In West Berlin times this was the British Sector, and traces remain of the occupation that began in 1945 in a city devastated by war. The Olympic Stadium – built for the 1936 Games and location of Jesse Owens’ triumphs under Hitler’s disapproving gaze – was the headquarters of the British military occupation forces. The Commonwealth War Cemetery is here, as well as the campus of the British School. From the banks of the Havel, emerging from the shaded paths of the Grunewald Forest, you can see across the water to the terraced gardens of the white villa, once the residence of the British Commandant. Until 1994 the British military held an annual celebration of the Queen’s Birthday on the Maifeld. The boots march no more, but the traces of their presence in this corner of the city remain.
From the other bank, outside the high walls of the Commandant’s villa, it is hard to imagine that you are looking towards Germany’s biggest city, even as you stand within the city limits. The low hills of the Grunewald hide the streets and the cars, the tall office blocks and the even taller Television Tower. Only two human-made structures are visible here: the frayed domes of the former American Listening Station on the Teufelsberg and the red-brick Gothic Grunewald Tower. Both, above the West Berlin tree line, offer views across the cityscape that are unavailable down here on the lakeshore.
We stop for lunch in the shadow of the tower. It’s preposterous, a phallic memorial dedicated to Kaiser Wilhelm and planned, nine years after his death, back when the Grunewald was still beyond the Berlin city limits. It was his grandson who decided on the design for the tower that would stand atop the Karlsberg hill. After the Second World War the Kaiser Wilhelm Tower was renamed, like so many streets and squares and buildings in the city. Wilhelm’s empire had long crumbled. And the one that came after that. The memorial was dedicated instead to the forest, with a restaurant and a beer garden at its base providing a popular Sunday excursion, especially back when this half of Berlin was surrounded by the Wall and the city’s hinterland of fields, lakes and woodland was off limits.
Back then, the Grunewald was the countryside for West Berliners. The Karlsberg the closest thing to a mountain. The Havel and Wannsee their Riviera. Now Berliners from both sides of the divide are only a short train ride away from thousands of lakes and more walking and cycling trails through the Brandenburg countryside than it is possible to explore in a lifetime. But the Grunewald is still popular, and as we walk through its heart we are joined on the dusty path by amateur botanists and lycra-clad cyclists, breathless joggers and dog walkers, kindergarten classes dressed in oversized high-visibility vests and families on their way to the lake, the towels and bathing costumes stuffed into blue IKEA bags that hang from tanned shoulders.
Their destination is like ours – the Teufelsee, the Devil’s Lake. On the gentle grassy slopes that lead down to the water nude Berliners mix happily with those who prefer to keep at least their pants on. An argument on the beach about whether a dog should be allowed to also enjoy the deepest of Berlin’s lakes is made amusing for bystanders by the absence of clothing on the protagonists, as body parts jiggle with indignation. The forest encircles the lake apart from the tiny patch of beach, and in the water it is hard to imagine this is still the city, a feeling that has been present for much of the walk.
The stroll to Grunewald station takes us past the huge sand dunes that are the legacy of the 17th century, when some 3.5 million cubic metres of sand was removed for construction purposes. Now it is a nature reserve. At the top of the hill the Kindergarten teacher releases her charges and they fly down the hill, shrieking and laughing, tumbling in the sand. In the shade the forest is a haven for mosquitoes, worse this summer than in recent memory, and the smell that lingers as we walk on towards the station is that of lake water, sweat and insect repellent. The smell of summer. Not far from the station someone has built a shelter out of logs and sticks. A trolls den or a hiding place from the Blair Witch? A summer camp project left behind to allow the forest wanderers’ imaginations to run riot.
At Grunewald station cyclists sip beers outside the Italian restaurant and the beer gardens that occupy the sliver of land between the railway tracks and the motorway do a roaring trade, despite the noise of the cars and trucks rolling by overhead. The S-Bahn is our link back to the city centre, the end of our walk. But there is one more reminder of the history of the city. A sign in the station tunnel points towards Platform 17, but no trains leave from there. Not anymore. Instead, a memorial stands to the 50,000 Jews who were deported from here to the extermination camps. In Berlin, even on a walk along the water or through the woods, the story of the city is forever being told.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton
I have written in more detail about Platform 17 at Grunewald station, which you can read here.