The D&O Diary’s European itinerary continued this past weekend with a brief visit to Berlin, Germany’s capital and largest city. With a population of about 3.4 million within its city limits, Berlin is nearly as large as Los Angeles. It is, these days, a lively and dynamic city. It is also in many ways a surprisingly beautiful city, with a beautiful river — the River Spree follows a more or less east-west course across the city — and a beautiful big green heart — the Tiergarten, a 500-acre park built by the Hohenzollerns as a hunting preserve, is at the center of the city.
For all of its urban beauty and present dynamism, it is impossible to visit Berlin without encountering the city’s complex past. It was particularly well-timed to have visited Berlin during Germany’s annual reunification celebration, as there is no better place to contemplate reunification than standing on Pariser Platz facing the Brandenburg Gate. Following the Second World War, the Gate was located in the Soviet occupation zone, so when the Berlin Wall was built, the Gate stood just within East Berlin – a fact that underscores how the Wall cut through the city like a knife. At the same time, the celebrations at the Gate when the Wall came down may be among the most vivid and inspiring events of the last century. The Gate and The Wall — one way another, one of these, the Gate or the Wall, or sometimes the Gate and the Wall, played a part in many of the most important events in the 20th Century.
The Wall is almost completely gone now. Near my hotel in Potsdamer Platz a very short stretch of the Wall is preserved, together with a photographic display showing how the Platz had been laid to waste during the Second World War and left desolate during the Cold War because the Wall bisected its former location. Other than the special display, all traces of the Wall in the immediate area and of the Platz’s former desolation have been erased. After reunification, the Platz became “Europe’s largest construction site” and ranks of tall office towers and other commercial buildings now surround it. Directly across from my hotel is the Sony Center (pictured), a huge multi-structure facility with an enormous covered central courtyard and a mix of restaurants, theaters and shops. Standing in the Platz today, it is almost impossible to imagine that The Wall was ever there and even harder to believe that it was removed such a short time ago.
Following reunification, the forces of progress and change have moved quickly in Berlin and you can certainly understand how Berliners might have wanted to leave the past behind. However, Berliners have taken deliberate steps to preserve the memory of The Wall. The accompanying picture shows one of the sections of Die Mauer (The Wall) that have been preserved. The area around Checkpoint Charlie (the crossing point for entry into the American sector of occupied Berlin) includes a number of different memorials about The Wall. The Checkpoint Charlie museum affords an interesting overview of The Wall’s history – how events at the end of the war (including the Berlin airlift), and post-war events like the nuclear arms race, the Hungarian uprising and the Cuban Missile crisis, among many other things, led to the building of The Wall.
There are of course many other complications in Berlin’s recent history. Indeed, at times, the history can be almost overwhelming. I arrived in Berlin during a tremendous rain storm, which ordinarily would have meant lousy conditions for touristing. But the downpour proved entirely appropriate for a visit to the Holocaust Memorial, located a couple of blocks south of the Gate. The dark clouds and rain provided an appropriately somber atmosphere for the hundreds of stark black stele in the memorial.
As the Holocaust memorial shows, Berliners have not shrunk from confronting the city’s complex history. Just the same, there are some memories that are still too complicated even for Berlin. It took a fair amount of detective work for me to find the former location of Hitler’s Chancellery, on Wilhelmstrasse in what was East Berlin. The location is now an enormous construction site. I did my best to figure out the location of Hitler’s bunker. A small and obscure information sign acknowledges (at the very bottom, in the last sentence on the sign) that the bunker had been located nearby, without specifying the exact spot.
I guess I can understand why there hasn’t been any effort to highlight the site’s historical importance. The danger is that the spot could become a memorial for Hitler or even a pilgrimage site for a certain type of misguided soul (not meaning to suggest anything about myself with that latter comment). It could also attract completely inappropriate tourist operations. By way of illustration, the area around Checkpoint Charlie is full of tourist-oriented shops like “Checkpoint Currywurst” and “Die Mauer Souvenirs,” and display stands where you can have your picture taken with men wearing Soviet and American Army uniforms. If the location of Hitler’s Bunker were to be more openly recognized and the site started attracting tourists, there undoubtedly would soon be stores selling Third Reich tchotchkes and stage shows offering to let you relive the Nazi experience. It could also become a focal point for a very dangerous kinds of political action. For Berliners, history includes ghosts and demons for now too dangerous to admit even into a reunified city.
After a day spent confronting Berlin’s complicated 20th century history, it was a relief on Sunday morning to take the U-Bahn (subway) to the city’s West Side to visit Schloss Charlottenburg (Charlotte’s Palace). Sophie Charlotte, the wife of Friedrich III, the Elector of Brandenburg, built the palace in the late 17th and early 18th centuries as a summer retreat, but it became the preferred residence of subsequent Hohenzollern rulers, including Charlotte’s famous grandson, Frederick the Great. The structure itself was heavily damaged during the Second World War, but it has now been beautifully restored, and its gardens, which are open to the public as a park, provide a tranquil urban oasis.
After touring the Schloss and the gardens, I then went to get a better sense of the city itself, particularly two of its justly famous avenues. Kurfürstendamm, a broad avenue lined with plane trees, runs from just to the southwest of the Tiergarten to the western end of the city. The street is lined with stores and shops. It is often compared to the Champs-Élysées, because of the trees and street’s width, but the Berlin street lacks the Parisian boulevard’s drama (there is, for example, no Arc de Triomphe or Tuilleries at the ends of the street). I think the more apt comparison is the Magnificent Mile on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. Both are commercial streets and stores lining both are almost identical – there is even a Nike Town on Kurfürstendamm. The Berlin street is visually interesting — but I am not much of a shopper, so I found it a little dull.
A more interesting place to visit is Unter den Linden, perhaps Berlin’s most famous street. The broad tree-lined boulevard runs east from the Brandenburg Gate across the River Spree. The middle stretch of the street is completely torn up for subway construction right now, but despite the construction the street was still a pleasant place to stroll on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Before reunification, Unter den Linden was entirely in East Berlin. The number of institutions and other important buildings along the avenue – including, for example, Humboldt University, the Berlin State Library, the Berlin State Opera, and the Berlin Cathedral – provides another reminder of what a devastating thing The Wall was for the city. It cut off access to the city’s historic heart.
On the day I visited, there was an art festival taking place on one of the walkways along the River Spree, at the point where the river intersects with Unter ten Linden. I sat at a sidewalk café along the walkway and watched the crowd and the river flow by while I enjoyed a plate of bratwurst, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. I found myself thinking about how just a short time ago, many of the Sunday afternoon strollers would have been unable to see the art festival or walk along the river there. They are all just Berliners now, but as I studied the faces of the passersby who were old enough, I wondered – East Berliner or West Berliner? Was this one separated from a loved one by The Wall, was that one maybe a border guard who manned a watchtower? Maybe these questions don’t matter now, or at least shouldn’t matter now. But the thought did bring home to me what a great and challenging thing reunification has been.
These observations about Berlin left me with much to ponder. About the only thing I know for sure is that two days are not nearly enough to take in fully a city as big and complex and fascinating as Berlin. I feel that in some ways, I was very unfair to the city. I deliberately focused on the city’s past, and so came away with only just enough sense of the city’s present to know that there is so much more to see and do there. Berlin has been and is again one of the world’s great cities and deserves a longer visit.
For those of you who may not have seen it because I posted it on Columbus Day, my post about my recent visit to Munich can be found here.
Bratwurst und Sauerkraut mit Kartoffeln