Berlin came full of surprises for me. Despite having read the guide books, I was unprepared, mentally, for the newness, the raw edge to the city, and what seemed an architecturally sterile atmosphere.
Intellectually, I knew most of the city had been rebuilt after being
bombed to smithereens in WWII, and what the Allied bombers didn’t destroy in the eastern end of the city, the East Germans finished by leveling huge swathes of land to create a “dead zone” around the Berlin Wall. I am no big fan of post-WWII architecture, so the modern architecture of Berlin, coupled with the remaining Soviet-style,
block-buildings of former East Berlin, left me unimpressed. With some lovely exceptions, the area in which we stayed in the former East Berlin was all constructed within the last 20-30 years. Nearby Alexanderplatz, the “most visited spot in Berlin”, according to one guide, truly reflects the East German-style: an all concrete plaza surrounded by concrete block buildings — very sterile.
Thankfully, much of “old” Berlin survived both the Allied bombs and the former DDR (East Germany). The Brandenburg Gate reigns magnificently at the eastern end of the beautiful Tiergarten, the Reichstag has been restored and amplified with a glass dome, and Charlottenburg still retains its old world charm.
We spent a lot of time just walking around the city, occasionally taking
the S and U Bahn trains to the further sections, although we also did the usual tourist “thing” by taking both a city bus tour as well as river boat tour. Both were interesting and informative, and we engaged in some spirited conversation with both an American expat and a young German student whose knowledge of U.S. history and current politics was
No visit to Berlin would be complete without at least stopping by Checkpoint Charlie, the mosst famous of the former border gates between the U.S. sector and East Berlin. For those of you who remember the television footage of the days leading to the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, much of the crowds from West Berlin had gathered either at Checkpoint Charlie or the section of the Wall next to the Brandenburg Gate. Tall murals line the sidewalks of several streets coming into Checkpoint Charlie, telling the story of the division of Berlin following WWII, the Soviet domination of East Germany, the crisis over the construction of the Wall, and highlighting several of the East Germans who lost their lives trying to escape to the West.
Checkpoint Charlie itself seems almost a child’s playhouse, it is so small. The white clapboard hut stands by itself in the median of a busy Berlin street. At first glance I thought it was still being manned by U.S. military personnel, but then I realized that the individuals dressed in imitations of U.S. WWII uniforms were just more street “actors” trying to skim a Euro or two off the tourists by posing for pictures in front of the guardhouse. More on this form of “entertainment” later.
We did spend one afternoon strolling through the largely residential
section of western Berlin known as Charlottenburg. This large neighborhood was once the heart of old West Berlin, but lost its popularity to the novelty of East Berlin shortly after the Wall came down. It is still a
popular residential and shopping district for those who can afford it, and much of its charm (to me)is due to the fact that it was less heavily bombed than the central and eastern sectors of the city, and thus retains a great number of architecturally historical buildings. Among the loveliest is the 17-18th century Charlottenburg Palace with its formal gardens and acres of attached woodlands along the River Spree. The Schloss (castle or palace) was originally intended as a summer residence by Queen Sophie Charlotte, wife of Prussia king Frederick I; as you can see, the good queen’s intentions swiftly grew out of hand.
One museum I feel is worth recommending to any of you planning trips to Berlin. The fairly new “Topography of Terror” museum is a block away from Checkpoint Charlie. It is free and has exhibits both inside and
outside, where they incorporate a bit of the former Wall into the exterior exhibits. The interior exhibits, in both German and English, start the tale of “terror” by detailing the rise of Nazism, the developments of the camps, on through the end of WWII and the prosecution of several Nazi war criminals. I was impressed at how this museum’s exhibits did not at all shy away from the issue of citizen complicity in the Nazi witch hunts of first their political enemies, then the long list of “undesirables”, from Jews to gypsies, homosexuals and the mentally disabled.
The effect of the exhibits was overwhelming and, quite frankly, we could not absorb it all in just a couple of hours. It will definitely be on my list of places to revisit upon a return to Berlin. I walked away with the sense
that in this museum, at least, Germany was not going to let the past be swept under the rug. And the horrors of the Nazi “terror” was not lost on the visitors. In looking around at the mostly German crowd, or eavesdropping on any conversations, you could see the shock and revulsion in virtually each visitor’s face or in their strained whispers.
And the photographs were not graphic; it was the text of the exhibits,
simply laying out fact after fact, that seemed to stun and overwhelm the crowds, as it did me.
In reflecting about our experiences in Berlin, I found that I was a lot more comfortable than I had thought I would be in the city and with Berliners. Berlin is definitely a young city and a city for young people.
Forty-five percent of the population is single, and much of the city’s
buildings are less than 20 years old. To me there definitely was a progressive vibe, a sense of moving forward, of young people saying, “This is our world, we are taking it from here. Yes, we as Germans have a horrible 20th century history. But that is our parents’ and grandparents’ history – not ours. We will not deny the past, but Berlin is our future and we are moving forward, not living in the past.” And I really can’t argue with that.