When East met West: How Germany became one

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany's landscape has changed dramatically. Foreign correspondent Rupert Cornwell returns to his old stamping ground
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The Independent Travel

AFrench writer once mused, "Germany? Ah yes ..." before adding, with all the catty wit at which his compatriots excel, "... I love Germany so much, that I'm delighted there are two of them." And in the immediate aftermath of a war, inspired by Germany, that had left a continent in rubble, anyone who didn't happen to be German almost certainly agreed.

But on a magical November night in 1989, the Berlin Wall was finally breached – and, within a year, two had become one again. Not only was the map of Europe returned to normal, one of Europe's greatest tourist destinations was reborn.

History is part of it; for better or worse, no place on earth has more of the stuff per square mile than Germany, above all in the east. But these first decades of reunification will surely be remembered as a German golden age – a country finally at peace with itself and its neighbours, rich, relaxed and, as my wife and I found out over a fortnight this summer, a fantastic place to visit.

How different it was when I was based in the old West Germany in the mid-1980s as the Financial Times' correspondent in Bonn (a capital described by an American colleague as "the size of Chicago's cemetery, and twice as dead"). For us West-based journalists, the East was forbidden territory. Comparisons, the communist regime was well aware, would not be flattering.

Nothing though is more tempting than the fruit just out of reach. Back then, the one thing that made Germany exotic was the innocently named Innerdeutsche Grenze, the "inner German border" – a barrier of walls and armed guards, watchtowers and steel fences, that stretched 850 miles from the Baltic Sea to the Czech border.

Most of my best travel moments in those days were border related. There was, for example, the British military train, which every day, except Christmas Day, did the round trip between Brunswick in the British zone of western Germany and West Berlin, just 120 miles apart. Protected by a laisser passer signed by the commandant of the British sector of Berlin (and examined by Russian soldiers at three separate checkpoints), and nourished by deliberately splendid food and drink, you watched the regimented existence of the workers' state roll by beyond the window. You were also vaguely aware that if you opened that window and leant out to talk to those workers you might just start World War Three.

Less cheerful, and less forgettable, were visits to towns and villages on the Western side that were slashed in two, severed from their hinterland. You walked on ghostly roads that now led nowhere, except to a literal Iron Curtain that never parted. Then, of course, there was Berlin itself.

For sheer spookiness, nothing matched the trip across civilisations on an all but empty underground train in Berlin, as it passed from East to West at the Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse. They called the station the Tränenpalast. Even seasoned Western travellers could not avoid a frisson of relief as they made it back. But for East Germans who could go no further, it was a place of partings, truly a "palace of tears".

Only when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union was there a glimmer of hope that the city's division might not be eternal. "The Berlin Wall could disappear when those conditions that created it disappear," Gorbachev told us, enigmatically, during a visit to Bonn in June 1989. Yet, even at that apogee of Gorby-mania, no one could conceive that it would be gone just five months later.

But the breaching of the Wall was only a start. Physically, financially, and not least psychologically, Germany was still a land divided. Over a series of irregularly spaced visits since then, I've watched a country heal.

The first was in December 1992, when we were living in Washington DC. We arrived in Frankfurt and headed east to the once forbidden city of Weimar where the best and worst of German history are on display. Spared by Allied bombers, the city of Goethe, Schiller and Germany's first attempt at genuine democracy was a joy, even in winter. But just a 10-minute drive north are the Ettersburg hills and the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp, a monument not only to the bestiality of the Nazis but to the refusal of the former East Germany to admit the slightest responsibility.

Weimar itself was a building site, and the traffic a nightmare, with hordes of fat, newly arrived Mercedes and Audis jamming roads too narrow and decrepit to accommodate them. Russian troops, meanwhile, were still to be seen in the town (they did not finally leave the East until 1994). Driving south to Nuremberg, we entered another world as we crossed the old Innerdeutsche Grenze, still there in spirit.

In 1999 we were back – this time to Berlin and Dresden. The old-new capital was assuming its post-Cold War shape, but the hinterland in the old East was still a different universe, a time-warp of cobbled roads and crooked houses that might have come from the Brothers Grimm.

Dresden, too, was mending. The East Germans had started the colossal work of reconstruction after the entire city centre was obliterated in the Allied air attack of February 1945, and the Federal Republic stepped up the pace after re-unification. But the Frauenkirche, the Baroque church that was Dresden's symbol, was barely a third risen from the rubble. Inside a fenced perimeter were rows of stones, some new cut, some blackened from the 1945 inferno, each with a number signifying where it would go in the restored structure.

In 2004, we were in Berlin again, and the progress was startling. Checkpoint Charlie, the Cold War's ground zero, had been downsized to near vanishing point; hardly a trace remained of the Wall itself. The area still had a bedraggled look, but Potsdamer Platz, hub of the pre-war city that had been a wasteland severed by the Wall, was now a forest of glittering mini-skyscrapers, emblem of a Berlin reborn.

And so to this summer. In the mind, some wounds remain open. "Ossies", as the former Easterners are known, grumble about having been colonised, while "Wessies" say their cousins should feel gratitude not self-pity. (Yet they put differences aside to twice elect East-German raised Angela Merkel as their first woman Chancellor.)

Physically though, the two halves are one. Occasionally, there's a give-away – a strip of cobbled road, houses painted that DDR-patented drab grey-ochre, an ancient barracks or apartment block awaiting refurbishment or demolition. Otherwise, you can't tell where the infamous border ran.

Just as 17 years before, we flew from Washington to Frankfurt, rented a car and headed east. The warm summer helped, parching the rolling landscape and giving central Germany a Tuscan quality. Then there were the towns: first Erfurt, hardly damaged by the war, where Martin Luther was ordained, then Weimar again, now enhanced by a marvellous museum on the Bauhaus, the design movement founded in the city by Walter Gropius in 1919.

Buchenwald was as grim as ever, but at least the exhibits now told the unvarnished truth about the place – including how the occupying Soviets saved on building a camp for their prisoners by using the Nazi one.

The next stop was Wittenberg – or rather Lutherstadt Wittenberg – sparkling as it awaits the 500th anniversary of that hinge moment in history when, on 31 October 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Schlosskirche. Visitors should beware: a decade of commemorations is already under way. If the initiator of the Reformation leaves you cold, steer clear of these parts until 2018.

For history, however, Wittenberg and Luther don't come close to Berlin and adjacent Potsdam. If Nazis haunt Berlin, then Potsdam – once part of East Germany – belongs to the ghosts of the Cold War. You might not think so at first; your initial impression these days is of traffic gridlock caused by the rebuilding of the Stadtschloss, the City Palace, destroyed in the war but soon to become the new Brandenburg state parliament building.

Everyone knows imperial Potsdam, of the Sanssouci Palace and the Cecilienhof – the faux Tudor mansion built by Willhem II in 1914 – where Stalin, Truman and Churchill met in July 1945 to carve up the post-war world. Less familiar is the sinister subsequent history of the area. Take, for example, an imposing pink-painted mansion a couple of hundred yards away. Once it was the Empress Augusta Foundation, housing the orphaned daughters of fallen Prussian officers; now it has been converted into luxury apartments with views over the Cecilienhof park. But during the Cold War, it was the headquarters of the KGB. Down a side street stands a house, nondescript apart from the bars on its windows. For decades this was a mini Lubyanka prison, where Soviet soldiers and German citizens suspected of collaboration were tortured by the secret police before shipment to the Gulag. Today, the building is a small museum, preserving another small fragment of Germany's anguished 20th-century history.

Some museums, however, exhilarate – and none more than the living museum of today's Dresden, our next stop. A couple of years ago, we received a postcard of the rebuilt Frauenkirche. "Da steht sie wieder," our German friends had written, "There she stands again". The same may be said of the entire city. The view of the old town from the opposite bank of the Elbe is once more among the most magnificent in Europe.

Almost, I say. Happily, they've not torn down the Palast der Kultur, built in 1969 in the concrete-and-dark-glass, socialist-modern style complete with a garish mosaic depicting the triumph of the working class. The whole thing is either hideous or deliciously kitschy, depending on your taste. But it, too, is part of Dresden's history, a pertinent reminder that only 20 years ago there were, indeed, two Germanys.

Then it was back into the West, from Berlin across the northern plains to the weathered red brick and green copper church spires of Lübeck, queen of the Hanseatic league cities and, since 2007, home of a wonderful museum recounting the life of Willy Brandt. Born in Lübeck to an unmarried store check-out girl, he rose to become the Chancellor who initiated West Germany's reconciliation with the East. Nothing catches Cold War tensions more vividly than the original letter that Brandt, as Mayor of Berlin, wrote to President John F Kennedy, when the Wall had just gone up in August 1961, pleading with the leader of the "free world" to stand firm in the city's defence.

Then we headed south on a serendipitous whim that took us to Goslar, an unspoilt (and little known) jewel of a town on the northern edge of the Harz mountains, a few miles from the former Grenze but associated with an empire that was neither Nazi nor Soviet, but Holy Roman.

Next morning, we explored the Harz, stopping for lunch at a biergarten in the resort town of Braunlage. The old border was supposed to be three kilometres down the road to Wernigerode (another little known gem of the Harz). But the three kilometres came and went, with no border. So, we went back and looked more closely. Sure enough, there was a stone monument with a cleft, bearing the inscription, "Germany divided 1945-1989".

Nature, however, had taken back the old frontier strip. Twenty-foot tall firs and silver birches stood where once were fences and minefields. All that remained was the concrete Kolonnenweg, a former patrol path for military vehicles on the eastern side. Now, it's merely a perfect trail for hikers, with sumptuous views of the woods and mountains of the Harz. Germany is one again, and surely even a catty French writer would approve.


Further information

German National Tourist Office (germany-tourism.co.uk).