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More Weird Stuff from Berlin: the former East

December 25, 2018

This is second post about what an extraordinary city Berlin is. I emphasise the “weird” aspect of it because you often stumble on things that you don’t register at first sight, simply because they are unexpected or unusual, but are seen by those who live there as unremarkable. (See the earlier post for a long string of such items.)

A perceptual sequence is well known I think, by everyone who has moved to Berlin from outside of Germany: certain objects are simply not perceived for months or years, despite being in plain view. They don’t fit any mental category, yet are kind of just ‘part of the furniture’. Then one day, some part of the brain suddenly sends up a signal saying WTF is that thing???? Then you research it and find out that, yep, it’s exactly what it looks like — but why didn’t I notice it before? It usually implicates — simultaneously — Nazis, Communists, the US military, hippies, Prussians, and mundane everyday life amidst prior exceptional circumstances. There is a multi-dimensional aspect that is highly unusual. I know of no other city that is quite like it.

After having gone through this process a few dozen times, one realises that Berlin’s history is not best discovered by visiting the Berlin Wall or Nazi buildings or the main tourist attractions, but simply by opening one’s eyes in which ever area you find yourself, and looking for the first thing that strikes you as a bit odd…

As noted previously, I left moved to Germany from Australia in 2000 (in my early 30s). I had already visited Germany in the 1990s and lived in Cologne (in western Germany) for 6 months. This time, however, I wound up living permanently in Berlin (eastern Germany).

As someone who grew up in a rather isolated place (Tasmania), simply being in Germany was a real buzz. I’d always been fascinated by German culture, read up on the history, and loved Goethe and other poets. As a youth I’d been deeply touched and influenced by the works of authors such as Heinrich Böll and Arthur Koestler. (The latter wrote absolutely riveting accounts of his life in Berlin as a Jewish communist in the 1930s.)

But when I finally moved to Berlin, instead of living in the city I wound up living with my girlfriend 50km south of the city, in the countryside at a place called Zesch am See, near a nice lake in the middle of a rather nondescript pine forest. I was glad to be making a new start in a new country, but I must admit I was a little disappointed: I’d hoped to land somewhere a bit more interesting than a little farming village in the middle of nowhere.

On the other hand, I found it good to be able to wander off into the forest and just get used to suddenly being on the other side of the world.

I’d heard that the nearby town of Wünsdorf had been a garrison for 40,000 Russian soldiers — this was of course in the former East Germany: a country that had ten years earlier simply ceased to exist. The Russians had ultimately moved out in 1994, and had left things pretty much as they were. And that’s pretty much how it had stayed.

The whole township was in large part a ghost town. Large apartment buildings, which had formerly housed soldiers, stood at the side of the road: windows smashed, tattered curtains flapping in the breeze.

Soldiers’ apartments, Wünsdorf, abandoned in 1994 (all pics are crappy author photos unless stated)

The surrounding forest had been used for military training and was crisscrossed with roads made of quickly laid concrete slabs, more suited to tanks than wheeled vehicles. And as forests go, it is nothing spectacular — very flat and mostly just pines and birch. The soil is so sandy that once the birches attain a certain height, they simply topple over. But for someone used to living close to nature (me, that is), this pine forest was very inviting, and I started exploring that instead.

One of the many concrete roads in the forest for military use

One day, on the edge of the forest I came across an abandoned villa, slowly crumbling and overgrown with vines. As I walked around it, a doe and her fawn suddenly erupted from a shed ran off into the forest. No one comes here….

Around the next corner I came upon a huge open space — a parade ground, with weeds sprouting through the cracks between the concrete slabs. There would have been enough space for several thousand soldiers to assemble here.

At the front of the parade ground stood an enormous statue of Lenin, striking a trade mark dramatic pose and staring with defiant boldness at the dandelions.

Recent photo of renovated house & statue (credit unknown: source)

….Well that was unexpected….

….The Russian Revolution, Lenin, Stalin, had been for me things that I read about in books: abstractions from the other side of the world; mythical figures from a past and unknowable age. Yet here was Lenin standing all alone before an abandoned parade ground at the edge of the forest, frozen in time.

It had all ended so quickly. The Russians packed up what they could after 40 years and were sent back to a place that for many wasn’t home.

Here is some footage (from You Tube) of their final parade (in fact their first and only public parade), with many somber and confused faces among the military.

After the Russians left, buildings slowly began to be renovated and rented out. Young families began moving in, living amidst the military junk, decaying buildings and…. these things….

Winkel’ type bunker (source)

This rather distinctive feature of the domestic landscape is a particular type of bunker. About half a dozen of them are to be found in this area. And, I found out, they weren’t left behind by the Russians but by the Nazis.

This whole area had been a military command center, with a massive underground communications center. The attack on Poland and Eastern Europe was coordinated from here.

1942 (source: wikipedia)

…..Ok, so maybe this wasn’t just a dull farming village in the middle of nowhere after all, but rather an epicenter of European and world history. So that’s what all those hurriedly laid concrete roads were for. They did all seem to be heading eastwards, come to think of it.


First Panzer Regiment Wünsdorf 1935 (source)

But not only did the war on Eastern Europe start here, it ended here too. The Russian Army stormed through this area in 1945. It was one of the last lines of resistance of defense before Berlin. While riding my bicycle through the forest I often came across long trenches.

Trench (2015)

Some trenches were deeper: tanks were parked in these, angled upwards and simply blasted away in the general direction of the advancing Russians.

Trench (apparently) for tanks (as far as I can tell)

The Germans stored munitions by burying them at certain locations. You can still come across them while wandering about in the forest. If you’re lucky, they’ve already been discovered by someone else and safely emptied, like the one shown below.

Probably a munitions cache

The Russians left a lot of stuff in the forest too. Plenty of unexploded munitions and military equipment that was just dumped. Who knows what this is in the photo below — it is a hole that used to have something in it, left either by the Russians or Germans.

Mysterious hole of some kind

I can’t express how weird it was to be riding my bicycle around in this forest and coming to terms with having moved to the other side of the world with no plan other than knowing I was here to stay. It was certainly nice to be in such a nice forest, with nice lakes….

Swimming, camping, fishing ‘verboten’ here, due to unspecified ‘dangers’

…But why did they often have warning signs telling people not to swim in them?

One lake I came across, was near an overgrown mansion (no doubt originally built by some Prussian officer) and with numerous wooden jetties around its shore. But all the jetties had been carefully smashed at the entrance. I assume the Russians had dumped something in that lake and were thoughtful enough to advise people not to swim or fish in it. At another place in the forest was area where all the trees for a 50 square meter radius were all dead.

Local authorities have helpfully colour-coded areas of forest: blue is safe enough to enter at own risk, red is danger, though red is a bad colour for signs as it is prone to getting bleached, as in the sign below. There is also a ‘yellow’ designation, for ‘extreme danger’.

‘Stop! Former military training area! Danger area, explosives, entry prohibited, (designated red)’ (2015)

I recall signs with a line drawing of a landmine, and a notice that ‘if you find anything that looks like this, please call the number below’. These seem to have disappeared, so I guess the minefields have since been cleared.

Revisiting a couple of years ago, I was struck by the fact that I’d walked past this thing probably a hundred times. I’d noticed it but it never struck me as being in any way noteworthy. It was just another thing that was there.

Next to main rail crossing, Wünsdorf

But on returning more than a decade later, I immediately wondered why I didn’t instantly recognise it for exactly what it so obviously is. A Nazi built guard box-thing to monitor the entrance from the train station. Had the Russians built it, it would of course have been made of concrete, like everything else they built in the area, and would have looked like this thing which I had initially thought was some kind of ventilation shaft or something–

Russian built pill-box near a gate, Wünsdorf

And that’s the end of this post. I was going to write a whole lot more, but I’m already over 1500 words. There are two more posts coming in this series: one on trying to understand what life was like in the German Democratic Republic, the other about the aforementioned one-time Berlin resident, Arthur Koestler. Thanks for reading.


There are lots of really weird things in Berlin

August 18, 2018

It’s been longer than I was expecting since I last posted something. I moved to a different city late last year — from Berlin, where I lived for nearly 20 years, to Cologne. It took about 8 months to find a new apartment, and I still don’t have the internet connected.

I’m happy here in Cologne, but I found that for the first time in my life I actually miss the place where I was previously living. Berlin was the first place I ever really felt at home in, (I was actually born in Australia, where I lived till adulthood), but it is also just such a fascinating and utterly weird city.

In terms of its history, Berlin is itself a living museum. Germans, and especially Berliners, are usually just horrified by or numb to the various bizarre things that one encounters at virtually every street corner, but for outsiders like me, it is usually fascinating, mind-blowingly weird, and only occasionally horrifying.

Read the rest of this entry ?


A Personal Memory

September 24, 2017

So there is me, I guess about 23 years old, attending the wedding of my first girlfriend. We’d remained friends after I’d unceremoniously dumped her. I genuinely loved and respected her, and kinda needed her, and gained her trust and then ended it. Neil Young’s song Down By The River sums up a lot of it.

I was relieved when she met someone else and they decided to get married. She introduced me to the guy — a really decent fellow — and she was relieved when I told her I thought he was really really great. (For some reason she’d gained the impression that I have very severe judgments about people…… Me?)

But I genuinely thought he was good fellow, and I was quite happy to attend her wedding. It really didn’t hurt. I really wanted her to be happy and was relieved I hadn’t ruined her life by leaving her. But I was also only 23, and was witnessing a great life event for someone I was close to. It was kinda intense.

Her brother (who was as mad as a hatter and quite violent and of whom I was a bit scared) was strutting about with a video camera (it was still considered gauche to do that in those days) and I was trying duck behind people to avoid being filmed. I didn’t want what ever look was on my face to be preserved for ever on film. (As it happened, an aunt of hers who later borrowed the only copy of the video cleverly taped an episode of a popular soap opera over it, destroying it for ever.)

After the ceremony, I asked my best friend for a cigarette, (I was a non-smoker). He seemed very glad to be able to help, and gave me one. I went off behind the church and had a smoke to calm my nerves. I remember thinking it was like having a local anesthetic and watching someone cut your arm off. I doesn’t hurt, but….. holy heck!

Then she was walking towards me in front of the church, about to leave in the wedding car with all the streamers and everything. I embraced her and kissed her and wished her everything good. And then she got into the car with that guy and they drove off.

I could feel something like a band between us, connecting us, and wondered if she felt it too. I wondered if, while she felt herself being whisked away on a new path, into a new life, if she felt an old connection still…. and a band that was connecting me to her, that was stretching…. and tearing…. until it finally snapped.

I walked back to my car, through the graveyard. Tasmania is far enough south to have a long twilight, where it takes ages to get dark after the sun has gone down. This night was cloudless, and the sky was a stunning deep dark sapphire blue. As I walked, I gazed out into it.

I noticed that although stars were visible, I didn’t want to look at them like I normally would. I just wanted to look into that endless deep deep blue. All my thoughts and emotions were silenced by it. And then suddenly a line of a song I’d learned as a teenager suddenly popped into my head.

Blue blue windows behind the stars…

It’s from Neil Young’s Helpless. A song I’d played in my bedroom on the guitar a million times but had never thought about the words.

I guess Winnipeg, Neil’s hometown in Canada, must be about the same northern latitude as Tasmania is southerly. And Neil had seen that same deep sapphire blue, looked between the stars, and gazed endlessly into it. But he’d also found words to describe it: blue blue windows behind the stars….

I walked and just gazed, with that string of words in my head, in awe. Someone else has seen this too.

But the mind, being what it is, wanted to interrupt my reverie and bring me back to the world of prose. The next lines of the song wanted to crank through, and like all Neil Young songs, genius is always laid side by side with inexcusable cliche. I tried to stop it, but in trying, I’d lost that magical feeling of the infinite.

Ok, just let it wind through. Blue blue windows behind the stars, yellow moon on the rise. That’s stupid. There’s no yellow moon. It doesn’t fit at all. Not even meterologically. Stupid forced rhyme Neil. Big birds flying across the skies. Nope. None of them either. Throwing shadows on our eyes. Dreadful, cliched….

Leave us helpless, helpless, helpless…. Babe can you hear me now. The chains are locked and tied across the door. Babe, can you sing with me somehow?

…..So that’s what it was all about. The brain pulled all this up, because the song had resonated in a way I’d never consciously grasped. And it let me feel whatever weird mix of emotions it was, and I could just let it all out in tears. A nameless longing, a loneliness, mirrored not in the stars but in the windows behind them, just sailing out and out…. And a song putting it all into three or four lines, and even hiding it behind some cliches to protect it.

And the knowledge that another person had felt all this too.