Part of the standard program for foreign students, university or high school, at those times was to provide them with an all expenses paid trip to Berlin. These trips were standardized to the point where my trips in 1986 and 1990 were nearly identical. In both cases, train travel was paid for to Berlin, as were several nights' youth hostel (Jugendgästehaus) or inexpensive hotel. You began with a tour of West Berlin as well as a visit to Plötzensee, a prison where Nazi opposition members were executed during the Third Reich.
For me, however, by far the most fascinating part of the trip was the state-sponsored day tour to East Berlin, er, Berlin, the Capital of the GDR. A bus would arrive from the East, paid for by the government of the West, and pick the students up. As the 1986 group was entirely foreign (exchange students, remember), we then drove across Checkpoint Charlie and started a full day's tour of the glorious sights of communist East Germany. From the Soviet war memorial to the majestic world clock on Alexanderplatz, the entire trip was accompanied by running politically correct commentary from a party functionary. It was... bizarre. By that point we all understood German very well, and it was quite frankly amusing to me to hear the tour guide launch into fantastic flights of poetic praise of the glory of the workers' paradise, especially when it was transparently obvious that, well, the place was kind of a dump.
Students were also given a free day, which I naturally used to go back to the East. It's probably not that hard to explain my fascination with the East: on one level, it was because any 16 year old was aware that any sort of interest in the Soviet world was seen as vaguely subversive and/or dangerous, but more than anything else I was simply fascinated by the stranded in the past feel of the place. You have to remember that once the Soviets took over the joint, everything stalled in terms of modern developments. The autobahn was never resurfaced or improved, save for the stretches to the West German border that the West German government paid for. Consumer products were generally of poor quality; packaging materials and technologies were straight out of the 1940s. Brand names were few and far between: all of the well known ones (to an American) had fled the country in the 1950s and set up shop in the West, with a few exceptions that didn't count because they had no retail presence in the West (e.g. Rotkäppchen sparkling wine). Bookstores were full of badly printed titles no one had ever heard of (anything interesting would have sold out long ago, so mostly what you saw were volumes of Marx and Engels, a copy of which still sits on my bookshelf here at home). Public transit involved tickets that again reflected the very latest in 1950s printing technology; newspapers were unreadable and shoddy, filled with nothing but who-the-fuck-cares stories about the latest steel production in Eisenhüttenstadt (lit. "steel plant city," a new, purpose built 1950s town in East Germany). TV, which you could get in the West as well, seemed especially ridiculous given that anyone could change the channel to the real news to see how absurd the East German news reports were. And Eduard, oh, Eduard von Schnitzler, how I enjoyed your tirades against the decadent West and the horrors of even the working class being able to afford pornography.
These days it's hard to imagine a world without Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Starbucks, and so on, but that world existed up until 1990. Even more intriguingly, though, was the simple fact that many design styles and architectural styles had developed on their own in the East. Because it was politically verboten to do anything other than work within existing Soviet styles, and also physically impossible to use modern Western construction materials or methods, a lot of things were produced that had very little resemblance to anything seen in the West. One obvious example would be Plattenbau architecture, a sort of building style that derived from prefabricated concrete slabs (that, come to think of it, was probably originally American). The style was ubiquitous because it was technologically easy, and because it adapted well to centralized state economic planning.
Here's a sample of some awesome early 1980s badness:
This is a picture of a standardized apartment block in Ilmenau, Thuringia. If you can imagine entire suburbs of these things, you're starting to get an idea for how drastically different the landscape looked in the East. Now, no one's too nostalgic about these things: they tended to be cold, damp, badly insulated, and so poorly built that after ten years' time, they'd be in such bad condition that you'd want to move out. On the drive from the Chisinau airport into town, for example, we passed dozens of these buildings that had seemingly magically turned themselves into wall-less concrete husks that looked like they'd been bombed out (and they hadn't - it's just that they were twenty years old at that time).
However, not everything that was built in the East was that ugly or poorly constructed. There was in fact some innovative work done with cast concrete; for example, take this lifeguard station in Rügen:
I think that's pretty cool, no? Thankfully, this was refurbished in 2004 and still exists.
However, an awful lot of what I remember from Berlin has been destroyed over the past several years. This morning, I found the latest example: the Hotel Unter den Linden:
I remember this building well. As you exited the Friedrichstrasse station (until 1990 the only way you could get into East Berlin on public transit) and headed to the right, you'd see this thing immediately after turning left of Unter den Linden as you walked towards the Fernsehnturm (TV tower). It... well, let's have another look at it, shall we?
Yes, it's a fairly standard East German style boring concrete building, but those wonderful... things on the top were awesome at night, when they were illuminated from inside. I think - but I'm not sure - that they said "INS THEATER," or "to the theater" - they worked in tandem with the neon signs at either end of the building that said "Wohin in Berlin?" or "Where to go in Berlin?"
Here's another good picture of the building:
Note that it was set back from the street a ways, with a nice little wooded park in front. All of the trees were cut down as well, and the replacement building will cover the entire park, going all the way up to Friedrichstraße. Ah well.
For the last several years, I would often dream about going back to Berlin and staying at this particular hotel. At Expedia.com, you'd usually see it come up as a recommendation for inexpensive vacation packages; it had been completely refurbished in 2000 with modern plumbing and as such probably wasn't a bad deal at all: less than $50 a night, including breakfast, and definitely in the heart of Berlin. Earlier this year, though, it disappeared from hotel search results, and now I know why:
Oh, wait, that's at Legoland. Never mind. Here's what the hotel looks like now, in 2007:
That's right, it's been demolished. The replacement office building is supposed to be finished by the end of next year. Even their Web site is gone, as is the bear that used to stand out front...
There were a few other memorable hotels in East Berlin that are - sadly - also destroyed... This is the Palasthotel, which was torn down in 2001 (it only 25 years old). I remember walking past it every time I visited East Berlin; as you walked down Unter den Linden away from the Friedrichstraße station, you went past a small war memorial, the famous museums, the Palast der Republik, the Berlin cathedral, and then finally the enormous Palasthotel was on your left, just before the Polish cultural center and bookstore. Here's an ad from Interflug, the state airline of the GDR:
And finally, the Berolina, demolished in 1996:
When I get to Berlin next month, part of me really hopes that something will be left. Here are a few more buildings that I miss:
This was a restaurant called Ahornblatt (or The Maple Leaf). This was destroyed in 2000.
The Palace of the Republic was, surprise, where the East German parliament met. It was also a multi-use building, complete with a bowling alley as well as this insanely well lit foyer:
No wonder the place was ridiculed as "Erich's Lighting Shop" (Erich Honecker was the head of state in the GDR at the time).
And finally, two buildings that almost got torn down but survived relatively unscathed:
This is the Restaurant Moskau in Berlin, and yes, that's a replica Sputnik on the roof. One of the stranger aspects of any Soviet bloc city was this: virtually every city had a series of "friendship restaurants" - that is, they were themed as if they had been imported directly from Moscow, Budapest, Bucharest, Havana, and so on. I'll never forget dinner at the Cuban restaurant in Budapest with tpratt back in 1989 - the authentically bad food came with authentically bad Soviet style service, meaning it took over two hours to get two drinks and one plate of food. Awesome! (Even more awesome: seeing a production of Cats lip-synced, in Hungarian, but that's a story for another time).
Finally, this is the Kino International, once the premier movie theater in the entire Eastern bloc. It, unlike the Café Moskau, never shut its doors and is still to this day one of the most dramatic theaters in all of Germany:
Unfortunately, however, the Hotel Berolina (as mentioned) was torn down in 1996. Here's a picture of the Café Moskau, the Kino International, and the Hotel Berolina in the background:
See you in Berlin!