROUGH EAST GERMANY by road, one passes signposts every few kilometres which reassure the driver that he or she is now only, such-and-such a distance from the capital city of the German Democratic Republic; BERLIN Haupstadt der DDR - 97km they say, or whatever: the same road signs also grudgingly inform the motorist that the same Autobahn serves a mysterious place, or state of being, or both, tailed 'Transit Westberlin' -this Piece of information having been painted in different coloured letters on a different coloured background, as if a dangerous virus had been isolated to prevent any spread or Infection.

Whether you see 'Westberlin', an insane, artificial atoll of consumerism and capitalist decay, or 'West Berlin, an island of freedom in a sea of red, depends on your political taste, but both attitudes recognise the manner in which both Berlins are used as physical manifestations of the ideologies and polarities of the Cold War.

Of course, both of the attitudes outlined above, precisely because of the way they are locked into a political stricture laid down nearly forty years ago, are for many people (the writer included), equally outdated and equally dangerous. And Is West Berlin, with which this article is concerned, which has ironically enough become one of the centres of an alternative politics which sees the blind materialism and consumption of western (and particularly West German) society as equally oppressive as the authoritarian bureaucracies of the East. It Is against this background that any profile of West Berlin should be tested. What follows are a 'few notes'; a tour at random through an enchanted isle; some dreams of unease.

The coaches

There is a Soviet war memorial on the western side of the Wall, a few hundred yards from the Brandenburg Gate. This section of the road is sealed off at both ends and only coach tours are allowed access: an endless convoy of these coaches drives slowly though the automatic gate. In the tourist season, this goes on all day. Opposite the memorial in Tiergarten there is a break in the trees and a steel fence where people also gather to stare and take pictures. From this spot, ten years ago, someone shot one of the Russian soldiers. On the other side of the memorial, on the north-west corner al Tiergarten, lies the Reichstag. Rebuilt in 1961 it houses a a permanent exhibition entitled 'Questions of German History'; the questioning nature of the exhibition fails somewhat as it reaches the post-war era and the creation of the Bundesrepublic - some things, it seems, should not be inquired into too closely. The tour coaches regularly disgorge their loads here as well. The almost identical flags of the DDR and the Bundesrepublic are flown from the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag respectively; they are rival banners on a medieval battlefield.

An argument in a bar

A Thursday night in Kreuzberg, a delapidated area close to the Wall populated by immigrant workers, squatters etc., attractive and energetic in its own way. This particular night there are van loads of riot police parked at strategic points. On Heinrichplatz croups of people are drinking outside a pub. Every two minutes a police van drives through the square at high speed. There is an occasional bang as a stone hits a moving target. Suddenly the square is full of vans and cops. Everyone (even punks) squeezes back into the pub and the staff pull down the metal shutter over the door. We carry on drinking as the cops line up on the pavement with their batons and riot shields.

Eventually the confrontation subsides and the shutter is raised. We move up the street to an upstairs bar on Oranienstrasse called, amusingly enough Slainte. The Irish connection, whatever it is, isn't very obvious. Someone threw a small egg filled with paint from the window at a police van Ten minutes later they come back in force. People come running up the stairs followed by white-helmeted cops with long batons. People move back down the room, some attempting to make a barricade with tables arid chairs. There are shouts coming from both sides and the crash of furniture. They attempt to arrest someone but lose him in the ensuing scuffle. They retreat back towards the door and grab someone else at random. There is another struggle with batons waving viciously—one baton bangs off a cast-iron lightshade hanging by a chain from the ceiling which starts swinging out of control, throwing sudden, disoriented shadows. They suddenly regain possession of their victim and charge back down the stairs. 'Slainte'? Maybe there is a connection, I don't know.

Protection

A blistering Saturday in May. It is a public festivity, the day of the Allied Military Parade. The usual ranks of police watch the assembled crowds carefully. They will not show the coils of barbed wipe in Tiergarten on the evening news — just the rows of applauding dignitaries. The commander of the the British sector has banned the filming of placards and the distributing of leaflets in the vicinity of the parade. Nevertheless, a few small, typed slips of paper manage to circulate among the crowd with messages such as 'A celebration of militarism is an advertisement for the next war'.

A squadron of US tanks has, painted on the barrel or each gun, the name of a different area of the city. A middle aged drunk starts shouting about 1941 during the French march-past. The police ignore him. Someone asks an old woman why she is clapping when the Americans pass; she says: 'I lost everything during the last two world wars and they are protecting me.'

Respectability

Breakfast outside on the pavement on a Sunday morning. Despite the fact that no one seems to have any money the table is loaded with different cheeses, cold meats, rolls, coffee; someone produces a bottle of champagne. The sort of people who don't drag their furniture into the street to have a meal pass by with disapproving expressions on their faces. To challenge 'respectability' in Germany is a political act, putting into practice the old hippy ideal (there are punks sitting around the table as well, though) of the total integration of politics and enjoyment but in a darker time.

Dreams of unease

Open Day at Tempelhof USAF Base; hamburgers; beer, planes; tanks. Children play in and out of jeeps and armoured cars watched by indulgent parents. There is a parachute display and a woman's voice informs us over the PA that the United States Military Airlift Command is ready at a moment's notice to transport men and equipment to any part of the world where democracy is threatened. Two women manage to smuggle in a large anti-war banner which they unfurl in front of a French tank. A couple of confused looking French soldiers attempt to grab the banner. Two American security men arrive and hold the women there. Waiting for the Berlin police to arrive an argument ensues with a respectable middle aged German couple. Why don't you go and try that in the East, they shout at the women, see how free it is there. They'd arrest you on the spot if you tried that there, the couple sneer. At that moment the Berlin police arrive and arrest the women on the spot.

Debris

An open air festival on a rubble filled building site. Despite the unlikely surroundings it is a roaring success, still going strong at four in the morning. Bands play, people eat and drink, an old horror film is shown with the gable-end of a house as a Screen: it is as if the piles of wood, bricks and earth had suddenly become a suitable place to live, as if a new, resilient life form had suddenly appeared like weeds sprouting from the cracks in the paving. Children play happily in the debris.

Saturday June 18 1983

A fifteen thousand strong march to Kreuzberg against the resurgence of a foreigner/squatter/left hate-campaign which is being spearheaded by a dubious group calling themselves Konseervative Aktion. The attempt by police to arrest two Turks for putting up a banner on a bridge sparks off a street battle which lasts well into the night. The area becomes a confused, slightly surrealist film set, littered with stones, where the smoke from the burning barricades and the stinging clouds of teargas float eerily down the warm streets. The police vans drive around, seemingly at random, screeching to a halt suddenly for baton charges, arrests. There is no such thing a an innocent bystander. It is strange, coming from Ireland, to meet this kind of 'policing', but no doubt someone from Belfast or Derry would shrug their shoulders, asking what's so special?

The enchanted isle. Enchanted? Yes, in a way. In the sense of frozen, trapped by a spell cast nearly forty years ago, in a different world. And both ends of the polarity that is West Berlin in are caught in that larger polarity, the New Cold War or whatever you want to call it. The 'Economic Miracle' is over, and anything similar is unlikely to appear in the near future. Nevertheless, the Kurfustendamn is still thronged with prosperous crowds, expensive cafes, luxurious department stores; but that universe is gradually disintegrating slowly as Germany looks at newsfilm of riots, punks, anarchic politics, and doesn't understand; in terms of Berlin, neither side can really 'win' because ultimately the City is expendable, and it won't matter how many American flags are waved at how many military parades. When enough people realist this, the spell will be broken, the enchanted isle will become. . . disenchanted. No doubt a war would do this, but one hopes that that will not be necessary. There is also the danger of a rebirth of facism on a large scale, but one hopes that the resistance this time around will be too strong. Some dreams of unease? The enchanted isle? Oh yes, all of that and more; but the beer is cheap and the buses run all night.

The area becomes a confused, slightly surrealist film set, littered with stones, where the smoke from the burning barricades and the stinging clouds of teargas float eerily down the warm streets.