“Paris is Paris, but Berlin is still becoming Berlin.”
This is a French saying our tour guide shared with us today; it pretty much summarises what we saw of Berlin during the 4 hour walking tour we did of the city. Berlin certainly seems to be reinventing itself at the moment, with cranes visible across the skyline in every direction and the sounds of earthworks and construction a constant background presence. Having seen a bit more of Berlin today our lasting impression is that this is not a beautiful city (there’s too many communist-era toilet block apartment complexes, empty shells of buildings covered in graffiti and construction sites for it to be beautiful), but it’s certainly an interesting one.
It seems that reinvention is not a new thing in Berlin; this city has been many things in its 800 year history and as every city leader and national ruling faction has tried to put its stamp on Germany and Berlin, so the city has been repeatedly torn down and rebuilt; it’s been added to and reinvented so many times even in the past 200 years that the city has no consistent architectural style or homogeneity about it. But that, I guess, is its style. The 1930’s buildings constructed by the Third Reich sit alongside 18th century mansions and townhouses (now apartment buildings) and across from communist-era plattenbeaus, each a testament to some of Berlin’s chequered past.
Our walking tour was like a trip backwards through history, from modern Berlin around the new hauptbahnhof (translation = central train station), past a constructions sites that promise to one day be new, flashy shopping complexes, hotels and/or apartment buildings; and on to the Holocaust Memorial. The Berlin Holocaust Memorial consists of 2,711 of cement blocks, all of different heights, laid out across a paved 5 acres parcel of land in the centre of Berlin. It resembles some kind of stark, other-worldly cemetery, though exactly what the memorial is supposed to represent has never been explained by its designer, Peter Eisenmen. Like many artists, it seems he was seeking for observers to experience the memorial for themselves and come up with their own interpretation of its significance.
From the Holocaust Memorial we walked with our guide to a carpark, around which towered the grey, unassuming towers of an old East German plattenbeau. Below our feet, we were told, used to be Hilter’s bunker, from which he directed Germany’s war efforts for the last months of WWII. It was interesting to hear form our guide that when the Russian forces entered Berlin in 1945 they found Hitler’s partially charred body beside that of his partner, Eva Braun, set alight by German soldiers after the pair committed suicide, as per Hitler’s commands. Apparently, however, the KGB then fed the CIA misinformation about Hitler having escaped to “keep them busy” (the Russians only revealed the truth about Hitlers death in 1977). This explains why there were rumours for so long about Hitler having survived the war! The bunker has since been destroyed and buried beneath the car park of an assuming apartment building, which is perhaps a reflection of how those aspects of WWII are best remembered.
Travelling a little further back through time we went to see the former Nazi Airfoce headquarters, an imposing grey granite building in what used to be East Berlin. The building was never bombed during WWII, something many believe was intentional on the Allies behalf, as Churchill and Hitler had made deals under the table to leave certain key buildings in London and Berlin intact. When East Germany became a communist state the building was converted into the offices of the Communist Party “House of Ministries” – yet another ignominious purpose for this rather ugly building.
It was in front of this building that mass protests were held on 16 June 1933 as East German workers protested the new work norms ordered by Stalin (in short the principle ‘more work for the same salary’). More than 25,000 workers gathered in protest that day; 513 of which were killed by soldiers ordered to fire into the crowds at random. A further 106 people were later condemned to death, 1,838 were injured, and 5,100 arrested. Today there is a large photograph of the protesters outside the building, with a plaque commemorating that day. The photograph shows men standing together looking afraid but resolute. The photos certainly tells a different story to the mural which stands nearby, along the wall of the building. The mural was painted in 1952 as a depiction of how wonderful life under communism was. This colourful piece of propaganda makes life under communist rule seem far more idyllic!
By all accounts the former “House of Ministries” building was hated by many East Germans and represented what they despised about their communist masters. How inappropriate (or perhaps appropriate?), then that the building today houses the German Tax Department!
Continuing our walking tour we then went to see the remnants of Checkpoint Charlie – once the third checkpoint in a series of checkpoints set up along the East/West Berlin border during the Cold War. Checkpoint Charlie was designated as the single crossing point where foreigners (i.e. non-Germans) and members of the Allied forces could cross into East Germany. As the most visible Berlin Wall checkpoint, Checkpoint Charlie was frequently featured in spy movies and books; since its deactivation in 1990, this spot has also featured extensively in people’s photos. Checkpoint Charlie is today a very silly tourist attraction, complete with fake “guards” dressed in pseudo-army uniforms that you can have your photo taken with, for a fee. From our perspective it seems almost sacrilegious to trivialise something that historically represented so much hope and pain for people – especially when you think about how many people died trying to get across the barrier between East and West.
The best part of Checkpoint Charlie is the memorial nearby that recounts some of the stories from people who made it across the East/West divide (apparently some 5,000 people did make it across the Berlin Wall). There are stories of people who built hot air ablloons in their attics and flew them across; stories of people who launched ziplines across from nearby buildings and hurtled through the air across to the other side; and even the story of a guy from West Berlin whose fiancee was trapped in East Berlin when the wall went up who bought a very low-to-the ground sports car and a day pass to East Berlin so he could pick up his fiancee and smuggle her out of the East by driving under the boom gates of Checkpoint Charlie (after which the boom gates were apparently lowered significantly!). I guess these stories appeal to us, even today, because they represent the hopes and courage of the East Germans who wanted so desperately to be free that they were willing to risk everything to escape across the border into West Berlin. It must have been so strange for West Berliners to live in a capitalist, democratic town that was like an enclosed island, knowing that just on the other side of the wall, life for former friends and workmates was so very different.
On a personal level we have no illusions about democracy and capitalism being perfect, nor that any of us are truly free of machinations of politicians and power-brokers, but at least in Aus we have the freedom to be our own people, to live as we want to and to be as much, or as little, as we want to. Personally I think that, as much as communist ideology appeals on paper, I just don’t believe human nature is (as yet) equipped to see it applied. The socialism we saw at work in Scandinavia is probably the closest thing we’ve seen to the Marxist ideals that were (supposedly) the foundation for communism in the 20th century. There at least the idea of “for the good of all” seems to have found some traction. Not that either of us are experts on the issue, by any means, but it does appear that the gap between ideology and reality can sometimes we a vast gaping chasm, bridged only by lies and hypocrisy. No where is this gap more apparent than here in Berlin, where there are reminders everywhere of how, in a country based on ideals of equality for all, some were so much more “equal” than others
After a history- and emotion-ladened morning like that we needed break, so we had a break and some lunch (which, you’ll be happy to know, consisted of the classic Berlin curry-wurst in a bun). After lunch the tour continued on to the much older parts of Berlin, to see what remains of Berlin – capital of the Prussian empire. First stop, of course, was the Brandenburg Gate.
The Brandenburg Gate was first built in 1788 to memorialise the hard-won peace fought for by Prussia during the Thirty Years’ War. Atop the gate was originally a statue of Eirene, the Roman Goddess of Peace, riding a chariot drawn by 4 horses. However, after defeating the Prussians in battle, the statue was subsequently stolen by the French in the early 1800s and taken to Paris. When the Prussians then defeated the French in a subsequent battle in 1814, the statue was reclaimed and returned to Berlin, this time recharacterised as Victoria, the Goddess of Victory! The statue has remained in Berlin ever since and is today the iconic symbol of Berlin.
The Brandenburg Gate is one of only a few 18th and 19th century edifices left standing and/or reconstructed in Berlin. Most of the historical buildings, palaces and churches of Berlin were destroyed during WWI and/or WWII. And, as most of them ended up in East Berlin after Germany was divided amongst the Allies, few were rebuilt during the 1960s or 1970s. One exception to this was the historical Hamboldt University. This 200 year old university was once Germany’s premier educational institute and was where Albert Einstein once taught physics, before leaving for the USA. The university was rebuilt by the Russians during their occupation of East Germany because Stalin had studied there.
Out front of the university, in the square, was where the infamous Nazi book burnings on the 1930s occurred. Here 20,000 books from the university’s library were burnt. Books selected for destruction were any by Jewish authors, any by gay authors, or any touting peace, tolerance or equality amongst the races. A monument to the books burning is in the center of the square, consisting of a glass panel opening onto an underground white room of empty shelves – enough room for 20,000 books. Next to the glass panel is an epigraph from an 1820 work by Heinrich Heine that reads “Where they burn books, they ultimately burn people“.
Rebuilt in the 1990s, post-reunification are the twin cathedrals and the Berlin Concert Hall in Gendarmenmarkt Platz. The cathedrals were built in 1705 by French Huguenots (i.e. French Protestants), who were invited to Berlin by King Fredrick I when they were kicked out of France on the basis of their religious. The new French migrants built the 2 churches, one for the French and one for their new German friends, as a thank you. It is estimated that at the time, due to decimation of the Berlin population by war, the new migrants made up 20% of the population*.
*It’s interesting, reading the history of Berlin, to see how multicultural this city has been historically, and still is today. The city has long had a history of racial and religious tolerance and was a refuge for many groups over the centuries. Amongst its citizens today it is estimated that 1 in 3 Berliners can trace their roots back to a migrant. The largest migrant groups n the city today are fromFrance, Poland, The Czech Republic, Austria and/or Turkey. Knowing now that Berlin has had such a long history of multiculturalism, it makes it even more tragic that it was then used as the central base of the racist Third Reich.
Also rebuilt in the 1990s were the many historical buildings that make up Museum Island and the Berlin Cathedral. Museum Island is essentially and island in the middle of the River Spree which once housed numerous official buildings belonging to the Royal Court of Prussia. Most of those buildings have been restored and are now museums; such as the Altes Museum (Old Museum), which contains an extensive set of displays dedicated to German history and culture. There’s also the Pergamon Museum which contains wonders from the ancient world (including the Pergamon Alter and the Ishtar Gate, relics from ancient Babylon taken by German archaeologists in the 19th century), and the National Art Gallery of Germany. Our walking tour took us through Museum Island, though we didn’t stop to visit any of the museums (save that for another day maybe).
Final stop on the walking tour was Berlin Cathedral. First built in 1451, this cathedral was rebuilt a few times with its current Baroque appearance dating back to 1750. It is the central Protestant cathedral of Germany and reconstruction (after its destruction in WWII) was only completed in 1993. Our tour ended here and, left now to our own devices, we decided to tour the cathedral, the crypt below and to climb the dome for some great views over the city. The cathedral itself was fantastically ornate and beautifully reconstructed.
The crypt below houses the remains of Prussia’s ruling family, the Hohenzollern’s, who were first the rulers of the state of Brandenburg (1415-1700), then of the Kingdom of Prussia (1701-1870), and, finally, of the unified German Empire (1871-1918). It was a little macabre, wandering past ornate caskets that are hundreds of years old, knowing we were surrounded by the remains of Prussia’s kings and queens, emperors and empresses.
Less creepy and far more awe-inspiring was the view of Berlin from the dome of the cathedral. From here we could see across the river towards the ultra-modern western parts of Berlin, and over the historical centre of the city where there are more constructions cranes than buildings. This biggest restoration project currently being undertaken is Stadtschloss (translation = the City Palace) once the centre of the Prussian Empire. The palace was severely damaged during WWII and then razed by the Russians after the war. It is currently being rebuilt, in a project that is estimated to cost 600 million Euros and take 7 years. That is one ambitious project!
With all the rebuilding and booming creative and technology sectors attracting thousands of new migrants into the city from around the world, it certainly feels like Berlin is still becoming Berlin. It feels like we could come back and visit the city in another 5 years, and then 5 years after that, and each time it would be different. New buildings will have been built; old ones torn down or restored; new train lines laid down; and entire districts reinvented. In all honesty Berlin has been a bit of a surprise – this is not a “touristy” city, nor is it a “pretty” city, but it definitely feels like somewhere we could live – where we could be part of the reinvention. And who wouldn’t want to live in the city that invented the jam-filled doughnut?!