How I was wrong about the Berlin Wall

And why 22 year olds are not placed in charge of world affairs

In 1986, Berlin was nowheresville.

The Prussian imperial capital, the home office of two world wars, had little industry, little commerce , and a fortified concrete wall down its middle. After the second world war it had been divided into four occupation zones - British, French, American, and Soviet - and it still was, although the soldiers that occupied them didn't have much to do any more. The American ones spent much of their time on day passes into communist East Germany, shopping.

The city was an ugly duckling, ham-handedly rebuilt after the war with square 1950s architecture. By the 1980s, the concrete was graying and had metal stains running down the sides. The center of the Western part of the city was Zoo station, a nondescript transfer hub drafted into service as a central station when the Berlin Wall went up. To refit it as an actual central station was seen as an admission that the city would remain divided, so it was left to crumble, aqua tiles falling off the walls.


At Zoo Station. Wearing all black was fashionable among "alternatives." It also cut down on laundromat visits.

Zoo Station was famous as a hangout for heroin addicts and assorted petty criminals, the headquarters of the dark, bohemian glamour Berlin was known for in the 1970s. But by the 1980s, the most famous musical bohemians - Lou Reed, David Bowie - were gone. Their closest approximation was Blixa Bargeld, the singer for Collapsing New Buildings, known for walking about with a patch of his girlfriend's public hair pinned to his lapel.

There were plenty of faux bohemians, however, since living in West Berlin allowed young West Germans to avoid the draft. Since the city was a "demilitarized zone" under the terms of the occupation, a draft notice could not be sent to a Berlin address. That attracted hundreds or perhaps thousands of young men, all of the type willing to suspend animation in a going-nowhere town for 14 years - the eligibility age for the draft was 18 to 32 - in order to avoid 18 months in the army.

West Germany still called Berlin its capital, so it pumped money into flashy projects like a new symphony hall, but the older areas of the city still had bullet holes in the wall and coal oven heaters, which cast a sweet-smelling coal haze over the city for much of the winter.

The city was full of old people - I could never stop calculating the age they must have been when Hitler came to power, and guessing at what role they might have played. It had plenty of univerisity students, and cops and Turkish immigrants. There were soldiers, and there were draft evaders.

And then there was me.

Just like danger seeks safety, safety seeks danger. Having grown up in safe American suburbia, I left university craving excitement. I wasn't crazy or brave enough to seek a real war zone, I chose a place that had been one 40 years previously.

I graduated with a journalism degree but without a job. In 1986, newspaper careers started at small-town papers, and I had done my best to get a foot in the door with one, even taking a bus trip around New England to drop in on some editors who were very surprised to see me. I had a little money from an accident settlement, and decided to spend the summer after graduation in Berlin working on my German via a course at the Goethe Institut. I ended up staying for almost two years.

Next: On being followed by spies.

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