August 20, 2014 01:00 By Caroline Bock
Berlin's famous "Bridge of Spies" is being renovated
It was like a scene from a film: Three men in a truck thundered across Glienicke Bridge between Potsdam and West Berlin at two in the morning on March 10, 1988, seeking freedom from Communist East Germany.
Catching the East German border guards unaware, the men crashed the truck through the border crossing into West Berlin. Their flight to the West had succeeded.
The innovation was to use a truck. No-one had tried that before, one of the escapers said later. The three men had also served in the East German army so knew the best time to make the escape attempt: late at night when the border guards would be tired.
The bridge on which the three made their escape – nicknamed “Bridge of Spies” – has many stories. One time a West German policeman with a penchant for mini-tanks drove a remote-controlled Leopard tank across the border. The reaction of the East German border guards was “actually very cheerful,” according to an eyewitness. They came out to watch the little tank with a mixture of curiosity and friendliness.
For 40 years the bridge was half in the West and half in the East. A line in the middle of the bridge marked the border between Communist East Germany and West Berlin.
First opened in the 17th century, Glienicke Bridge crosses the Havel River and connects the German capital with the city of Potsdam to the south-west. Today’s iron and steel bridge was opened in 1907. Blown up towards the end of World War II, it was re-opened in 1949 as a so-called “Bridge of Unity”.
It became famous during the Cold War for the spy swaps that took place there between East and West, most notably that of US pilot Gary Powers whose U-2 spy-plane was shot down over Russia in 1960.
The bridge was re-opened one day after the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.
“Here Germany and Europe were divided until November 10, 1989 at 18:00,” a sign on the bridge says.
Twenty-five years after the collapse of Communism the world is very different: on one side lies the Potsdam “celebrity district” and on the other a golf club and the lakes of Wannsee.
What hasn't changed is the picturesque view over the Havel lakes. The naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt once said “the view from Glienicke Bridge vies with the most beautiful spots in the world”. All around are gardens and palaces, which in 1990 were named on the UNESCO World Heritage List. On the horizon is Sacrower Church of the Saviour, once in the restricted area of the border zone.
Hard to imagine that once two political systems clashed here. In 1959 a Christmas tree was erected on the West German for the first time to show those “over there” on the other side that people were thinking about them.
With the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and also in 1962 both sides broadcast to each other via propaganda vans.
Matthias Platzeck, the former Minister President of Brandenburg state, lived for 35 years on the East German side. “Naturally with the feeling that I will never cross over this bridge,” he later recalled.
City guide Manuel Guenther often brings visitors to the bridge. “It’s the absolute highlight next to Sanssouci Palace and the city castle,” he says and points out that people found the iron and steel structure ugly when it opened in 1907. Today tourists love to have their pictures taken with the iron strips that mark the former border.
The commuter traffic rushes past. A few love locks hang from the railing. On closer inspection the division is still visible: the green paint on one side is slightly darker than on the other.
The famous bridge is getting on in years and the stone colonnades are now to be renovated. Potsdam residents are proud of their city and private donations have flooded in for monuments. “The Bridge of Spies” will also benefit – the renewed colonnades will be ready for the Fall of the Wall Festival in November.