Berlin is one of those places that are so steeped in layers of history that you just can’t help but be drawn into some part of it. In the last century alone it’s been the principal protagonist in two world wars, segmented, emasculated, divided between the two great opposing political ideals of the modern age, reunified and rebuilt. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from a nation with such a chequered recent past but I hoped it would be worth seeing.
It was – big time.
It was an unnaturally warm night in the UK when I set off, but the surprise was nothing compared to the wall of heat that hit me in the face as soon as I alighted the well-chilled airliner at Schönefeld Airport. With the European heatwave having thus far eschewed the UK I was in danger of overdosing on vitamin D within hours of setting foot on the much fought over German soil – and it felt good. There was something immediately likeable about Berlin that extended far beyond the 30 degree plus temperatures, blue skies and dawn-til-dusk sunshine: It was friendly, relaxed… safe. I love Britain but Berlin felt instantly more comfortable with itself and more laidback, less paranoid and less restricted. It’s impressive given the nation’s history – but when you’ve been ruined by fascism and taken to the brink by communism in recent memory I guess it gives you a different perspective on things.
Aside from the proliferation of bars and restaurants offering welcome distractions every time the mood – or the thirst – suited, there were things I wanted to see. But where to start…
Well the government quarter is as good a place as any, the Reichstag building standing defiant and symbolic of the city’s continuity amidst so much change. Built in 1894 it was destroyed by fire in 1933 – offering Hitler the leverage he needed to blame the Jewish community and seize power. It would be over sixty years before the Bundestag would again meet in the building. Never fully restored after the fire it was war-torn in the forties, stripped of all decoration in a sixties refit and left largely vacant until 1995 when Sir Norman Foster restored it to its former glory, reimagining the original cupola with the huge glass dome you see today. And since 1999 it has once again acted as the seat of government – not to mention the vantage point of choice for city-wide views of an evening. You may have to register and be cleared by security but it takes the phrase ‘open government’ to a whole new level – quite literally.
One block along you’ll find the equally symbolic Brandenburg Gate, virtually destroyed during the war and subsequently rendered inaccessible by that most visual representation of the Iron Curtain – the Berlin Wall. The eighteenth century neoclassical arch has long been the scene of protest – which continues today under the watchful eye of the Polizei – but it represents the freedom of the city that was until recently denied to its inhabitants. So many people visit the gate each day it was nigh-on impossible to get a shot of it that I was happy with, but a little long-exposure magic of an evening can work wonders. Content, I retreated a further block along to a rooftop bar overlooking the Holocaust memorial.
Peter Eisenman’s 2,711 concrete stelae comprise just one memorial of many that recognise the horror inflicted on minorities in the recent past – abhorrence which long left Germany the pariah of the western world. Like the various other installations it invokes a necessary combination of contrition and remembrance from a country unafraid to confront its past and look towards a better future. Designed to produce an uneasy and confusing atmosphere, visitors are encouraged to interact with the Holocaust Memorial in their own way, and I walked between the tomb-like stones and climbed across them like so many others. It seemed almost disrespectful but it did make me stop and consider the people it represented in my own way. Which importantly means that they aren’t forgotten.
With such architectural statements It’s easy to associate Berlin with the Nazi rule that lasted just twelve years – so much imagery, so much history has been played out in these streets – but the Cold War dominated the city for far longer, and it was this that most interested me. It’s something of an irony that the biggest tourist attraction is barely even noticeable these days, but if you look for it, you can still find the divisive Berlin Wall that hastily appeared out of nowhere in 1961 and split the city, a tangible symbol of the impasse between east and west…
Start at Checkpoint Charlie if you like. Most tourists seemed to, and it’s worth seeing if you can get past the crowds of people paying to have their photograph taken with actors dressed as American soldiers. I left them to it and went in search of secret Berlin for a deeper insight…
Look to the western horizon and you can see it well enough on a clear day, but the Allied field station at Teufelsberg is well off the tourist trail. The hill itself has enough history of its own, being an artificial mound formed from the rubble of the bombed out city after WWII, but the striking listening station came later in 1963 and operated until the forces left Germany in 1994. Since then it’s become derelict, vandalised, touted for conversion as a hotel complex and ultimately taken over by some pretty talented street artists. “I recognise it, but I don’t know it” said the former US serviceman that showed me round when I asked him how it felt to see it as it is now. “It was a long time ago”.
The site in the former West Berlin – the only allied held part of what was then the Deutsche Democratic Republic – offered the perfect place to keep tabs on Moscow. We listened to the Soviets and they listened back, each knowing what the other knew carrying on regardless with their pseudo war. Knowledge is power, and as soon as one side stopped listening they lost the advantage – however much of a fruitless and suspicion-fuelled game they seemed to be playing. With the wall in place at least the Soviets had no apparent plans to take West Berlin. Besides, they had their own totem to build, and up went the space-age TV Tower that dominates Alexander Platz to this day – the tallest and most recognisable point on the horizon for miles around.
Back in the centre it’s hard to associate this ever changing and vibrant city with the history that went before it. Berlin has a lot to offer – it is cosmopolitan and welcoming, lively and diverse. It is architecturally striking, blending historic with contemporary and at times the horizon is cluttered with tower cranes symbolising the prosperity that was absent for many years. Beach bars line the Spree, while the former no-mans-land of Potsdamer Platz now looks more like Wall Street than the twilight zone it was thirty years ago. You can find museums documenting the various aspects of the country’s history in all their gore and glory, while the Cold War era is turned into an almost cartoonified tourist trail with the East Side Gallery showing they aren’t famously devoid of humour after all.
I did the tourist thing and enjoyed it for what it was. I reflected on the terrors of the Nazi era and scratched the surface of the Cold War; I heard how the Allies operated their intelligence base and ultimately I went further afield to revel in the isolation of a vast Soviet military facility – long forgotten in the forests outside the city. But that’s another story. Stop me and I might tell it sometime.