In between leaving Sweden and arriving in Australia, we spent 3 weeks crossing Europe. Our journey lead us through familiar places like Paris, stunningly beautiful areas in Switzerland and Provence and a last remnant of the Holy Roman Empire. Before sinking into the sun and warmth of southern France and Northern Italy however, we visiting a city more marked by history than most others we’ve seen, and absolutely unlike any other: Berlin.
What do you think of when you picture Berlin? The Wall? Checkpoint Charlie? The alternative scene? The crumbling Reichstag with a flag waving from the ruins? These aspects can all be found, in fact it can be difficult to avoid the ambulance chaser view of history, gawking at the scars and horrors that are left on show, for the benefit of locals and visitors. At least that was the impression I got as we spent our days on the streets, and I’ll get into some of those literal scars later.
Much of our first impression was formed by the place we stayed, and the neighbourhood we were based. The lovely, high ceilinged and artistically decorated apartment in Neukölln (breakfast included!) was an example of the two-faced feeling of Berlin. The creaky stairs, moulded cornices and antique furniture seemed to be from a pre-War world, but the graffiti, hipsters and constant feeling of newness and change told a different story. We didn’t spend much time in Neukölln, but it seemed as though gentrifiction was well under way, the formerly lawless borough sheddding gangs for hipster cafes and bars.
From the trendy outskirts of the city, it was an easy metro ride to the centre, and a short walk down Unter den Linden to one of the symbols of Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate, sitting between banks and embassies, is the only remnant of the old monuments in the square that it dominates. Under the eyes of the foreign embassies and behind the endless selfying crowds it’s still tall and imposing, the quadriga with the goddess of Peace posing defiantly on top. Displays showed the wreckage after the War, with only the Gate standing and in photos from later years it peeped over the top of the Wall, part of a no man’s land. Either because of what it is or what it symbolises, it’s become enmeshed in the history of the city. Which also makes it a great place to start free tours.
We joined one of these on our second day, following a former tourist turned local like ducklings around the city. After a history of the Gate, we were taken to the Michael Jackson Baby Dangling Hotel (do a quick google if you’ve forgotten this sadly historic moment), and then continued the theme of tragedy, triumph and contemplation. We went to the carpark that now stands over the bunker where Hitler died, past a former Third Reich ministry building turned Gestapo headquarters and now tax office, graffiti strewn remnants of the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is a large area full of concrete pylons, the ground sloping down as they grow taller, and you feel as though you are lost in a forest of concrete, while at the same time able to see a way out.
The guide prompted a surprisingly serious discussion for a free tour, which seemed to me a part of the weight that Germany has carried for all these years. The tour ended at Bebelplatz, somewhere that I have had in my mind to visit for as long as I’ve known about it. It was where 20,000 books were burned in May 1933, and for me is always associated with the Heinrich Heine quote,
“That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”
Under the square is a memorial, a room of empty bookshelves to symbolise those destroyed that day, as fitting a memorial to the death of ideas as I can think of.
The tour also opened our eyes to signs of history that had been before us the whole time. At every street crossing, the shape of the green/amber/red men differed depending on what side of the wall the crossing had been on while the Wall had stood. Politics aside, I think the one of the East side looked more fun. The dividing line and occasionally remnants of the Wall also became more obvious, appearing as a brick line running across streets and through pavements, so easy to miss that it was hard to imagine the size and disruption it caused.
No doubt there were other signs, but these were the only ones I saw that showed where the city had been divided not so many years ago.
As so much of the city had been destroyed in the War, there are many areas that have an almost sterile feeling, a newness that seemed strange in such an old place where people were trying to look ahead rather than backwards. One place where this was not the case was the Museum island, where we went as soon as possible. I’d been looking forward to seeing the Pergamon Altar for a while, but due to renovations it was closed. As we walked around the island we saw why renovations might be needed. Along one column lined walkway, round holes had been chipped out of the stone, and on the wall behind, similar holes dotted the wall, with clear spaces in the shadows of the columns. Elsewhere holes covered entire huge walls and columns had been replaced with new stone. Even in this place war had come, perhaps not surprising when you think of the buildings in terms of survival and defense rather than refuges for antiques and history.
Inside I noticed that plaster and paint had given way to brick and stone in patches, and frescoes were partly destroyed. I asked a guard why this was, and he matter of factly told me that the museum had stood open to the elements for many years, without a roof, so snow and rain had cracked and peeled at the beautiful paintings and fine decorations.
Rather than replicate how it had looked, the museum now stands as its own exhibit, an example of the destruction of war.
While the bombs had been falling and the War was drawing closer, many of the most treasured artifacts were hidden away while others were taken by the victors. Some of those that haven’t returned are the pieces found by Heinrich Schliemann at the site of Troy, and are apparently still being held in Russia. What does remain includes the famous jewelry modeled by his wife, which is just as stunning as the old photos showed. There was some irony in the fact that the pieces now listed as stolen by Soviets were originally stolen from Turkey, but maybe not that the people at the museum enjoy.
Elsewhere there were mysterious Celtic golden hats, an exhibition about beards, heaps of wonderful ancient Greek and Roman stuff and one particular item from Egypt. You will have seen her, even if you don’t know her name. There is no picture here because photography was not allowed in her private room where, apart from a model for the vision impaired that you can touch, she stands alone. Even after more than 3000 years, Nefertiti is serene and breathtakingly beautiful. Even with only one eye, she seems supremely confident to stare down the millennia to come as she has stared down the last 3, hopefully without losing a single perfect line or blemish that gives her so much personality.
It’s fair to say I’m a little bit in love with her, but who can blame me.
We visited another museum the next day, this one looking forward rather than back at the losses of the past. The Berlin Technology Museum is wonderful, and we spent hours poking and exploring, and being far too amused by the section about jewelry production (Schmuckproduktion).
On our last day, rather than spend time in museums and galleries, we went for a long walk in Tiergarten, a huge area of forest just outside the Brandenburg gate. It was filled with joggers, picnickers, people walking their dogs and intricate gardens, following a maze of paths that twist around the forest.
In the centre, in the middle of a roundabout that lines up with the Gate, is the Victory Column, built to commemorate a Prussian victory in the 1860s.
The gold statue of Victory still stands, and the bronze reliefs that had been removed in 1945 have been restored. They are riddled with bullet holes and shell damage, the horseback soldiers missing arms, heads and legs, and the grieving or celebrating women with holes in their heads, in a sort of parody of war. It was comical, if it was not for the deaths that would have taken place there.
Elsewhere in Tiergarten is a statue of a queen, standing on a platform amid well tended gardens. Nearby is a photo of the same place in the 1940s. The statue is there, looking down, but the ground around her is a morass of mud and scraps of trees, a wasteland that standing amid the trees and peace of today seems impossible. Only 60 or so years stand between us, but if not for the shrapnel pits in the base of the statue, it would seem a different world.
This was the impression that I left Berlin with, a city that acknowledges and bears its history, both awful and proud and is looking to the future. Which seems to be a good way to live.