Writer's bloc: Simon Calder returns to East Germany

Twenty years ago the fall of the Berlin Wall ended the division of Germany. But the first taste of freedom happened 100 miles away at Checkpoint Alpha...
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The Independent Travel

For a citizen of one of the most ludicrous nations ever invented East Germany there was one sure way to get across the fearsome frontier dividing the German Democratic Republic from West Germany: die.

Once a comrade was evidently of no further use to the regime, they could legally be shipped out of the country, usually to be buried by relatives in the West. The prescribed route to posthumous freedom was across the land frontier at Helmstedt, a sprawling scar on the hills that ripple from Berlin across to Hanover. But the Communist authorities wanted to ensure that the recently departed was not merely resting and seeking a surreptitious departure from the tyranny of the East German state. So a mortuary was created at the border where the autobahn crossed the Iron Curtain. Here, the coffin was prised open to check for signs of life. Such were the extremes to which the authorities would go to stop escapes across the Cold War front line.

The mortuary has spent almost 20 years out of action, but it still stands a few yards from the river of trucks roaring unimpeded to Berlin and beyond. It is now one of the strange exhibits at a border post frozen in time since that momentous night of 9 November 1989: the Checkpoint Alpha Museum.

On Monday evening, the eyes of the world will be on Berlin which, so symbolically, was where the border between the East and West was first opened.

Except it wasn't.

Before Checkpoint Charlie, there was Checkpoint Alpha. (We'll get to Checkpoint Bravo later.) On that chaotic evening in 1989, a bewildered official was appearing at a press conference broadcast live on East German television. He was handed a document just as it started, and fumbled through the new travel rules it described. When, he was asked, would they take effect? Ab sofort "immediately".

As the crowds gathered at Checkpoint Charlie and other crossing points on the Berlin Wall waiting for the gates to be open, at Checkpoint Alpha a mother and daughter became the first East Germans to cross freely to the West.

A quick reminder of tortured post-war geography of central Europe. The victorious Allied leaders carved up what remained of Germany into British, American, French and Soviet sectors. Hitler's capital, Berlin, was deep inside the Soviet sector. But the city was so critical that the city itself was similarly divided.

The Allies' territories coalesced into West Germany, while the Soviet sector became East Germany, a state in the pocket of the Kremlin. By 1952 the frontier that wiggled south from the Baltic to the Czech border was strictly controlled. The border was officially called the "Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier", but its real purpose was to stem the economic migration.

Curiously, Berlin continued to offer relatively free movement between East and West. That is why, on 13 August 1961, the East Germans built barriers overnight to seal the frontiers. The Berlin Wall, which threaded tortuously around the Allied sectors, quickly became the most recognised symbol of the divide. But an even more deadly "Inner-German Frontier" scarred Europe's largest country. This 866-mile strip of desecration ripped through the middle of Germany. It was the ideological frontline between capitalism and communism, and also a considerable hurdle to surmount for travellers between West Germany and West Berlin.

A system of checkpoints was agreed for Berlin-bound military personnel and civilians. Alpha was established on the Hannover-Berlin highway, between a couple of previously little-known German towns: Helmstedt in the West, Marienborn in the East. One hundred miles further east, Bravo was located close to Potsdam, where the historic post-war agreement was concluded. And Charlie cut right across Friedrichstrasse in the heart of Berlin. Imagine travelling from Birmingham to London via frontiers at Rugby and Watford, with a wall cutting through Oxford Street, and you get the idea.

Within the constraints of Germany's largest city, the Communists had limited scope for imposing lethal measures (though they certainly did their best). But the real Iron Curtain, between East and West, ran mostly through open countryside, allowing free rein to devise a deadly sequence of barriers to turn East Germany into a high-security prison.

There were only a handful of crossing points, of which Checkpoint Alpha was the most significant. Every civilian, alive or dead, had their papers checked assiduously, and vehicles were examined minutely to reveal any concealed escapees. Today, you can wander freely through the apparatus of suppression - and learn the story of Dr Annemarie Reffert and her daughter, Juliane.

On 9 November 1989, the 46-year-old doctor was watching television at home as were millions of East Germans. A year that had started in the usual ideological deep-freeze began to melt by May, when the Hungarian government allowed citizens of the Warsaw Pact countries to cross to Austria. Any East German who took that route was guaranteed a West German passport and 100 Deutschmarks then about 35, but a fortune for the dispossessed "Ossis". The Communist dominoes began to wobble and protests began in East Germany. Suddenly the TV news became interesting. And when Dr Reffert heard the term ab sofort, she immediately put Juliane in the family Trabant and headed west not to escape, but just to have a look at what she and her generation, whose freedom had been so scandalously squandered, had been missing.

The extraordinary sequence of events is told in the fascinating visitor centre, along with the detritus of control from rubber stamps to weapons. The pair drove to the checkpoint and told the first guard that the frontier was now open. "I don't know about this," he responded. "Go ahead, but there may be further checks." The next official adopted the manner of a jobsworth suddenly out of a job: "Doesn't matter to me do what you like."

"Driving off into the dark, I felt breathless," Dr Reffert later said. On the west side of Checkpoint Alpha, she encountered a blaze of lights: the TV cameras were ready for the first arrival from the East. So, an hour before the gates of Berlin were opened, Dr Reffert found herself an instant, if unwilling, celebrity: "I was more frightened of the questions from the reporters than I was of the officials."

To comprehend the suffocation that East Germans felt, meander south for 10 miles from Checkpoint Alpha. You pass through the quiet patchwork of late autumn: meadows dappled by oak and birch, maple and beech, displaying their fiery finest, from old gold to fresh blood.

The occasional church spire, puncturing the haze, indicates an "Ossi" village that feels, well, ossified: settlements close to the frontier suddenly found themselves on roads to nowhere. As a result, this part of Germany has been preserved with villages that feel almost medieval an alluring confusion of cobbled streets and half-timbered houses at doddery angles. Htensleben is one of these. Although a road now runs through it, part of the frontier has been recreated in all its cruelty.

A restriction zone was established three miles inside the eastern frontier. The only people allowed to cross this line were villagers with legitimate reasons - their identity papers containing detailed descriptions of the where they were entitled to go.

About 500 yards from the border, barbed wire indicated the start of the "death strip". Trees were cleared to allow search dogs and soldiers to detect escapees; a ditch was dug, and anti-tank barriers installed, because East Germany wanted to retain the pretence of an imminent invasion from the West. A parallel pair of concrete tracks provided access for border patrols.

Gaunt watchtowers one every mile - were erected along the length of the border, with searchlights and weapons. The final barrier which became something of an Sunday afternoon outing for those lucky enough to find themselves on the friendly side was variously a concrete wall and an uncuttable steel mesh fence. Anyone who crossed it was still not safe: the legal frontier was actually a few yards further west beyond the final barrier, marked by a series of posts. Besides the financial drain of the frontier, it required 100,000 people to run it. If only the East Germans has invested as much in dreaming up ways to improve the quality of life.

Even though the villagers of Htensleben are now part of the land of milk, honey and MTV, you can still easily roll back the decades and experience life in the GDR. Karl Marx is still celebrated with a Platz of his own. At the village bar the original plastic flowers, linoleum flooring and garish light fittings are on display. Prices, too, are muchV C lower than in the West: a coffee costs just 80 cents, one third of the going rate on the other side of the now largely invisible line.

The good life was not entirely erased in the German Democratic Republic. Immediately south-west of Berlin, close to Checkpoint Bravo, the city of Potsdam bears only a modest patina of neglect. This was the location for the grandest Imperial flourishes of the Prussians: most notably the Sansouci ("without equal") Palace. But the location for the conference that created the geo-political mayhem of Germany was across town: a beautiful early 20th-century mansion, the Cecilienhof, in fine gardens carpeted with leaves as rusty as a discredited ideology.

Most of the palace has now become a hotel, where you can breakfast in the wood-panelled splendour under the gaze of Cecilie herself, the daughter-in-law of Kaiser Wilhelm. A walk from here is instructive: look across from the park across the Jungfersee, the "virgin lake" that ripples towards the German capital: here the frontier ran across the middle of the lake.

Central Potsdam is the ideal place to understand the schizophrenia of East Germany a generation after Dr Reffert crossed the frontier. The church of St Nicholas was rebuilt from scratch according to the original plans during the Cold War, but funded entirely by Lutherans in West Germany. The university building next door is a decaying 1960s block. And beyond that, the former Imperial stables have become the Film Museum, the ideal place to sample the popular culture of the GDR: constrained by ideology, the Babelsberg studios still created fine films, but you get the impression that the society was held together by sticky tape, string and Stasi the vicious state security organisation.

Checkpoint Bravo, the gateway to, and main exit from, Berlin, still stands and is still a checkpoint: Russian and Turkish trucks pause here for some Customs form-filling. It looks like a motorway service station, but instead of burgers and coffee the Western staff here served up bureaucracy, checking civilians and military before the 100-mile journey through the GDR to Checkpoint Alpha. In the Eighties this was the best hitch-hiking spot on the planet. Such was the camaraderie among the residents of West Berlin that every motorist with spare seats felt obliged to stop.

On Wednesday, I returned to my old thumbing ground to thumb through the intervening decades. Arrive at lunchtime and you can visit the exhibition in the canteen that gives a clearer picture of the tensions of travel up to 9 November 1989 than the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in the middle of Berlin. Check it out if you like; but since the East German border guards were made to look Charlies, the fiendish apparatus for keeping people apart from one another has been completely erased. Where once travellers quaked at the prospect of intrusive inspection, now there are some two-dimensional posters, a reconstructed American crossing point and Mr Beans coffee shop.

Back at Checkpoint Alpha, where it all began, the poignant post-script to Dr Reffert's break for the border may bring a tear of joy to the eye. After the blur of liberation, the doctor turned the car around and headed East. "Mummy, what happens if they won't let us back in," asked little Juliane. They did, and before midnight the pioneering pair were alive and well and back in Magdeburg. By then, the world had turned upside-down. Or perhaps it had been put back the right way up.

Tomorrow in the travel section of The Independent on Sunday, foreign correspondent Rupert Cornwell returns to East and West Germany.

Long before the post-war Berlin Wall was built, the city had been ringed for over a century by another wall which was equally resented, because it too was built to control the local population.

Open any modern map of Berlin and look for the word Tor (gate): these locations are 21st-century reminders of the wall that enclosed most of the city from 1736 to 1865. The 18 gates were named after the roads which led into Berlin from other major German cities. Only one remains as a gate: the Brandenburg Tor, latterly the symbol of a united Germany. In addition, Frankfurt, Oranienburg and Kottbuss remain as U-Bahn (underground) stations.

So why was it built? As the Prussian Army did not offer a particularly inviting career to volunteers, conscripts were needed and a wall helped to reduce the escape rate. Equally important, taxes were collected at the gates on goods to be sold in the increasingly affluent market that Berlin offered. The name of this wall in German, Akzisemauer, translates as "excise wall".

Berlin was as intolerant towards Jews as most other European cities at that time and in 1750 legislation was introduced to restrict their settlement to 120 families. The wall had its role to pay in enforcing this policy. Jews could enter Berlin only by one gate, the Rosenthaler Tor in the north, probably chosen since reaching it would involve a two-day walk from the south, where most of them would arrive.

When built, the wall encompassed about 50,000 people. Later, the wall for many years prevented a cross-town link for the burgeoning railway system, so the stations grew up outside. The biggest station in Germany, Anhalter Bahnhof, was one of these and it is close to the surviving faade of the station that you can see a restored fragment of the first Berlin Wall. In the middle of Stresemannstrasse, just east of the station, you can see a section of this impressively strong barrier.

By the 1860s Berlin had a population of 700,000, mostly living outside the wall in cramped blocks of flats around the new factories where they worked. The wall had to go. But whereas in 1989 it took just a few hours to breach the second Berlin Wall and then just a few months to remove it, this process took about four years in the 1860s. The military still felt uncertain about opening the city to foreign invaders, even though the wall had not stopped the Russians in 1760 nor Napoleon in 1806. German unification however convinced them of the need to have a national railway system, which would facilitate troop movements around the ever-enlarging empire.

Neil Taylor

Travel Essentials: Germany

Simon Calder flew from Stansted to Hahn airport, and back from Berlin Schnefeld, with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) for a total of 10 return. He paid 136 for three days' car rental from Hertz (0870 844 8844; hertz.co.uk). He stayed in Gttingen at the Hotel Kasseler Hof (00 49 551 72081; kasselerhof.de), paying 45 for a single room and breakfast (this included a 10 discount because the heating wasn't working); and in Potsdam at the Relexa Schlosshotel Cecilienhof (00 49 331 3705; relexa-hotel.de), for 95.50 including breakfast.

The closest airport to Checkpoint Alpha is Hannover, served from Birmingham, Manchester and Southampton by Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com), from Heathrow by BMI (0844 8484 888; flybmi.com), and from Stansted by Air Berlin (0870 738 8880; airberlin.com). From Hannover airport, the train to Helmstedt takes around 90 minutes for a fare of 25, including the supplement for an ICE train.

The main air links to Berlin are on easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) from Liverpool, Glasgow, Bristol, Luton, Gatwick and Stansted, and on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Edinburgh, East Midlands and Stansted. Both airlines serve Schnefeld, which has good links to both Berlin and Potsdam. In addition, BMI and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) fly from Heathrow to Berlin's Tegel airport.

By rail, Checkpoints Alpha, Bravo and Charlie are accessible on Deutsche Bahn (020-8339 4717; bahn.de), which has good-value tickets from London St Pancras to a range of German destinations for fares starting at 98 return.

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