Run Dem Crew & Berlin Half Marathon: A Running History Lesson

Friedrichshain squat
Berlin's famous squat network in East Berlin's Friedrichshain.

When I heard my running partners and East London legends Run Dem Crew were heading to one of my favourite cities to complete today’s Berlin Half Marathon, I had to write something. I’ve written about my passion for this incredible city in the City-Lit anthology and for several magazines.

I was also lucky enough to be the only Briton to run the internal German border which split East and West Germany from 1945 to 1989. I hope this short piece will give fellow Crew an idea of why this is one of Europe’s most exciting cities and help you max out your time in this amazing space.

First, you have to understand Berlin’s crazy history. A communist revolution in 1919 was bloodily suppressed in 1919; the decadence of the Weimar Republic followed in the 1920s (see the Cabaret movie) was squashed by the Nazis though their spiritual home was Munich and they received the least votes here in this party city.

But modern Berlin history really begins in 1945 when the city was split in half. Britain, France and the US controlled the part that eventually became West Berlin while the Soviets controlled the portion which became East Berlin. After millions headed West to escape Stalin’s rule, the border was closed in 1952 but not fortified.

East Side Gallery & TV tower
Under the gaze of the Alexanderplatz TV tower, East Berlin's East Side Gallery is the longest preserved stretch of the Wall, home to a mass of mostly-political murals.

So it was a massive shock to everyone when, during the night of 13th August 1961, a wall suddenly went up across the whole city. Husbands were separated from wives, parents from children – some forever. Not until 1989 would this wall open up (during the collapse of the USSR) and it became hugely symbolic, an open wound in the German psyche.

This was where East and West border guards faced off at Checkpoint Charlie, where spies were exchanged at dawn on empty bridges that were barred to East Berliners unless they were old. If you were too old to work, then you could go West and see those grandchildren you had only heard about.

The border was a 3.3m wall with a ‘death strip’ where machine guns, trip mines and attack dogs waited for anyone foolish enough to attempt escape. And the biggest irony? They called it an ‘anti-fascist protection barrier’; it was there to protect you. Oh, and they had the most effective secret police of any Eastern Bloc state, the Stasi.

I met someone whose file was one of the thousands and thousands kept on anyone who might be ‘subversive’. Her crime? She had a penpal in the West when she was in primary school. A visit to the Stasi museum is a sobering experience.

In 1989 the Wall finally came down. No Man’s Land and the underdeveloped East became the haunt of squatters and alternative types. Berlin had defined the ‘pop-up’ decades before it hit East London.

The city became known for cutting edge culture where anything – and I mean anything – could be found. From weekend-long techno raves in abandoned army bases to world famous gay bars and commune living – Berlin’s party reputation is well deserved.

Now, it’s changing. East Berlin is still the hippest place to be and if you look carefully you can see the remnants of the German Democratic Republic.

By all means marvel at the TV tower, but remember it was also a big “F*** you” to West Berlin and jammed tv signals from the free world. And isn’t it unnerving how it’s always there, watching you, just like the network of informers that the Stasi used to keep tabs on everyone?

The squat bars and pop-up galleries are still here; you can still do great things for free every night of the week; and creative types from all over the world still flock here for its cheap cost of living and empty spaces whose only limit is the imagination.

But Berlin is changing, very slowly and business abhors a vacuum. So you’ve picked a great time to come before the star of this ‘open secret’ rises too far. The race starts in Stalinist showpiece Karl Marx Allee, where western diplomats would be shown the only shops that were always full and where construction workers tried to revolt in 1953.

But those angry brickies lost out to Soviet tanks. As you pass the Brandenburg Gate, take a second to remember this symbol of Berlin stood in No Man’s Land for nearly half a century. Where you’re running, nobody was even allowed to stand.

I once saw some graffiti written on the inside of an old border bunker. It said the biggest walls today are not in Berlin, but in our heads. The Wall is in the head of every German over 30. But it gets lower every year.

Top things to do in Berlin:

1) Visit the (free) Bernauer Strasse centre where the horror of the Wall is recorded

2) Stand at Checkpoint Charlie where US & Soviet troops faced off

3) Grab a spicey sausage currywurst from an Imbiss (snack bar)

4) Drink a Hefeweizen beer in a Kneiper (corner bar)

5) Drink a bottle of beer on the subway legally; stay out all night; then come back on the all weekend-night subway

6) Sit in an über-cool cafe in Mitte and play ‘spot the artist/museum/hipster’

7) Go to a Sunday fleamarket in Friedrichshain’s Boxhagener Str. or Prenzlauerberg’s Mauerpark and pick up a Soviet hat

8) Visit the Stasi museum with its 1970s furniture and marvel at the lengths they went to, to control their people

9) Pop into former art squat Tacheles on Oranienburger Str while you still can for edgy art

10) Walk along the Unter den Linden and marvel at how lucky we are to be free, as you approach the Brandenburg Gate. Life is good.

© Simon Cole (Hackney Tours/Bookpacking) 2012

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