Sunday, 3 May 2015

Germany – The past and present of Berlin

May 1-3

On the first day of May, in many countries, workers of the world unite…by having the day off. The Czech Republic is one such country, the consequence of which is that we have a long weekend. What better way to celebrate being a worker than by… travelling rather than working!

 We thus used this three-day weekend to travel from one European capital city to visit another: Berlin. Ich bin ein Berliner and all that. If only Kennedy had had the wonders of Google Translate to realise that this translates as him describing himself as a jam doughnut… If a world leader visits in the future, they should simply say, “Ich bin Berliner,” which makes more sense.

Berlin is a city steeped in modern, turbulent history: a Cold War focal point. Much of this heritage is still visible, though the city is also trying to move on and progress into a 21st century metropolis.

Understanding Berlin as a city requires a quick history lesson. There are far more detailed sources around than my blog, though I will do my best to fill in the most vital information. Berlin was a sizeable town in Prussia/Brandenburg at the beginning of the 19th century. Within another 100 years it became the predominant city in the recently unified Germany. It was the capital during both World Wars, suffering damage and defeat both times. The Reichstag, seen below, was famously taken by Soviet troops in early May 1945.

A conference in nearby Potsdam decided what would happen to Germany post-1945. The country was split into four zones, three of which quickly merged to become West Germany. The other side, under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Union, became East Germany. To say that both were run very differently would be a gross understatement.

Berlin is in the east of the country; however, the Allies were loath to let such an important city slip entirely into Soviet hands. The capital was thus also divided in a similar way to the country. The leader of the Soviets, Joseph Stalin, saw a chance to expand his sphere of influence over the whole of Berlin. The Allies, led by President Truman, knew that inaction would be very damaging for the American dream for Europe. Berlin thus became a key battleground in the early part of the Cold War.

Stalin’s main method of attack was through blockading. Originally this was the stopping of resources entering Berlin (the Allies flew them over) to the stopping of movement across the divide through the creation of the wall.

The wall was built in 1961 and stayed as a visible barrier between the two sides of Berlin until its spontaneous dismantling in 1989. This happened after a botched announcement from the East German government to the western media, which was supposed to state that their citizens would soon be able to apply for visas. What was suggested instead was that East Germans could travel across to West Berlin. The wall guards, who were unaware of the broadcast, didn’t know what to do when armies of citizens marched up to the wall, so decided to let them through. The night was captured on TV and is a hugely proud moment for the now-unified Germany.

Some original parts of the wall still remain, though many of the walls that tourists see and selfie next to are actually part of an art project. The most ominous part of the wall is near the centre of the city, sitting under an office which was used by the East German government for torture.

Other parts of Berlin’s more sinister past have been completely destroyed: buried and inaccessible. The main one is in a neighbourhood car park. Under – quite a way under – a certain section of grass next to the cars is a bunker belonging to one Adolf Hitler. Understandably, the Germans don’t want this to have the potential to turn into a sick pilgrimage site for people who think a certain way.

New monuments have been created so that certain aspects of the past are remembered. One such example is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Looking matter-of-factly at the grey stones, it resembles a Minecraft world. Entering and walking between these towering plinths of stone, you are transported to another world. Deathly quiet and still. Cold, dark and intimidating. Colourless, anonymous and creating a feeling of helpless isolation. I can’t possibly imagine what Jewish people went through during this tragic time but I would think that some of these feelings, reflected by the memorial, would have occurred.

One other as well: occasional rays of light streaking through, possibly offering the feeling of hope. Many people are critical of the memorial but I think it does a good job as it lets you conjure up your own feelings.

This is a fairly recent monument, completed in 2006. Berlin’s most famous construction, the Brandenburg Gate, dates from a markedly different era. The lady on the top, tending to the four horses, has been called Victoria since the defeat of Napoleon. When the sun strikes at a certain time, her figure casts a shadow over a nearby building: the French Embassy. Not that Europeans hold grudges…

Other aspects of history can be seen on Museum Island, which is home to lots of artefacts from Ancient Greece and Babylonia. Of course, Berlin’s troubled recent past is never far away, demonstrated by the bullet holes in the Greek columns dating from the Battle of Berlin in May 1945.

Berlin was united, as was Germany, soon after the wall fell in 1989. Differences were, and still are, stark. The architecture ranges from Baroque in the west to brutalist in the east. Parks seem more numerous and better preserved in the west. Over time, the east will catch up with the west but as of now, there is an interesting difference between the two sides even 25 years after they merged once more. Some of the older eastern aspects, such as the Ampelmann traffic lights, are worth maintaining.

Possibly due to harbouring younger hopes of becoming James Bond, this period of history is my favourite to learn about. Berlin is thus a fantastic place to bring light to the Cold War. All of the aforementioned sites were seen on a free walking tour done by Original Walking Berlin, who I would highly recommend. We toured for four hours and felt like we hardly scratched the surface. You would have to be ‘ein Berliner’ not to appreciate the power of the past – and the present energy – of Germany’s young, unified capital.

Love you all


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