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West Berlin recalls 'island' of freedom that vanished with Wall

BERLIN (Reuters) - With East Germany in the limelight of celebrations of 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, people who spent the Cold War in the capitalist enclave of West Berlin can be forgiven for feeling overlooked.

People walk under stands with balloons placed along the former Berlin Wall location at East Side Gallery, which will be used in the installation 'Lichtgrenze' (Border of Light) in Berlin November 7, 2014. REUTERS/Hannibal

But after a quarter of a century of “Ostalgie” - the often morbid nostalgia for the former communist east - the west side is quietly telling the story of an “island of freedom” that vanished with the Wall, in an outpouring of “Westalgie”.

“West Berlin really existed, people!” wrote a member of the Facebook site “West Berliner Mauerkinder” (‘Wall child’), set up this year as a platform for reminiscences of the west.

“Westalgie” is a hard sell to tourists drawn in ever-growing numbers to sites in the east associated with the Nazis or Stasi (the secret police of the German Democratic Republic) and the museums and few historic buildings that survived World War Two.

There are some attempts to compete directly. Tourists can tour the west in vintage VW Beetles as well as the east in GDR-made Trabants. Teufelsberg, the delapidated Cold War listening post on a manmade hill from debris from wartime bombing, is popular with tourists. A guide jokes that U.S. intelligence could hear Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev brushing his teeth.

But most attractions are on the east side of the Wall and even western traffic-lights are being colonized by the jauntily-hatted GDR “Ampelmaenchen” (traffic-light people) from the 1970s which are a hit on souvenir T-shirts, mugs and mouse-pads.

“It’s a shame to lose this part of West Berlin’s identity,” said Jeanette Chong, founder of the Facebook group which has grown to over 2,000 western Mauerkinder in a few months.

Born the same year as the Wall in 1961 to a German mother and Chinese father, Chong is less concerned about competing with the east than reminiscing about what she and many others refer to as a happy West German “island” surrounded by the GDR.

This is captured in an exhibition opening next week called “West:Berlin - an island looking for the mainland”, portraying what curator Thomas Beutelschmidt says was a unique socio-economic, political and cultural “biotope” under the benign occupation of the Americans, French and British.

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West Berlin had no military draft and remained afloat on generous Western subsidies. It became a magnet for draft dodgers from West Germany, East German exiles, low-budget bohemians, all coddled by a 160 Km (100 mile) white double concrete screen that coiled around the territory.

“There was incredible investment in education and culture - the Berlin Film Festival, exhibitions, theater, music, writing and intellectual life - which helped make it so attractive,” he said. “There was a feeling of liberty. Anything was possible.”

West Berlin’s musical scene of the 1970s and ‘80s lured the likes of David Bowie to experiment and party at legendary clubs like the “Dschungel”, as did local talent like Blixa Bargeld.

The Wall itself became a canvas for artists, a hoarding for anarchists, tourists and lovers alike to record their feelings.

Many bridled at being called “Wessies”, declining association with a West Germany separated from them by hundreds of kilometers (miles) of East Germany. Nor were they “Ossies”. They were something special, distinct: West Berliners.

Paulina Czienskowski wrote in Die Welt that unification was the beginning of the end for a scene which sought new kicks in the east: “The Berlin of the ‘80s was a pool of crazy, creative and inspiring people. After the Wall fell, the city changed.”

Changes on the visible level were dramatic. The border area, a broad strip of raked land between two walls, was quickly swallowed by construction, blurring familiar lines of division.

The United States, Britain and France formally surrendered their occupation sectors and withdrew their garrisons only with Berlin’s reunification. But the memory of the three victor powers - the fourth, the Soviet Union held sway in the east - lives on in street names they left behind like Dickensweg, Clayallee or Avenue Charles de Gaulle.

As West Berlin lost its privileges, the former GDR sucked up subsidies for reconstruction, leading to the relative decline of the west that is now being stemmed with refurbishment projects like glamorous “Bikini Berlin”, a 1950s landmark by the zoo.

“The pendulum has now swung back,” said Beutelschmidt.

For Chong, the restorations of “City West” are too chic. Her group swaps snaps from family albums of old favorite haunts and she celebrates the way Kreuzberg, the Turkish quarter, has kept its West Berlin identity while turning outrageously hip.

The reappraisal of West Berlin is partly down to what some consider an excessive focus on the GDR in anniversaries set to continue next year with the 25th anniversary of reunification.

In a poll by Infratest, 54 percent of people in the west and 51 percent in the east said they had enough of GDR history, though they still believed it should be taught in schools.

Nor has the old east-west rivalry died out. “I don’t like Ossies and can’t stand being around them,” said west Berlin native Monika Bruecker. “They’re different and strange.”

But a generation that has grown up since the Wall no longer differentiates and a recent poll suggested that more than half the city of 3.5 million simply consider themselves Berliners.

“It’s a shame it’s all over. But everyone gets to feel like that from a certain age,” said Chong.

Additional reporting by Emma Anderson and Erik Kirschbaum; Writing by Stephen Brown; editing by Ralph Boulton