Thursday, September 5, 2013

Berlin: Remembering History

The first time I came to Berlin was on a fleeting visit during a study tour so I am excited to be back.  We have another AIRBNB experience waiting for us and we catch the metro and make our way easily to Gritta’s apartment.  She welcomes us in and shows us to a nice spacious room.  However, this is not her home.  Gritta uses the apartment as her office and rents out the two spare bedrooms, which give her some added income.  There is a kitchen we can use and our room comes with an ensuite, which is perfect!  All this for less than what a cheap hotel would cost in Berlin – we can’t complain! 

Berlin is Germany’s largest city, located on the River Spree and has over 3.3 million people.  Which means this city is big and has all the conveniences that come with big city living.  Of course most of us are familiar with its turbulent past and the separation of this city into East and West Berlin by the Berlin Wall built in 1961 to finally put a stop to German immigration to the West after WWII.  I still remember the day I heard the wall came down.  It was 1989, I was living in Berkeley at the time and we had only just been through the San Francisco earthquake! 

The City became the capital of all Germany in 1990, after the reunification of Germany.  Today, it is once more a very cosmopolitan city, drawing visitors and residents from many parts of the world. 
However, it is not a city that has divorced its past.  Rather, reminders of the war and museums about the atrocities that were committed are everywhere.  I sometimes wonder if this is partly the reason for the burden that Germans still carry with them today – it is impossible to walk around Berlin and not stumble on a war memorial or museum eventually. 

For the first time on our travels we felt a little lost in this city.  There are many different types of train and bus travel in the city.  There was the U Bahn, the S Bahn, the trams and buses, all of which criss-crossed each other, making it quite a nightmare to get from A to B.  So – we relented and did what the usual tourist might do on their first day in Berlin – Take a Hop on, Hop off bus tour!!  As it turned out, this was a really good way to get oriented to the city.  It was only a little more expensive than the day pass for public transport and we could get to the interesting sights more efficiently and quickly!

We catch the bus at Alexanderplatz, a square that was of significance even in the Middle Ages.  The Allies destroyed much of this square during the Second World War and since then Soviet architecture has dominated the square.  They built a huge TV Tower – one of the largest structures in Europe – complete with a revolving restaurant makes a statement loud and clear.  The Fountain of International Friendship and the World Clock are two other structures that also add to the architecture. 

We stumble on an exhibition on the life of Willy Brandt at our first stop.

It was an inspiriting story of a man who had left Germany in 1933 when the Nazis took power.  He lived in exile and was involved in underground work until the end of World War II, before returning to his homeland in 1947.  He later went on to be the Mayor of Berlin as well as Chancellor of West Germany.  He was an incredible public speaker and one of his more famous quotes is:

“That the name of Germany and the concept of peace could once again be mentioned in the same breadth.”

However, perhaps what he is most remembered for was falling down to his knees during a commemoration of the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943.  He uttered no words, but this silent act of profound apology spoke a thousand words and went a long way toward healing the wounds of many survivors in both Poland and Germany.  I am reminded of Australia’s history and the huge debates over whether a Prime Minister should utter the word ‘Sorry’ on behalf of a nation.  Willy
Brandt’s act was a spontaneous one and while there was debate about whether he should or should not have done what he did, the act itself has left an indelible memory in the minds of those who witnessed it. 

We keep walking to the Berliner Dom.  It’s a beautiful and ornate baroque cathedral that was built in the late nineteenth century, and is located on an island on the River Spree.  We learn that the current building is actually the third construction on this site and that the first far more modest church was actually built in 1465.  But what catches my eye is the open-air exhibition outside.  I learn that 2013 is the 80th anniversary of the Nazi rise to power (30 Jan 1933) and the 75th anniversary of the 1938 November Pograms (sanctioned violence).  The 2013 Theme Year Open Exhibition is commemorating the destruction of the cultural diversity at the hands of the Nazis.  Berlin till then had been recognised as a global city.  Unfortunately, this reputation was rudely shattered by the events that followed. 

I pick up a brochure at the exhibition and read that in the late 1920’s Berlin had been the world’s third largest city, a diverse metropolis of culture and science.  People from all over the world had flocked to this city and in the aftermath of the November Pograms, many of these people were driven into exile, deported or murdered.   I am mesmerised by their stories and struck by the reality of how many exceptionally talented people were destroyed by the Nazi regime.   We are all familiar with the stories of the persecution of the Jews but these personal stories of people striving to achieve perfection in their art brings home the theme – Diversity Destroyed – in a very real way.  The exhibition pops up at various places in the city, pillars that include a large portrait of these artists, scientists, sports men and women, describing their stories in both English and German.  They ask that you stop and connect with their lives, mostly forgotten by history but now brought to life briefly, to remind us more clearly of what happened during this period. 

We get back on the bus and hop off at the Bradenburg Gate.  It is exciting to be at this historic location that is not just a symbol of the turbulent past of both Europe and Germany but also a symbol of unity and peace.  In fact the Gate was originally built in the 18th century by the King of Prussia as a symbol of peace and historically it was part of the old city wall and the main entrance to Berlin.  After the partition of Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate was right on the border (inside the Russian sector) and became the symbol of a divided Germany.  Once the wall fell, Germans flocked to the gate to celebrate and the Gate was then the symbol of unification and the centre of celebrations. 

It is buzzing with activity when we get there and we find a group of Iranians engaged in a hunger strike holding centre stage.  They are trying to bring to light the plight of dozens of Iranians being held hostage by the current regime.  The protest reminds us that conflict is still alive in many parts of the world and the Gate remains an important symbol for all nationalities living in Germany. 

Our next stop is Potsdamer Platz, which became one of the largest building sites in the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The wall bisected the area and it became a wasteland during the Cold War era – a ‘no-man’s land’.  I know this square well as I visited it during my ‘Water Sensitive Cities’ tour of Europe.  The project we visited was a wonderful example of harvesting rainwater for internal uses such as flushing toilets as well as irrigation and fire fighting.  At the time, we had taken an elevator to the top of one of these buildings and looked down on hundreds of green rooftops.   

Today, I find myself at the Sony Centre.  I had not been here previously and I am quite amazed at the scale of this construction.   A large TV screen keeps the visitors entertained while a couple of agile girls perform acrobatics from ropes that dangle down from the roof.  It is a bustling place, while my memory of my previous visit was of a rather deserted square.  We walk outside and find a green embankment built out of the rubble of the wall.  Some of the corridor along which the Berlin wall was located has been retained as urban green-space.  Young people lie here enjoying the warmth of the sun, lost in the enjoyment of a summer’s day.  Not far away, another pop up exhibition springs up as a reminder of history.   

We hop back on the bus and hop off at the Topography of Terror - an indoor and outdoor museum in Berlin.  It is located in a building that is on the site of the Gestapo and the SS headquarters.   Allied
bombing mostly destroyed the buildings that housed the headquarters and the ruins were demolished after the war, so the actual buildings are not visible today.  The museums are an education of what took place during this time and we feel quite shaken after this visit. 

We are standing on what was once the boundary between the American and Soviet zones of occupation.  In fact, the largest section of the outer Berlin Wall, which was never demolished, is right here and so we spend a fair bit of time absorbing the exhibition and reflecting on what life might have been like in this part of the world, both before and in the aftermath of the war. 

This part of Berlin is full of reminders of history.  We walk up to Check Point Charlie, the best-known Berlin Wall crossing during the Cold War.  After the Second World War, the British, Americans, French and the Soviets divided Germany into 4 parts.  Eventually, the Soviet section became the German Democratic Republic (GDR) while the western sections became the Federal Republic of Germany (FDR).  However, until 1961 there was always free movement between East and West Berlin and thousands of East Berliners fled to the more prosperous west.  It was to put an end to this brain drain from East to West Germany, that the authorities constructed the wall.  

It is a little eerie to be at Check Point Charlie, which has become a huge tourist attraction today.  We sit in a café across the street and watch tourists posing for photographs with guards who carry the American flag.  It seems like a flippant exercise in a place where people lost their lives, trying to escape captivity in the East. 

On our last day in Berlin, we visit the Holocaust memorial, dedicated to the 6 million Jews that died at the hands of the Nazi regime, on the 60th anniversary of their fall.  Architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold have designed this project.  Located just a short distance from where Hitler’s bunker is buried, the memorial reminds me of a large nameless graveyard.  It is made of 2,711 stone slabs, all of varying dimensions but with no markings, on ground that is undulating.  The idea of the memorial is to cause a sense of disorientation and to create a sense of unease in those who visit.  An underground visitor centre houses an exhibition with the personal stories of Jews that were murdered and the names of murdered Jews are read aloud.  

We have certainly got a huge dose of history during this visit to Berlin.  

We spend the rest of the afternoon in a café and find ourselves in Gendarmenmarkt on our last night in Berlin.  It is one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, bordered by three magnificent buildings: the Konzerthaus (Concert House) and 2 Cathedrals.  People sit in the square enjoying the balmy summer weather and relaxing over a glass of wine.  Someone plays music to entertain the visitors.  We walk around, taking photos in the perfect light created by the setting sun.  

Tomorrow we will leave for Prague…

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