Istanbul is possibly the most historic living city in the world. But other cities have extraordinary histories, too.
25 years ago, the Berlin Wall came down. I was living in London at the time, and was as surprised as anyone. I thought: “should I travel to Berlin? This looks like history.” But I made a mistake, and decided I was too busy at work. I’ve been regretting that decision ever since.
Later on, however, I was lucky enough to live and work in Berlin for seven years, from 1999 to 2006. During that time I came to know and love this terrific city, with all its confusion, vibrancy and troubling, sometimes dark, history – it’s one of my favourite places on earth.
Getting to know Berlin included walking the entire 166km length of the “anti-fascist protection wall” with some friends, in ten instalments. I wrote a newspaper article about walking the wall, for the Financial Times, in 2003. It’s a lyrical piece, focusing on “my three favourite spots where you can best appreciate the wall that isn’t there“. It includes the following:
Tourist: Where’s the wall?
Tourist: Is that it? Doesn’t look so bad, does it?
This won’t do. As anyone will tell you who is old enough to have seen what the East German regime called the “anti-fascist protection wall” in all its oppressive horror, “is that it?” was not a common reaction in those days. So how do you get a feel for what it was like? The answer is to seek the bits that aren’t there any more.
Paris has Les Invalides. London has Chelsea Hospital. In Berlin, the mix of emotion generated by remembrance of military prowess is different: less pride, more sorrow.
I’m rather proud of it.
But I still wish I’d flown to Berlin in 1989 to see the Wall come down.
Footnote: it is striking that the ability of totalitarian regimes to lie to their people and everyone else about what they are doing has not changed. The East German Communist regime told its people that the Wall was built in 1961 not to stop thousands of East Germans fleeing to West Germany; but in order to “protect” East Germany against an imaginary threat from “fascists”. Still sounds uncannily familiar, 25 years on.