3 days is definitely not long enough to really experience a city with as much history and as complex and cosmopolitan as Berlin but it was enough time to make me keen to go back for more. Our accommodation was perfect. We were staying in Potsdamer Platz on the 12th floor (an elevator, no stairs thank goodness!) in one of seven blocks making up the Sony Centre with its beautifully designed buildings, a mix of residential apartments and offices tower above with The Sony store; Starbucks etc below along with a plethora of pubs and restaurants their table and chairs spilling out to encircle a little fountain. This is all enclosed with a domed roof of steel and glass, open above the buildings and on the sides but covering the centre courtyard itself. All in all when within Potsdamer Platz it feels like a (busy) haven from, while still giving you easy access to, the busy city surrounding it. Our apartment was pretty much right above Starbucks, next to Lego World with awesome views over Tiergarten, a pretty big (520 acres) urban park in the middle of the city centre and one road away from our accommodation. In short, perfect!
We did a walking tour on the first day which took us through a city with an illustrious and shameful past, ravaged by wars, divided and then reunified. The tale of Berlin is really the tale of two cities built along the Sands of the River Spree and joined by a bridge Muhlendam. Colln was the older city but it is Berlin that survived to become the beautiful city it is today.
While the sand along the river Spree was not that fertile the river itself provided convenient passage for trade. Berlin is in fact often referred to as the city on the water with about 180km of navigate bleak waterways and in fact has more bridges than Venice. The tour takes us past the beautifully restored Berlin Cathedral, several museums and memorials. We can’t help but notice the huge Mercedes emblem in the distance -a remnant from when the West wanted to ensure that the Soviet government on the other side of The Wall could see this emblem of West Capitalist success. The Soviets returned the gesture with their TV Tower. It stands out against the skyline, the tallest building in Berlin standing at 368 metres. Unintentionally and ironically given the Soviet stance on religion, the glass mirrors on its dome reflect a crucifix shape which rotakes around the dome with the sun.
We stood above the bomb shelter where Hitler hid out his last days of his evil campaign and where he finally killed himself. Seeing no fault in his actions he believed to the end the reason for his failure was that the German nation simply werent good enough, determined or deserving enough. Such an egomaniac to the end. The bunker now forms part of the foundation to a parking lot amongst nondescript apartment buildings. Sealed off forever because even now Neo Nazi’s are known to treat it as a shrine of sorts. Always that balance between neither venerating nor forgetting the past. I cannot help but think of protests and protests back home as we struggle to find that balance in our society here in South Africa. stood We walk past the Reichstag building, which influenced by the shameful shadow of WWII has a transparent roof and spiral staircase open to the public. Both these designs are meant as visible reminders that government must be transparent and that the citizens are in fact above and should have sight of what its public servant’s do. We finished our tour at The neoclassical Brandenburg gates built in 1791 and remnant of what were once many gates built around (a then much smaller) Berlin. Above the gates stands a statue representing Eirene, the goddess of Peace riding her chariot. The Gate stands at the entrance to Unter der Linden Boulevard, literally a boulevard lined by beautiful Linden trees which run from Brandenburg gates to the royal Palace.
of course we walked part of the perimeter of the wall, viewed where Checkpoint Charlie once stood and saw where a small part of the wall still stands intact.
When Frederick Wilhelm I (1688 -1740) was the owner he began to build many of the edifices still visible today. His successor, Frederick II (1712 -1786) was a less keen hunter than his predecessors and in 1740 he opened the park’s first public gardens. In 1742 he gave instructions for the fences surrounding the park be torn down so that the garden would be open to all the people of Berlin. In the baroque style popular in his day he had flower beds and borders laid out and also added ornamental pools and mazes. Tiergarten was owned by the monarchy, and came under the direct control of the King or Emperor but in 1881 Emperor William abolished his rights to the forest.
The Second World War caused a great deal of damage to the Tiergarten and many of its statues were destroyed or damaged. Immediately after the war, things got worse, due to the shortage of fuel a great deal of the wooded area was felled. The once great forest almost disappeared until June 1945 when the Berlin magistrate decided to restore the Greater Tiergarten using the existing design, and, between 1949 and 1959 the Tiergarten was reforested. The first tree planted in this process was a Linden tree as a matter of interest. In 1949 West Germany took over the reforestation and about 250 000 young trees from all over the Bundesrepublik even being delivered by plane during the Berlin Blockade.
On one hand Berlin is very much city of the of the future. Vibrant, cosmopolitan, innovative and change embracing. This is the city for bright young men and women seeking the new. On every street corner you can find a band, big speakers set up on the broad sidewalks and the music, everything from alternative to dance to rock all with fresh, funky beats. Experimentation and expression in dress, mode of transport, architecture or music and art are embraced. Our tour guide mentioned that even after just two years away from Berlin he had to first familiarise himself with what had changed or not by rewalking the route, in 2 years very little had remained untouched. In fact this sense of constant transformation is not a new phenomena when describing Berlin and our guide shared a quote from Karl Scheffler, apparently a top class architect but better remembered for stating that “Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being.” (Berlin: Ein Stadtschicksal, 1910) and I found another quote, thanks Wikipedia, this one from Mark Twain, 1892 “Berlin is the newest city I have come across. Even Chicago would appear old and gray in comparison.” Certainly we saw plenty of building and renovation taking place while we were there. Old churches destroyed during the Cold War, or even the Second World War and left in a state of disrepair due to economics or political belief now being restored to their former glory..which brings me back to the peculiar chronological dichotomy that infuses Berlin.
Even in the modern age Berlin is never able to shake the shadows of The Second World War and The Cold War and so for a city so focused on the future it concurrently never forgets the past. When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 the initial urge was to ‘forget’, to remove all signs of this divisive era. But realising, perhaps the wisdom of remembering ones history as well as the pull of The Wall as a tourist attraction, they in fact replaced across town parts of the wall previously pulled down as well as recalling its entire perimeter in a pattern of bricks inlaid into pavement and road where it once stood in its entirety.
Many of the war memorials in Germany and Berlin are purposefully non specific and inclusive. The most striking and one I felt quite moving was the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship. Here there is a beautiful copy of a sculpture of a woman holding her dying son and reflecting the artists own experience. Though a very different sculpture in terms of material and detail it made me think naturally of Michelangelo’s Pieta.
On the other hand a memorial specifically created as reminder of the Jewish holocaust is mired in controversy. It consists of 711 gray slabs identical in their horizontal dimensions but all differing in their height from 8 to 15 + inches call to mind coffins and tombstones narrow alleys between them lead downwards mimicking the sense of instability, confusion and sense of being cut off from the surrounding light and people going on about their lives.
However oddly there is no sign or placard mentioning why this memorial is here. The installation is simply called “murdered jews” with no reference to who murdered them or when. It leaves it to you to know or assume what this refers to and make your own inferences. Obviously as a non -Jewish person its hard for me to imagine how someone of Jewish heritage might feel, but I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I was a bit shocked at what shoukd be a sombre memorial being out there alongside icecrram shops and cafes so open to the public. Here children can and do climb on the grey slabs, run and play hide and seek and not just the kids either. People use the lower slabs as seats eating ice cream, checking their cell phones. Was this sacrilegious, disrespectful and Defensiveness ,or rather a way of getting people who have no connection to this time in history to interact and become conscious of it. Perhaps those children while far removed from the events surrounding of the Second World War and the holocaust will remember something about that time they played amongst those tall tombstone like stones….what was that all about again?
As I may have mentioned, 3 days is definitely not long enough to really experience a city like Berlin but it was enough time to fall in love with its Amplemen and the Buddy Bears. The Ampelmann is a more pleasant hangover from the Cold War. When traffic lights began to be be to be implemented for various reasons, for instance that traditional (Western!) traffic lights were not helpful for colour blind individuals, and the lights themselves small and weakly lit. But probably it helped their cause that Communist East Berlin government was always keen to differentiate itself from the Capitalist West. And so the jaunty Ampelmann wearing his straw hat was born. A touch of colour and jauntyness in a decidedly bleak and serious East Berlin. So loved was the Ampelmann that once the wall came down and as time required some traffic lights to be replaced naturally the west installed the more traditional but so many people campaigned for the Ampelmann to stay and so the traffic light man of East Berlin survived the fall of the Berlin Wall and became a cult figure.
Then there was Buddy Bear. Inspired by the idea of bringing art to the streets of the city (similar to the cow parades in London and New York and the CHOC cows we have here to raise funds for childhood cancer). The bear is the heraldic animal of Berlin so it was an easy choice when during a Berlin artistic event in 2001 the creatprs of the Buddy Bears, Klaus und Eva Herlitz, decided to start a street art project in Berlin.
There are now nearly 140 Buddy Bears with different designs representing their native countries standing together “paw in paw”. The United Buddy Bears promote living together peacefully, raise funds for UNICEF and local children’s relief organisations. I leave you with the motto of The Buddy Bears which is good advice for us all
“We have to get to know each other better,….it makes us understand one another better, trust one another more, and live together more peacefully”