In August 1984 I took a trip to Berlin . Looking back, this was my very first experience of a communist nation, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR as it was called then.
My appointment was in West-Berlin which at that time was part of the BRD Bundesrepublik Deutschland and in order to get there by road, I had to cross the DDR. The border crossing was at Marienborn where a very thorough inspection of my little van was conducted. I was carrying equipment that was to be installed in West-Berlin. I had to drive through a corridor where they checked my car inside out. Mirror trolleys were pushed under the chassis of the car to check if I had people or contraband goods. Later, I found out that they also secretly X-rayed vehicles in their search for people trying to escape the DDR. Intimidating officers checked my paperwork and my passport and I remember hoping and praying that they would not find anything wrong so that my journey would not be overly delayed. My first introduction to a communist regime was scary and unforgettable.
The road to Berlin was known as the “Transit route”, designed so that you could drive through DDR territory without officially entering it. I remember the road was very worn and had deep tracks and high fences and watchtowers all along it. Stopping was prohibited and so it was always a relief to arrive safely back in West Berlin.
During my stay I took the opportunity to visit East Berlin and as a Dutch passport holder I was allowed to travel into this part of the city on a tourist visa. I took the train to the famous Alexanderplatz and crossed the border into DDR territory. The military police were intimidating with their suspicious and unwelcoming faces.
Alexanderplatz was so different to anything I had ever seen before. It was grey and was filled with concrete buildings and a heavy, oppressive atmosphere. It was strange to think that there were people living here who had no freedom and yet I was able to travel into East and West Berlin without restriction. I was free to go but they could not. I could take the train back to West Berlin – they could not. I could go wherever I wanted – they could not. It’s hard to imagine now, of course, but this was how it was in Berlin, in 1984.
Then 35 years later I took the family to Berlin to show them where I had once visited, all those years before. Alexanderplatz was buzzing with people and there was a totally different atmosphere with trams and trains travelling from East to West without restrictions of any kind. The former checkpoints like the famous “Checkpoint Charlie” were now tourist attractions – opportunities were being taken to make money from a dark period in history that many people today know very little about.
I find it difficult – in this age of an open and free European Union – to explain to my family just how it felt back then; but looking back I feel very privileged to have had this experience and it’s one that I will never forget.
Experiences like this have formed in me passion to see mission multiplied to the post communist nations of Europe – a business trip taken 37 years ago in 1984, still fuelling my heart for the business of mission today.