Goodbye to Berlin

Today is the anniversary of the death by hanging of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, at Spandau prison, 17th August 1986. Incarcerated after the Nuremberg trial with six others, he had been there since 1947. By 1966 those others had died or been released and he remained alone for another twenty two years in a prison capable of holding six hundred people. Aged 93 Hess took the extension cord of his lamp wrapped it around his neck and hanged himself, dying by asphyxiation. A note found in his pocket gave thanks to his family. He was buried in a secret location and Spandau prison was destroyed to avoid it becoming a Nazi shrine. It later became an Aldi supermarket instead.

Spandau was in the British controlled part of West Berlin and my father, as a British army officer in 1977, spent a few weeks at the barracks guarding this prison. He was also in the city in 1961 the weekend the wall went up. Between 1945 and 1990 Berlin was divided into four territories of military occupation (Britain, France, United States and USSR). All four took their monthly turn guarding Spandau. By the late seventies there were 1/4 million red Army soldiers surrounding the city and about 12,500 US, British and French troops inside. My father remembers using the rifle range behind the prison as Soviet soldiers, lolling on the ramparts, cheered or hissed if his target was hit or missed. Hess, even as an octogenarian, became the most heavily guarded prisoner in the largest incarceration space in the world.

As my father shot his pistol, David Bowie and Iggy Pop were criss-crossing the city on their three-gear drop handlebar Raleigh bicycles. Ziggy and Iggy had come to the city in 1976 to escape Los Angeles and ease down from cocaine psychosis. Bowie with his relentless urge to create was channelling the avant-garde into the pop mainstream, and created Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979). He recorded them at the Hansa recording studios, 38 Köthener Strasse, Haupsteasse, with amongst others, Tony Visconti, Robert Fripp, Eduard Meyer and Brian Eno. Visconti had arrived with his new effects processor Eventide Harmonizer which he proudly announced “fucks with the fabric of time.” It is said that Bowie saw two people kissing below the wall (which could be seen from a window at the Hansa) and within a couple of hours had written the lyrics to the title track “Heroes” with its reference to border guards shooting above the heads of a young couple. Hansa had been constructed in 1910 and was where George Grosz had created Dada photomontage. During the Nazi period the Gestapo had used the ballroom for dances. Visconti when recording Low had found bulbs in the basement with swastikas engraved on them. Buildings and cities as well as music fuck with the fabric of time.

Thirty years ago this weekend, aged 17, I was arrested in East Germany at gunpoint travelling on a train to Berlin. In the middle of the night I was forced onto the track and required to surrender my train ticket and passport. The soldiers demanded Deutschmarks from me which I could not afford to pay. They returned me to the train (with my documents) and demanded I pay the fine at an address in Berlin within seven days. In defiance of this, and fortified by the stupidity of youth, I did not pay and instead hitch hiked out of the city along the autobahn corridor back towards West Germany. I felt sick with fear until I was safely back through the chink in the fortified iron curtain at the end of the East German road. I had travelled on a train from Frankfurt to West Berlin; departure 1985, arrival 1945.

Low and Heroes were Bowie’s classic Berlin recordings. Lodger was a transitional album. Hess was re-interred in a family plot in 1989 but the grave re-opened in July 2011 and his remains were exhumed, cremated and the ashes scattered. My father is a beekeeper in Suffolk.

Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.


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