Paul Scraton explores the lives and stories that intersect at the end of the Chausseestraße…
Standing on Chausseestraße at just before nine on a Thursday morning, the first thing I notice is the absence of people.
They are there in their cars, in the buses and – rushing beneath my feet – in the U-Bahn trains, heading in and out from the city centre. They are there above me, behind the tinted windows of the Bayer-Schering (now Bayer HealthCare) pharmaceutical complex where scientists toil to create something as revolutionary as the contraceptive pill they developed in the 1960s.
But down here, on the uneven pavements, there is no one about and in the early morning sunshine I feel strangely alone.
This is often the way in those in-between places in a city, neither one neighbourhood or another. And I am not only standing on Chausseestraße but also on the Mauerweg, and if the Berlin Wall Trail is anything, it is an interface zone along its entire length, a collision of districts, of local neighbourhoods, of the city and the country.
But here I feel like I am standing in a very particular meeting point, where Mitte becomes Wedding and the old East becomes the old West – and where, during those years of division, a checkpoint for West Berliners to enter the eastern half of the city.
Open spaces, gradually being filled, hint at the location of the checkpoint buildings, but there are other interfaces here as well. Chausseestraße itself, having sneaked across the border, turns into the Müllerstraße – arguably the most Wedding of that district’s streets. After it passes the Bayer-Schering complex it crosses underneath the S-Bahn ring, the boundary of the city centre transport zone.
And where I am standing, the road – historically, when this was nothing but fields and the old city walls stood a few hundred metres to the south, this was the main postal route to Hamburg – crosses the Panke river, the shallow waters about to complete their 32-kilometre journey from Bernau just outside Berlin to here, where it passes beneath an ice rink and then empties into the Spandau Ship Canal.
Once, it continued on to reach the Spree, but like so much of this corner of Berlin, the Industrial Revolution changed many things…even the course of a river.
So my interface zone is a strange place, one of pharmaceutical laboratories and sports fields, the ice rink where future Olympians complete their morning training rituals, and a “campsite”, where right on Chausseestraße but behind high walls, camper vans can park tightly together on the gravel in neat rows. There is no room, and no green spaces, but there is electricity hook-ups for every pitch and the U-Bahn down the street will take you right into the city centre.
It seems strange to think of camping out here, where the Wall once stood and where the Industrial Revolution transformed the city, bringing to Wedding and neighbouring Moabit the factories and the workshops, the turbine halls and the train yards (not to mention the tenement blocks and their overcrowded, disease-ridden courtyards). Is it any wonder that this area of Berlin became a hotbed of political radicalism, that Wedding became “Red” and proud of the fact that it never voted for the Nazis?
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, way before communism in this part of the city was defined by its concrete slabs and border controls, the streetfighters of the Communist Party would engage in running battles with their Nazi counterparts and, of course, the police, who would march up Chausseestraße towards Weddingplatz to subdue the unrest. One such moment is captured by Erich Kästner, in his novel of the period, Fabian:
“At Weddingplatz, they closed the Reinickendorfer Straße, up which a crowd of workmen was approaching. Behind the cordon, mounted police were waiting for the word to attack. Uniformed workers, waiting, leather straps beneath their chins, for civilian workers. Who drove them against each other? The crowd of workmen was drawing near, their songs swelled louder and louder, then the police advanced, step by step, a yard between each man. The singing gave way to an angry roar…”
But with the war, and division, and then the hibernation of the Berlin Wall, the neighbourhood changed. In Wedding – the West – industry retreated to the safety of the Federal Republic. Only Schering remained, hard up against the Wall and employing only a fraction of its peak workforce. To the south, in Mitte and the East, the Stadion der Weltjugend was opened in 1950 and played host to displays of socialist athleticism that involved choreographed routines even by the 70,000 spectators.
By the time I came to Berlin in the 90s the stadium was long gone, replaced by five-a-side football pitches and a golf driving range. They too have since been replaced, by an enormous new complex for the BND – the Federal Intelligence Service; deeply ironic that the spies will return to the interface zone where they once monitored those crossing the checkpoint at Chausseestraße.
People do live here, but even that reflects the legacy of different districts and what a postal code can mean to real estate developers. On the Wedding side of the Mauerweg the apartments date back to the 1970s and are the classic design of social housing projects you might find anywhere. Here, the number of satellite dishes hanging from the balconies reflect the fact that Wedding during the past 50 years became a district of immigrants, who like to have the news and entertainment from their countries of origin beamed right into their living rooms.
A few hundred metres away, beyond the cobblestones that mark the route of the Wall and behind the all-important “Mitte” sign – which might not matter to city bureaucrats now that these two neighbourhoods are one and the same for administrative purposes, but which certainly does to the real estate agents – a new stretch of three-storey townhouses have been built, complete with roof terraces and little gardens, where once the border guards of the GDR patrolled the “death strip”.
As the traffic continues to flow back and forth across the older border, I think of Wolf Biermann, the East German dissident poet and songwriter who lived a little way down the street at Chausseestraße 131. That address gave him the name of an album, recorded on smuggled equipment from the West, and on which it is possible to make out the faint sounds of traffic on the street outside his kitchen window.
But then the traffic can surely not have been as it is today, for Chausseestraße in East Berlin was a road to nowhere, or at least to a checkpoint that the vast majority of citizens were not allowed to cross. Biermann himself was a man of the left, but it was perhaps the fact that he was a ‘real’ socialist that made him a thorn in the side of the authorities that professed to be governing in the name of the people.
Popular on both sides of the border, Biermann began to tour to the West, which led to his being blacklisted by the party and ever greater attention from the Stasi, and helps explain why he was reduced to recording his album in his apartment. By 1976 the authorities had come up with a plan to rid themselves of the Biermann problem. They simply gave him, once again, permission to tour West Germany, and while he was there, stripped him of his citizenship.
This act caused disillusionment with the regime among previously supportive members of the artistic and cultural establishment, and was further evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the German Democratic Republic.
Perhaps they should not have been surprised. After all, another resident of Chausseestraße – Bertolt Brecht – was also a man of the left, who had come to the GDR with the promise of his own theatre after exile during World War II, and who himself became disillusioned with the regime after the events of the 1953 uprising. At the time, he publicly backed the actions of the party in the violent suppression of East German workers, but a few years later his reading of events appeared to have changed, with the publication of Die Lösung (The Solution) in a West German newspaper:
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts.
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
As it comes time for me to leave Chausseestraße, I think of all these stories tied up in this unremarkable corner of Berlin.
Of Brecht, Biermann and Kästner.
Of factory workers in the Wedding slums, streetfighting Communists and the Schering scientists changing the world.
Of Turkish families and the German intelligence community.
Of the old border guards of a checkpoint long gone, and a bored young woman working the till of the petrol station that has filled some of the gap.
Of the camper van owners who poke their head through the gate, hoping to see the warming light of a bakery, and the skaters spinning and leaping gracefully across the ice.
I stand alone on the Chausseestraße a moment long and then turn, towards Wedding, and leave the street to its solitude and its memories.
Notes & Further Reading
The quote from ‘Fabian’ by Erich Kästner comes from p.121 of the 1932 English translation by Cyrus Brooks, published by Libris (London, 1990).
The Bertolt Brecht poem ‘Die Lösing’ was first published in 1959 in Die Welt newspaper in West Germany, and was later published in the Buckow Elegies in 1964. It first appeared in the GDR in a collection of his works in 1969. You can read the original German poem, side by side with the English translation, on the Monthly Review website.