West Berlin's leaps and lapses
by Dagmar Thorau / translation by Max Bach
The Ringbahn passenger who would rather continue riding than get off at this inhospitable location precisely fulfills the notion of Innsbrucker Platz: The West Berlin construction industry spent millions of Deutschmarks here to burrow out an immense traffic junction in its move to plan the city around the automobile. Between 1971 and 1979, the decade’s biggest and costliest construction site tunneled the express highway under the square. One mouth of the tunnel booms out next to the S-Bahn station; the other leads out to the other side of the Ringbahn towards the Schöneberg interchange. Another level was built under the tunnel consisting of underground passages that send pedestrians to the subway station, bus stops and the S-Bahn. In the depths still more transport was planned: Under the highway tunnel rests the skeleton of the never completed subway line 10, which was imagined as the West alternative to unloved, GDR-run S-Bahn. To top it all off, the square is dominated by an incessant stream of motor vehicles.
However, disembarking from the train does pay off, and not only for the imperturbable transportation-researcher. The towers of RIAS radio and the Schöneberg city hall are already visible from the train platform, two of the most distinctive icons of the old West Berlin – the control center of the front-line city and its voice. Berliners were not the only ones familiar with the famous announcement: “Here is RIAS Berlin, a free voice of the free world.” The innovative programming became a model for the West German broadcasting scene and provided the people in the eastern “zone” with news from the world on the other side of the iron curtain. Free, critical journalism as the best advertisement for western democracy – the message of Broadcasting in the American Sector was certainly heard, made evident by the agitation in the East. 60 jamming transmitters were set up, editors were spied upon, and Stalinist-style trials punished GDR-citizens who tried to get in contact with the station that had been defamed as the “agent-mire of warmongers.” Nonetheless, the covertly listened to RIAS remained a bridge to the West for East Germans and linked the divided country during the Cold War.
Right around the corner from the broadcasting station was the political center of the city-island, Schöneberg’s city hall. For nearly half a century the square in front of the building served as a location for mass rallies – in May 1949 after the end of the blockade or in memory of the victims of June 17, 1953; in 1961 with the outraged protests against the building of the Wall as well as in 1989 after the opening of the border. In 1953 hundreds of thousands paid their last respects to governing mayor Ernst Reuter, whose body was laid out in state in the city hall. It was he, after all, who convinced the hesitant Allies in 1948 to perform the rescuing Berlin Airlift: “Look upon this city and see that you should not, cannot abandon it and its people!” In 1963 the densely packed West Berliners on the square could celebrate the success of Reuter’s politics, as Kennedy called out to them, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
The RIAS broadcasted live; admittedly, crowning moments were not all that were transmitted through the ether. On the occasion of the Shah’s visit in 1967, protesting students gathered next to enthusiastically waving senior citizens in front of the city hall. Iranian secret service agents disguised as Shah devotees (later nicknamed “cheering Persians”) pummeled the protestors with batons, while the police stood aside and did nothing. The live broadcasts on RIAS helped fuel the mood; the clashes between protestors and police that night resulted in the death of Benno Ohnesorg – a fire signal for the ’68 revolts.
Mighty events brought the mighty history of Innsbrucker Platz to an end: After German Reunification and the Senate’s move into the Rote Rathaus in 1991, all was quiet on John-F.-Kennedy-Platz. By the end of 1993 the RIAS had ended its programming. However, as always, Berlin’s Liberty Bell still rings – at noon from the Schöneberg city hall tower and every Sunday just before noon on the radio, followed by the pledge of freedom – just like before, when the Wall was up.