I lived in West Berlin from 1972 to 1984 as a (West German) university student.Life in the West of the city was very particular, you could find everything, culture and nature. Cultural experiments all over the place, experimental theatres etc. alongside with traditional rituals like the Christmas market in the (then) centre at the ruin of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche. It was exciting and rich, vibrating and colorful. An optimistic response for the fact that we were surrounded by the East.
In West Berlin you could get everywhere with public transport – although sometimes with 20 minutes or more waiting in a freezing night, and you could bike on extra lanes. And if you had a car it was pretty easy to get everywhere – except to the east part, obviously.
Two underground lines passed under the East territory and it was ghostly when the train slowed down at the closed stations. There was dimmed light and armed police wandering around. I was always happy to come out on the other side again. It was a dark feeling of danger and oppression, also when we went from West Berlin by the mandatory and guarded highways to West Germany, which we did very often.
Several times a year we went to East Berlin, mainly for attending theatres. There was the famous Brecht Theatre “Am Schiffbauerdamm” and the “Komische Oper” with his artistic director Felsenstein who experimented a new style of opera in which the singers were really actors and not just standing around singing as it was normal in the past.
It is right what other contributors said: West Berlin was shiny and tried to show up as a brillant city while East Berlin was grey and monumental in the “new center” with the ugly expression of socialist art and architecture. In those times all money was directed to the capital to give the impression to foreign visitors that East Berlin was a thriving city – and East Germany a normal country. That it was certainly not and you could see it in many ways: the full supermarket in East Berlin with dozens of shelfs of THE SAME product, the strange atmosphere everywhere, including in the almost not existing restaurants or cafés where you were treated like sheep, The big Dom (=main cathedral) without the vault and pigeons living in it and only a few meters from the main “tourist” areas: houses which were about to fall apart and full of projectile holes in the facade.
I knew also Leipzig, a major city further south and the difference to East Berlin was enormous. Let alone small cities or villages. You must have seen it to really get a feel how communism has destroyed everything. When I visited Albania in the early 90ties I knew already from East Germany how things look like in such a country. But Albania, then, was a real big shock, and East Berlin and East Germany seemed to me a paradise in comparison to Albania. The poverty and destruction was unbelievable – and what I am hearing the same is now going on in North Korea, even maybe worse, although WORSE is really hard to imagine when we are used to our 21st century civilization.
Coming back to East Berlin. Every time we went there was connected with fear: You and your car were controlled thoroughly, both ways, in and out. It could take an hour or more and you never knew if you would be back home that evening because they could find something or invent something to keep you as a prisoner. (It happened to a friend of mine who, after a year or so, was BOUGHT back into freedom by our government).
Every time when you entered East Berlin you had to pay quite a sum for the visa and you had to exchange money 1:1 (although the real value was around 1:4) which, additionally, was hard to spend in one day only as there was hardly anything to buy which you would also want to buy. I myself bought musical scores, whatever they had, not knowing if I ever would use them. Those I actually needed were not available with 95% probability.
You had to spend all the East money before going back to the West – as if anybody wanted the cheap and worthless aluminum coins on our side of the city! You could get into trouble if you had forgotten to get rid of the east-money before entering the control section. Totalitarian regimes create an intolerable climate! Anyways, I came to assemble quite a library of musical scores which, later on, I actually used and was happy about that as they cost much more in the West and also today.
Summary: It is no joke to be in a totalitarian police state, not as a visitor and not at all as a resident. Observing present revivals of totalitarian movements on the right AND on the left make me fear that the lesson of 20th century communism and its bloody and oppressive impact on millions of people is already forgotten and people who promote neo communist ideas haven’t learned anything from history. These are not situations in which ANYONE wants to live in, except the very few who are in power!
So, please, don’t adhere to totalitarian movements which see only black and white! This is the beginning of totalitarianism.
I published this article in December 2017 at Quora on the question: What were the differences between east and west Berlin during the period of the Berlin wall?