There are several places that I have visited on my trip -- Paris, Rome, Prague -- that I have had to pinch myself and remind myself that I am there. Berlin is definitely one of those places. Berlin is an incredible city, so full of history and yet it feels so young and vibrant. Berlin is FUNKY and totally fun.
The layers of history in Berlin are amazing, and yet the city feels like it is young and just getting started. For me, Berlin represents the Cold War. My generation grew up with the Cold War, the Soviets, the Iron Curtain, etc. I still remember watching the Berlin Wall fall and having a vague feeling that something really big was happening. I was 12 years old. To be able to be in the city where it all happened was amazing. It is still easy for me (and most westerners) to think of Berlin as East and West, but it is incredible to think that the generation of kids graduating from gymnasium never lived in a divided city. In some ways twenty years is a long time; in other ways, not so much.
Many of the sites in Berlin are related to the Wall and the division of the city. It is funny to think that they are all just tourists destinations now, when for so long they physicially and ideologically divided the city. Most of the wall was destroyed as soon as possible. Understandably, Berliners didn't want any reminder of the wall that divided them. Throughout the entire city, there is a line of two bricks next to each other that designates where the wall ran. It really is amazing to see how the city was divided, and how the wall used to run through public squares, parks, streets, and even buildings. I visited Checkpoint Charlie and the accompanying museum. The checkpoint itself is literally in a main street that doesn't divide much of anything now. An art installation shows a portrait of a young American soldier looking one way and a young Soviet soldier looking the other way. The museum is jam packed with mementos and nostalgia about the wall. One of the most fascinating parts for me was seeing all of the ingenous ways people came up with to escape from East Berlin. It really is incredible to think of one city being divided in such a way. People on one side had freedom of movement and access to western goods. People's lives on the other side of the wall were totally controlled and they lacked many basic goods. And to see the courage and inventiveness of people trying to escape a life of communism. The original reason the wall was constructed was because too many East Berliners were escaping to the west. What kind of government thinks the solution to that is to build a wall? Maybe I am biased -- I have been raised in America where we were constantly taught that communism was bad. But I also thought this was a really good reminder that walls never really work to keep people in (or out). People will always find a way, whether it is a hot air balloon, stuffed in the trunk of a car, of jammed in a suitcase. I do hope our politicians in America will realize this when they consider building a wall between the US and Mexico. Just won't work.
Of all of the cities I have visited, Berlin easily has the most construction going on. Within a mere months of the wall falling, buildings and businesses were sprouting up. Potsdamer Platz -- once a bustling early 20th century square, then a desolate part of the "death zone" behind the wall -- is now consumed with huge corporate buildings. It seemed like half of the city is under construction. The art scene in Berlin is also flourishing. Berlin has become known as a center of new and modern art. In some ways, Berlin reminded me of Prague. I really do think that oppression and adversity begets creativity and inspiration.
Of course the history of Berlin predates the Berlin Wall. The history of Berlin is also a history of Hitler and National Socialism. There are several memorials around town that commemorate the victims of the Nazis. The memorial to the murdered jews of Europe was very moving. The memorial itself consists of numerous slabs of slate arraned in rows in a public square. The museum that goes along with the memorial is heart-wrenching. There is also an outdoor exhibit where the original Nazi SS buildings stood, called the Topography of Terror. As always when visiting places like this, I am extremely moved. I just can't help but think how this was allowed to happen. I understand cerebrally the events in Europe and why people and governments chose not to get involved. But the extermination of so many lives is just overwhelming. It is a good reminder of why we cannot let regimes who practice genocide exist in our world.
There are a lot of great sites to see in Berlin, but more than anything I just enjoyed walking around the city. I also rode the public buses a lot -- a cheap way to see a lot of the city. The old East Berlin is now considered the heart of the city and is the trendy place to live. There are still some signs of communism and the old regime, mainly in the style of buildings and apartment blocks. It is easy to pick out the blocky communist style. But other than that, the area is totally flourishing.
I really enjoyed my tour of the Reichstag building. The design is great -- a huge glass dome was built on top of the original structure that was destroyed during the war. There is a ramp up the glass dome and you can walk all the way to the top -- incredible views of Berlin. But the most interesting view is downward. You can see into the Parliamentary chamber and watch the politicians at work. Someone told me that this is the most important view to Germans -- that way they can literally keep an eye on their government.