Welcome to The Bookwormery, I am pleased to be able to share an Extract from Peter Millar’s book, The Germans and Europe, A Personal Frontline History.
A special party in a special pub, the mouse that roared, from obscurity to oblivion, a tale of two cities and an unexpected resurrection happy Birthday
In the summer of 2013 my wife Jackie and I attended a party in a pub in Prenzlauer Berg, one of Berlin’s trendiest and most sought-after residential areas. Just a few decades earlier it had been the most dilapidated district on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. It had also been our home.
Some 32 years previously, in the late winter of 1980–81, I had arrived in East Berlin as a young and relatively inexperi- enced foreign correspondent for Reuters news agency. When I got married six months later my wife came out to join me, making our ‘choice’ of first marital home improbable enough to feature in her hometown newspaper, the Scun- thorpe Evening Telegraph.
My posting to East Berlin, where I was the only non- German correspondent on the ‘wrong’ side of the Wall, was an accident that changed my life, gave me what amounted to a second family, and an umbilical cord to a city that perhaps more than any other had embodied the 20th century: seduc- tive, scarred, ugly. And utterly magical. Even if the magic had at times been frighteningly black.
The Germans and Europe.indd 6 27/06/2017 11:22
That party in the summer of 2013 was held on 1 August. A century earlier Kaiser Wilhelm II had unveiled a monu- ment to the Battle of the Nations fought in 1813 outside Leipzig. The victory of Prussia, Austria, Sweden and Russia over Napoleon had seen 54,000 killed and another 27,000 wounded in the bloodiest battle in European history to that date. No one had any idea of the catastrophe to occur just one year later, in August 1914.
That same summer a Berlin housemaid called Clara Vahlenstein had a lucky lottery win, and she and her husband Hermann changed their lives forever by buying a pub in the bustling working class district of Prenzlauer Berg, dominated by six-storey Mietkasernen (rental tenements). They initially called it Vahlenstein’s Destille, and sold spirits as well as beer and coffee to the hardworking locals of an inner-city suburb typical of the rapid expansion Berlin had undergone in the late 19th century as it was transformed from a medium-sized northern German provincial city into the capital of a huge new nation. In the end, however, Berlin tradition won out: the pub stood on the corner of Metzer Strasse, named for the siege of Metz, one of the battles in the Franco-Prussian war that had created the new Germany. And as most Berlin pubs stood on corners and were named for them, Clara’s became Metzer Eck.
I first stumbled (literally) into Metzer Eck on a cold night in the early winter of 1981. Despite its label as capital of the Cold War; East Berlin in the early 1980s was something of a slow news city, a dull Soviet fiefdom without even the usual crop of dissidents to be found in most of Moscow’s satrapies. My first story had been, ironically given my Northern Irish upbringing, a football game between Ballymena and a team from Leipzig: Reuters had a broad distribution network. An office in drab East Berlin was rare and something Reuters was determined to hold on to: one day something exciting might just happen.
To pad out my salary I was required also to cover events
The Germans and Europe.indd 7 27/06/2017 11:22
in the isolated exclave of West Berlin. It was coming home via Checkpoint Charlie from a chaotic night covering riots in the student, squatter and Turkish immigrant district of Kreuzberg to the relative peace and calm of the totalitarian East, that I first found myself in Metzer Eck. I got out of the U-bahn at Senefelderplatz and, seeing a rare light in the dark- ened streets, ventured in, hoping for a nightcap, or at least a bit of warmth, and maybe – though I doubted it in East Berlin’s cautious, mistrusting society – a bit of conversa- tion. I found both, and a whole lot more: an open back door into the heart of real Berlin, a culture of ordinary, charm- ing, friendly people of all classes – regulars included bakers, builders, musicians and actors – who over generations had hunkered down and taken the shit that history had thrown at them.
The night of that party in the summer of 2013, 32 years after I had first stumbled through the doors, the current landlady of Metzer Eck, Sylvia Falkner, Clara Vahlenstein’s great-grand-daughter-in-law, stood on the steps before a crowd of several hundred and news cameras of unified Ber- lin’s local television channel and declared: ‘We survived two World Wars, the Wall going up and the Wall coming down, and we’re still here!’
In almost any country, at any time, the survival, almost totally unchanged, of one small pub in the hands of the same family for a century is a rare thing; in the circumstances of Berlin, it is almost a miracle. During the Vahlenstein/Falkner family’s tenure Germany’s borders changed more than a dozen times; they had been under the rule of an emperor, a socialist democracy, the Nazi dictatorship, a Soviet-style Communist dictatorship and since 1990 once more a democ- racy. Five currencies had crossed the bar, from the Kaiser’s Reichsmarks to the Rentenmarks invented to rescue the infla- tion-plagued Weimar Republic, to the East German ‘Marks of the German Democratic Republic’, to the D-Mark of post-1990 unified Germany, and eventually euros.
The Germans and Europe.indd 8 27/06/2017 11:22
Two young men called Horst had lost their lives: Syl- via’s husband, conscripted into the East German National People’s Army when I first arrived in Berlin, who tragically succumbed early to cancer shortly after celebrating the fall of the Wall. And his uncle: conscripted into the Hitler Youth in his teens, then taken away by the invading Russians and left to rot of consumption in a repurposed Nazi concentra- tion camp at Sachsenhausen, just north of the city. Berlin and Berliners have lived Europe’s most terrible century close up and personal. Far from all of them deserved it.
Just another Brick in the Wall?
Almost my first introduction to my new home had been a literal overview of Berlin’s real geography thanks to the British army, who in 1981 still nominally controlled one of the three (American, French and British) sectors of West Berlin. Their forces were based near Nazi architect Albert Speer’s Olympic Stadium, since transformed into the national football stadium that hosted the 2006 World Cup final.
An army helicopter took me high above the divided city – taking care never to make the potentially dangerous mistake of crossing into East German airspace. The 1971 Four Power Agreement – signed as a form of normalisation during the détente years – was so complex the Western Allies and Soviets had had problems even defining what they were referring to. Neither side admitted the division was final but neither had the faintest intention of withdrawing its troops. All that had to wait for the events that followed November 1989. Both sides insisted (relatively accurately) that it was not they but the German civilian authorities that ran things. Seen from a bird’s-eye vantage point in early 1981 the grotesque artificial- ity of the Wall and the ‘death strip’ that lined it like a scar on a wound, stood out in the landscape like a crooked con- crete lasso encompassing the western two-thirds of the city.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Millar is an award-winning journalist, author and translator. Born in Co.Down. Ireland, Peter read French and Russian at Oxford, lived in Paris, then Brussels as a reporter for Reuters. In early 1981, at the age of 26, he was sent as correspondent to East Berlin, then to Moscow, where he lived three years, from the death of Brezhnev to the rise of Gorbachev. His career, including the Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph and European, took him to Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Bucharest and Belgrade, as well as throughout Germany.