Berlin 2003

15 February 2003


Anti Iraq War Protest on 15th February


In early February 2003, four friends — Axel, Danni,

Philip, Sebastian and I — started off on a journey from

Wuppertal to Berlin to take part in the protest against

the Iraq war on the Strasse des 17. Juni. We travelled on

what is called a Schönes Wochenende ticket. In English,

it could be translates as the “beautiful-weekend-ticket”.

It is really meant for families, but can also be used with

a group of up to five friends to travel anywhere on the

German rail network. The stipulation is that you must

travel on the slow trains within one day and the cost is a

very reasonable twenty-five euros for everyone. As we

bought two tickets on the way there and one ticket

back, the round-trip cost each one of us just fifteen

euros per head. I was kind of roped into it by my mate

Axel Böhnisch, who thought I was a bit boring and

should do something more adventurous or he wouldn’t

be interested in me anymore.

Axel and His Father

Axel was an unusual character whose father had, as a

nine-year-old boy, been forced with a gun to his head to

march from Silesia to Wuppertal at the end of the war.

In practice, this meant walking from what is now Poland

to the western part of Germany. He and his wife were

disabled and so they decided they were going to let Axel

do pretty much as he wished as a child — if he got hurt

he got hurt, if he got killed he got killed and that was

that. They allowed Axel to leave school at fourteen and

work in a gas station on the motorway, save money, buy

a VW Eddie camper van and drive all the way around

Western Europe in it with his mates from Remscheid

grammar. They all busked singing ‘Country Roads’ for

the petrol and a can of baked beans for dinner. She was

allowed out into the forest to play late at night and, yes,

even for the whole night if he had wished this was a

most original step for a caring father. I experienced a bit

of that with him when we went midnight sledging in

Remscheid with his mates.

Boarding the Train to Minden

Our trip to Berlin began with the Regionalbahn (regional

service) to Dortmund in the Ruhr where we changed for

another, newer RB to Minden in Westphalia. Both times

we went right to the end of the line. We arrived in

Minden at eleven o’clock and the idea was to doss down

on the station for four hours until the train to

Braunschweig in Nether-Saxony came at 3.05. Axel was

first to lay down his Isomat comfortably, declaring that

it could have been much worse; we had found a little

hallway to an office where a door had been kicked in

and four of us had eventually bundled in there like

sardines, sleeping side by side with girlfriend Danni, the

fifth person, sleeping on top of boyfriend Phil. Dear old

Axel had just pretended to nod off peacefully as a joke

and the first of about five long goods trains came

thundering through. We were in for a rough night.

Thankfully, like true hipsters, they hadn’t forgotten the

grass, and that did help us to get a few winks of sleep in

between goods trains. After playing with the juggling

balls that Sebastian had brought we were just mellow

enough for sleep.

The Tannoy I'll Never Forget

We were woken up promptly by the announcement that

the 3.05 was to be approximately five minutes late, a

typically German good-will message to get up and catch

the train to Braunschweig. We scrambled everything

together and bundled onto the train. When we reached

Braunschweig we got a connection to Magdeburg in

Sachsen-Anhalt in the former DDR where we had a chat

with some of the local boys. My friends were quite

worried about them because they promptly told us to

‘get lost’. We were apparently from the West and we

had no right to protest in Berlin. In my relative linguistic

innocence, I remained totally unaware of this, instead

chatting up a young lady the rest of the way from

Magdeburg to Berlin.

Breakfast at the Lutheran Church Halls in Prinzlauer Berg


By the time we’d arrived, I felt very tired, but there was

no time for sleep. We were taken directly to the

Evangelische Kirchengemeinde (Lutheran Church Halls)

in Prinzlauer Berg where we were given a massive East

German breakfast spread by the very nice lady priest

who liked to chat about old times. In between the

politics, we talked about the little bread rolls she’d

prepared. She mentioned they were original East

German bread rolls that everyone had had from the

bakers in the DDR. After re-unification, the East German

population were promptly converted to the West

German Frühstücksbrötchen or West German Breakfast

Roll. Crusty and fresh each morning like from Lidl in the

UK. The truth is over time the East German roll was

missed and had made a massive come back. By 2003 the

East German bread roll machines were actually

valuable, because most of them had been thrown away.

The dough was white but slightly sourer, a little like Irish

wheaten bread but not quite the same — they have

more of a yeast-like taste.

Völker Hört die Signale!


After breakfast, it was straight out on the march with no

sleep after a twelve-hour journey through the night. We

walked from Prinzlauer Berg all the way to the

Siegessäule in the West (just past the Brandenburg

Gate) and were stationed about three quarters of the

way down the Strasse des 17. Juni near to the stage. The

picture above shows the view from the stage in the

opposite direction. Before approaching the march

proper, we had been confronted by some angry East

Berliners annoyed that we were taking up the whole

pavement. The priestess had responded by inviting

them to join us to which the answer was a swift “no

thank you” in abrupt Berliner fashion.

Chancellor Schroeder’s Lovely Comment


On the stage, we heard music from Veteran political

rock star Konstantin Wecker and some political

speeches. On the march, they estimated there were a

million of us but the actual number confirmed was more

like 500,000. The most touching moment was when

Chancellor Schroeder sent us a message from the

Bundestag up the road saying, “With regret, we’re on

America’s side, but to invade a country for purposes of

political expansionism is murder and to invade a country

for purposes of freedom, peace and happiness is

murder.” Considering Hitler did just that it really bought

the message home to me just how much we were

intending to follow suit in that situation. It was one of

the most profound political statements I’d ever heard. I

had been apprehensive about going on the protest

beforehand. I had believed in interventionism at first as

it had worked in the Balkans. Schroeder’s statement

completely changed my mind in an instant. It was the

word of an inspiring, charismatic leader who made me

believe I’d done the right thing. I’ve never wavered from

that position since. War is war; murder is murder.

In the Evening


After going back to the Lutheran church halls in

Prinzlauer Berg, we had some well-earned shut-eye until

about six o’clock when the others went to Kreuzberg,

but I remained in bed. I woke up later hungry for a meal

and slipped off to an East German Italian restaurant

somewhere around Friedrichsplatz. I had an appallingly

bad carbonara, which I assume was as the locals

expected it prepared, as with the bread rolls, from a

DDR recipe, but this time I wasn’t so impressed. I then

returned to sleep once again on a hard lino floor with no

pillow and just a backpack to rest on. By this time, I had

hardly slept for thirty-six hours. At the end of our time

in Berlin, we got up the next day and finished off the

previous day’s breakfast spread, thanked the priestess

for her generosity and set off back on the nine-hour

journey home.

The FC Magdeburg Fans


When we arrived in Magdeburg we were confronted

with some national socialists. A gang of unruly FC

Magdeburg fans got on board for a kind of joy ride to

Braunschweig and back. The nine-year-old son of one of

the ‘lads’ started running up and down the carriages,

shouting racial abuse about Germany’s first black

footballer, Asamoah. My friends confronted him and he

asked rather innocently to play with our juggling balls.

As lefties they thought this was sweet and rather more

what he should have been into at his age. His dad, an

avid FC Magdeburg fan, then came and asked us if we

were all German and to stop bringing his son into

disrepute, teaching him things he didn’t need to know.

After our lucky escape, I fell fast asleep. It was now

nearly forty hours without a bed and I was so tired I very

nearly missed the stop in Wuppertal and had to be

dragged off the train by a friend. I got caught in the

doorway in the process and I very nearly ended up

dead. One of the greatest and most fun experiences of

my entire life and it cost peanuts. Two of the best trips

of my life were with Axel.