“Und Berlin? Und die Mauer? Die Stadt wird leben, und die Mauer wird fallen.”
“And Berlin? And the wall? The city will remain alive, and the wall is going to come down.”
Mr. Duff is on a mission to tick off the World Majors (the marathons in London, New York, Tokyo, Chicago, Boston and Berlin). That’s why we went to Tokyo in February, and that’s why we’ve just got back from Berlin.
I’d never been to Berlin before. Mr. Duff has and likes the city a lot, so it was one of those lovely trips similar to Rome last year where one of us was enjoying showing the other the sights of a place they know and love.
In terms of the marathon itself from a spectator’s perspective everything seemed pretty straightforward. The expo was easy to find, finding a space or two to cheer from on the day was easy enough – public transport is ridiculously simple in Berlin, even if you don’t speak much German. The medal was really good, the volunteers seemed helpful, all pretty much as you would expect. Mr. Duff got a massive new PB and fun was had by all.
But this isn’t really about the marathon, and my thoughts on the city were less straightforward.
I got a message from my Mum the day after the marathon asking why I wasn’t sharing much on Facebook about the trip. It wasn’t that I wasn’t enjoying myself, I explained, it was just that Berlin was giving me a lot to think about. I didn’t want to make the usual glib comments or try to be funny about it because I was trying to work out what I thought of the place and its complexities.
Berlin is a very easy city to navigate within the central area, partly I think because of its past and the fact that there are loads of massive parade route style roads to follow. On Saturday, the day before the marathon, I needed to get a 20 miler in and planned to run from our hotel just the other side of Alexanderplatz down one straight road until I reached another long straight road on the left, which eventually becomes Unter den Linden and reaches the Brandenburg Gate. From there I was going to run laps around the Tiergarten.
The run itself went really well – there was a bit of faffing about waiting for Ampelmann to go green, and some impromptu wayfinding past the Reichstag building due to the marathon barriers which were already going up – but broadly I ran 14 miles at a steady training pace and the last 6 in a fast marathon pace. Delighted with that and I felt pretty good, having been buoyed for miles 10.5 – 14 by the company of fellow Eagles Colin and Judith (Colin ran this 3.5 miles carrying Judith’s flowery rucksack over his shoulder and still ran sub-3 the next day, FFS…!).
My abiding thought when I was running between the hotel and the Tiergarten however was not to do with pacing, or gels (apart from when one repeated on me, a new and concerning development that to my mind proves running faster is bad for you) or anything else I usually think about on long runs. It was how strange it was just to be running where I was running.
I studied history at school, but we didn’t actually do much on the Second World War and virtually nothing on the Cold War. I didn’t know much about the Berlin Wall at all before I went other than who the main players were and a vague memory of when it came down; seeing people with terrible 80’s mullets and grey anoraks on the telly standing on it, looking like the happiest people there had ever been. I was only small and I didn’t really understand what was happening. So the history of Berlin as a city wasn’t exactly unknown to me, but I hadn’t been able to conjure up the images and facts about individual locations with the same ease that I did in Rome last year, for instance.
This run route, after having walked about a bit the day before and done some reading, was therefore a bit of a jarring experience.
Setting off, I ran through the grey soulless blocks of flats in East Berlin on either side of the road, past the TV tower in Alexanderplatz which many saw as a finger up to the West side of the city when it was built. It struck me as odd not that these sorts of flats exist in a modern European city, but that they are so close to the centre. They look more like what you would find out near the airport or main train station somewhere like Rome or Paris. But I suppose it makes more sense when you consider the slashed up geography of the city, and the socialist ideals of the DDR. Providing a flat for everyone means you need more flats in the city centre.
I then ran over the river Spree and past Museum Island and the Berliner Dom, patched and reconstructed from near total devastation following the Battle for Berlin at the end of the war. Fun fact I hadn’t known; the defence of Berlin in the final days of the war was in part fought by children as young as 10. Imagine being a Soviet soldier and suddenly realising you’re shooting at kids?! On a walking tour a couple of days later I was also reminded that there had been rallies held here where thousands had heard Hitler give his speeches. Next I ran past Bebelplatz. For those who don’t know, that’s where the Nazis did their book burnings. Marvelously there was a low key book sale full of stalls opposite Bebelplatz the whole time we were there – well done to whoever organises that, what a great subtle statement.
I carried on to the Brandenburg Gate (more of those rallies) and beyond it, which meant I actually ran clean through both sides of where the wall once stood…and therefore through the Death Strip. We’d been to Checkpoint Charlie the previous day and that was horrendous – totally fake and for tourists, which I actually found quite upsetting. This isn’t a joke. It’s not Stasi Disneyland. Don’t stand between those pretend guards with a military hat on and a silly grin on your face. People disappeared, people died. It wasn’t even 30 years ago that the wall came down – this is very recent history. I don’t know how Berliners feel about Checkpoint Charlie but honestly, I found it pretty offensive.
During my laps around the Tiergarten I ran past the stunningly bleak but beautiful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is one of those pieces of art that you feel like you need to read up on just to make sure you find as many avenues for your mind to wander down as possible, in case you don’t consider something important about its meaning. Walking through it made me want to cry, scream, take quiet contemplation, run away and go further in all at once. It’s a masterpiece of incoherence but also makes perfect sense.
There were so many runners out and about on Saturday morning. Lots of people who looked at me funny because I had on a Camelbak and a gel belt, the day before a marathon. They must have thought I was mad. I just kept looking at us all – men and women of all ages and backgrounds, running around this place where within my lifetime we would have been arrested or shot at for even daring to be. And whilst the DDR regime certainly encouraged sport and mass participation in exercise, being able to move freely about the city to do so wouldn’t necessarily have been on the agenda. It certainly wouldn’t have gone down well with Mr. Hitler and his cronies, seeing people of all colours, genders, ages and countries dashing around his parade routes smiling at each other, wishing a hearty ‘gutten morgan’, united in the love of a shared pastime.
Something else which struck me about Berlin was the sense of change in the air politically, and it felt extremely sensitive in the week we were there as it was the general election as well as the marathon on the Sunday. Angela Merkel got back in, but with a reduced mandate and, horrifyingly, the first seats going to a far-right political party in Germany for 65 years.
This is happening to a greater or lesser extent all over Europe. Just this week the Home Secretary here in the UK has banned two far right extremist groups with anti-Semitic ideologies. I think it’s important to stress that Germany is not unique in these groups coming out of the woodwork, but what they do seem to be fairly unique in is making sure all of their citizens know about what happened in their country over the last century. Not many other countries put so much emphasis on the darker days of their history.
It may be that being somewhere other than your own home town makes it easier to spot, but there was definitely a sense of political tension. We saw plenty of anti-Nazi graffiti, and pavement stencils stating ‘FCK AFD’. But we also saw the word ‘death’ scrawled over a cartoon representation of a gay couple kissing on building works hoarding in the centre of town. At dinner on Sunday night we saw the big demonstration against the AFD go past on its way to Alexanderplatz. It’s obviously a good thing (and I would say a given) that most Berliners want nothing to do with these people, but it’s also genuinely scary how many European countries are having to stage protests like this against the rise of the right wing across the continent.
It seems this is all mainly off the back of an immigration crisis caused in large part by the west but basically blamed on the immigrants themselves. I mean, does this sound familiar? Scapegoating people who are different for political gain? The parallels were almost laughably clear, especially with Trump doing his best to follow a terrifying example from history over the pond. There he was at a rally of his own, suggesting that American citizens who wish to exercise their constitutional right to peaceful protest at unfair treatment by state institutions should be persecuted. He was literally standing up there at a rally saying these guys don’t conform to what I say, so they’re bad and we should all hate them. The guy is actually reading from the playbook here.
How is he getting away with this? How is anyone in the US able to look at that and not see how dangerous it is? And I don’t mean the millions of people who clearly do see it and are railing against him, I mean genuinely how is it that there are any people at all who find it acceptable?
This is all very off the point of running, I know. I don’t make a habit of this and I promise not to start. But along with thousands of other runners I was running in Berlin this week, and this was what was on my mind.
My point here is this; Berlin is a fascinating city with a unique history and it’s impossible not to consider that history when you are moving around it. Berlin and it’s people have been through a lot, but they’re still there – the city survives. The world feels like quite a scary place sometimes, and there is definitely a sense at the moment that the form of western democracy we are used to is at the very least wobbling a bit, if not exactly teetering on the edge of repeating some bad lessons from history.
Bigly bad lessons.
We don’t need walls. Walls are bad. Walls divide. Walls destroy freedom. Walls, real ones or ideological ones, should be torn down and not built up. People are people, wherever you are in the world. There are good people everywhere, and there are dangerous lunatics everywhere.
We need to remember that and keep running through walls – all of us, everywhere, all the time.