My father-in-law has the historic distinction of being the last National Serviceman in Britain to be demobbed, in May 1963. During his time with the Royal Army Pay Corps he was posted to Berlin, his initial demobilisation date having been delayed by the construction of the Berlin Wall.
One Sunday afternoon last year, after lunch, my father-in-law dug out his collection of maps that he had acquired over many years’ holidays and trips to Europe. One map caught my attention: a map of Berlin, published by Falk Verlag. The map gave no indication of its publication date, but close scrutiny of certain features (including the Philarmonie being marked as Im Bau, under construction) suggested that it had been published some time between late 1961 and 1963. It seemed reasonable to think that the map had been given to or bought by my father-in-law while he was on National Service in Berlin.
On the reverse of the map was a Kleine Rundfahrt—a short guide of the city, revealed by the map’s intricate but ingenious foldings that were reminiscent of the Rubik’s Magic that I had as a child. The guide highlights Berlin’s must-see sights, circa 1963, providing some insight into the ruined state of post-war Berlin, as well as efforts at its reconstruction. For example, it describes the devastation of the Tiergarten in the last phase of the war, and its use as potato fields in the post-war years. The replanting, it finishes by saying, began in 1949, once again transforming the ‘Lungs of Berlin’ into an attractive park.
On the Museum Island, at the opposite end of the Unter den Linden, the guide notes that the square between the Spree, destroyed Altes Museum, and the Cathedral used to be the Lustgarten where, in 1760 Russian cossacks once bivouacked. Now, the guide explains, the square extends southwards (over the area formerly occupied by the Royal Palace) and is a parade ground for Russian troops once more. The penultimate stop on the city tour is the Corbusierhaus, close by to the Olympic Stadium, which, the guide explains, with its 530 apartments, was the largest housing block in Europe.
The guide also makes reference to those other prominent ruined buildings—the Reichstag and the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial church—as well as claiming that 200,000 new homes had been built in the western sector of the city in 1960. But what the guide doesn’t make mention of is the Berlin Wall, probably because the Wall did not exist as a single coherent entity when the map went to press. The key to the map refers to a sector boundary, and on the map itself, the border is marked in some places by a criss-cross pattern that suggests barbed wire fencing, and in others by a shakily rendered three-dimensional representation of a wall. The shaky nature of this drawn wall conveys a sense of shock at it’s sudden appearance—a hasty addition to the map perhaps—or, more optimistically, an aspiration towards its impermanence.
Even more fascinating though is how the poker-face nature of the map, with its unsentimental commitment to geographical detail, gives away nothing of the trauma that being a Berliner entailed at that precise moment in time; a trauma rooted both in the city’s recent past and in the present experience of its brutal partition.