Is there any more helpless sight than that of a train you should still be on streaking away from you as you stand upon the platform at the wrong station? After six months on the road it is possible that Emma and I are getting a little too relaxed when it comes to our travel movements. We jumped on the train in Denmark and got off when we saw a station sign that said Berlin. Except it wasn’t the right Berlin. Sigh.
Fortunately, the station at which we alighted was on the outskirts of the Berlin metro and so all was soon well and we were whizzing our way through town on the ‘S-bahn’ towards our Airbnb apartment. Which we didn’t leave until nearly 2.00pm the next day. It was one of those ‘what’s the rush’ kind of days. Eventually we made it out the door and headed for the only real Berlin attraction Emma and I had stored away in our brains. The Berlin Wall.
The Wall of course is well known, but if you’re anything like me you probably only have a fairly rudimentary understanding of what went on here and why. It’s such a privilege to have the chance to peruse the various museums here and then wander around the sites where history unfolded.
The wall sprung up literally overnight back in 1961 as former allies turned enemies. It was an attempt by the Soviets to stem the tide of people flowing from east to west as people voted with their feet for which ideology the preferred to live within. Families and friends going about their daily lives were irrevocably divided overnight. Footage of people calling and waving to each other over the wall but unable to get to each other is heartbreaking.
Things got really interesting for a while in September 1961. A dispute erupted over whether East German guards were authorized to examine the travel documents of a U.S. diplomat who thought a night at the opera in the east might be pleasant. The allies didn’t think much of that and rolled a few tanks up to the border at ‘Checkpoint Charlie’. The Soviets responded in kind and each then preceded to stare at each other down their gun sights, a hairs breadth from rolling on into World War III.
Checkpoint Charlie today is a replica of the original which was dismantled long ago. It has been built for tourists seeking a taste of the Cold War era atmosphere. It works too. Take a look at a photo of the tanks staring each other at the nearby Blackbox Museum, then look down the road at the recreated Checkpoint Charlie and your imagination can do the rest. It’s palpable and fascinating and cheesy all at once.
Equally fascinating is the Berlin Wall itself. Only about a kilometre of the 150 kilometre wall is left, but it’s enough. Enough to feel rather than necessarily understand the impact the division of east and west must have had when it was thrust up in 1961. Of course the wall quickly became the focal point for the clash of ideologies and came to represent the ensuing ‘Cold War’. A large part of what’s left of the Wall is now an ‘art gallery’ decorated with colourful graffiti. Along with much of the rest of Berlin I might add. Graffiti is almost everywhere you go.
It might have something to do with the fact that the Berlin local government is pretty much bankrupt and can’t afford to clean up the mess. ‘Berlin. Poor but Sexy’ adorns T-shirts across the city. It’s a quote from the previous Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit that clearly hit a nerve with the locals. Apparently they owe more than 69 billion euros and the German Federal Government has refused to bail them out. I found Berlin fantastic, but a little scruffy. Maybe that’s why.
We were told if you talk to the locals you’ll find that World War II and the Cold War are chapters in history they would prefer to forget. Hence why there is so little Wall now left standing. Talk to the tourists and you get the feel that a little more Wall wouldn’t be a bad thing. It’s a difficult heritage.
Berlin seems to have more than its fair share of difficult heritage. ‘Paris will always be Paris, but Berlin will never be Berlin’, so one saying goes. It was bombed to oblivion during World War II. 80% of buildings were destroyed and so most of the city is relatively new. A few war era buildings still stand. They’re easy to spot. Just look for bullet holes in the facades. The current owners are apparently keen to knock them down and start again, but the tourists want them left alone because of their historical significance.
Difficult heritage is in fact almost everywhere you look. On the pavement scattered throughout the city are ‘Stumbling stones’ – little bronze plaques of which there are now 27,000 found all over Europe. Each one has the name of a victim of the Nazi Holocaust and the name of the place where they died. We could recognise some of the concentration camp names. The plaques appear outside the homes of the victims, and the project has become the single biggest Holocaust memorial in Germany. It is one way modern day Germany is seeking to reconcile the past.
Then there is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, just a stones throw from the Reichstag (Parliament) building and covering an area of several city blocks. It’s the largest monument to an historical event I’ve come across and is indicative of efforts to put the past to rest.
We took all this in on a ‘Fat Tire Tours – Third Reich Tour’ of Berlin. We’d highly recommend it. I love their Mission Statement, ‘Walking is Stupid’. Even if I don’t agree! It covered some pretty heavy history. Enough to totally fascinate Emma and I and enough to introduce the events of World War II to Amy and Oliver, while combining it with bike riding which is just fun no matter what you’re looking at!
As well as passing by parts of the modern city we would never otherwise have seen, we visited the courtyard where Claus Schenk Graf Von Strausenberg was executed for his failed plot to assassinate Hitler (there’s a movie about it with Tom Cruise called Valkyrie); the still standing headquarters of the Luftwaffe (now the tax office); a pock marked concrete bomb raid shelter with walls four metres thick; the remaining wall of the World War II era Berlin central train station from which Berlin’s Jews (and others like political prisoners) were deported to their horrendous fate; and the courtyard in which the infamous Nazi book burning took place.
The tour finished up at a most innocuous looking carpark. Gravelled, without gutters, unkempt edges and ordinary coppers log bollards. You’d walk right past it over and over again without thinking about it once, let alone twice. It is just plain unremarkable. What lies below however is the bunker in which Hitler and Eva Braun took their lives as the allies closed in on them in the final days of the war.
A skip-bin sits atop the approximate location of the room below where they met their fate and a small, inconspicuous interpretive board marks the site of the bunker complex. It is history not to be celebrated just as it is not to be forgotten. There are other ways to come to terms with the past like the memorial and plaques mentioned earlier.
On a cheerier note, the beer in the ‘biergarten’ at lunch time was magnificent. As was the performance by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, staged free of charge somewhere in the centre of downtown one evening. We parked ourselves on the pavement along with maybe 10,000 others and listened happily while the orchestra belted out Beethoven’s 3rd symphony, feeling very cultured all the while.
The orchestral performance was just down the road from the Berlin Amplemann shop. The Berlin Amplemann being the pedestrian traffic light symbol used by the east Berliners during the years of separation while the west adopted a much more mundane character. After re-unification the west’s figure took over the city until the more beloved, attractive and just generally better little eastern guy made a comeback. Some clever entrepreneur then went to town on merchandising and you can now buy everything from Amplemann cookie cutters to playing cards and everything in between.
For years now Amy, Oliver and I have been crossing roads mimicking the pose of the local Amplemann for wherever we were. Emma usually rolls her eyes at us during these times and pretends she’s not with us. The east Berlin Amplemann is undoubtedly the best of them all and so we just had to have T-shirts. I think it’s the first souvenir I’ve purchased in six months.
Berlin is a moving city. So much history, so much of it difficult, and all recent enough to live fresh in the memory. Maybe if you are a resident the Cold War and World War II are not front of mind as they were for us during our three days. We were however told by our tour guide, now a Berlin local, that it’s not too far below the surface either. Time heals, but more time is needed.
Of course there is far more to Berlin than just the Cold War and the Nazis. It’s just that three days is not enough to take it all in, especially when you don’t leave the apartment until after lunch some days. Still, it’s nice to have something in mind for a return visit and our Berlin to do list is almost as long as the London one!