The inspiration for the novel I’m currently working on, Oranges for Christmas, came from my first visit to Berlin in 1987. I was 19 and studying French and German at Oxford and I arranged to visit a friend in West Berlin over the summer. In those days there were two Germanies: West Germany with its capital in Bonn, and East Germany with its capital in East Berlin, although the East Germans simply called their half of Berlin, “Berlin.”
Berlin, which was geographically in East Germany, still operated under the Four-Power agreement put in place by the Allies after the War. The British, American and French occupied the western half of the city, the Soviets occupied the eastern half. Since August 1961, the Berlin Wall, built by the East Germans, cut off West Berlin from East Berlin and the surrounding East German countryside.
So in the summer of 1987 I took the train to Harwich and then sailed overnight to the Hook of Holland from where I boarded the train to Berlin. At Braunschweig on the heavily defended border between West and East Germany the train came to a halt. The East German border guards boarded the train with their dogs and their guns – this was serious security checking. From here until we reached West Berlin we would be travelling through East German territory on one of the designated transit routes. Welcome to life behind the Iron Curtain.
West Berlin was vibrant and varied. We visited the bustling Kurfürstendamm, strolled around the Tiergarten, hung out in Kreuzberg, visited Charlottenburg Palace and relaxed by the lakes. But the most striking feature of Berlin was the Wall separating the two halves of the city, and the so-called “death strip” which ran between the inner and out walls with its guard towers and armed patrols.
This is a picture of the Brandenburg Gate which I took from the viewing platform in West Berlin. If you look closely you can see the television tower at Alexanderplatz (known affectionately as Alex) through the second archway on the right:
One day my friend and I travelled to East Berlin. Most tourists went through the famous Checkpoint Charlie crossing, but because I was travelling with a West Berliner we had to take the underground to Friedrichstrasse. The train slowed down as it passed through dark, eerie “ghost stations” which were closed after the Berlin Wall was built. At Friedrichstrasse we had to go through separate checkpoints because I was a foreigner and my friend was a West Berliner.
It was obligatory to change 10 West German Deutschmarks into 10 East German Ostmarks, and you weren’t allowed to bring the Ostmarks back out so you had to spend them – obviously a ploy to help keep their ailing economy afloat. I bought a book about Berlin depicting some of the more attractive buildings and crowds of happy East Berliners enjoying the sunshine in the parks. The book never once mentions the Wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin. The East German authorities tried to pretend that West Berlin didn’t exist and in fact East German maps from this period show West Berlin blanked out.
We only had one day in East Berlin. We visited the glass-fronted Palace of the Republic (pulled down after the fall of the Wall); the Cathedral; the Platz der Akademie with the French Cathedral and Theatre; and, of course, Alexanderplatz with its enormous television tower which still dominates the Berlin skyline today. But what distinguished East Berlin most of all was its drabness. Almost the only cars on the road were the box-like Trabants (Trabis) spewing out fumes from their two-stroke engines. The shops had virtually nothing to sell. And you had to remember that the people living here were not allowed to travel to the West, only to other Communist countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia. Many tried to escape. Some were successful but many others were shot dead trying to cross the Wall.
That first visit to Berlin made a big impression on me. How is it possible for a city to be split in half by a wall? The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, but when it was built in 1961 everyone thought it would last for ever. When I returned to Berlin in 1991 I was able to walk through the Brandenburg Gate, something that would have been unthinkable on my first visit, only four years earlier. I wanted to write a story about what life was like in Berlin when the Wall was built because I think it’s a part of twentieth-century history that needs to be remembered. Look out for my novel, Oranges for Christmas, coming soon!