A Dark Chapter Meets Light
Berlin is Germany’s fresh and spirited capital that in recent times has turned itself around in recent years to project the modern face of Germany – Europe’s most powerful nation. As a city that’s constantly striving to be a European leader – Berlin offers more shades than most between its dark chapters and its lighter notes. There’s a subtle hint of euphoria as you stroll through the manicured lawns of the city’s parks and wander down the wide-brimmed boulevards of the city’s modern chic neighborhoods. This is where I was first introduced to Europe, and what an introduction it was.
It wasn’t always this way going back to the 1960’s, the Soviet empire swept a tidal wave of change over the
,region, lowering the curtain on and closing off Berlin to the rest of the world. As a child at school, we were told of the horrific story of a young boy separated from his family on the day that Berlin was divided in two by the pro-American west and pro-Russian east. For the next 28 years, families would cease to exist as one as the wall divided a nation and splintered hopes of peace.
In November 1989, spirited by a zest for change the Berliners once again united as one as the Soviet empire began to whither up in the wind and die. This people’s revolution was not met without its quandaries. As a divided republic for a generation, German’s were now faced with unification. While the west had shown extraordinary resolve and growth over the past 28 years through immigration (predominantly from Turkey), and industrialization in the Cologne-Bonn corridor, the east had become a virtual Stalinist state where religion was banned and knowledge and freedom were squandered.
The Twentieth Century was unkind to Berlin. Under Hitler, it had become a fortress for radical ideology and brutalized change. That fortitude brought about an increase in Nazi theologies which poured out into the public domain by way of a formidable propaganda machine running on an endless loop of vilifying Jewish citizens and sprucing up a shiny and polished nationalistic state. This would be the beginning of a long dark period for Berlin that would last until that autumn day in 1989.
By October 1990, Berlin had risen from the ashes to find itself stuck with an identity crisis – was it east or west? Was it German or Soviet? While the west had benefited from a rising western ideology, the east had suffered tremendous hardship which would take a decade to rectify. Although this cauldron of steam would eventually blow over, it left the newly reunified German state with remnants of its dark chapter – derelict buildings, licks of graffiti stained walls, and crumbling infrastructure. The government undertook a tremendous purge on the city over the next 15 years to rebuild what was fractured.
As the city once again took on the moniker of capital, Berlin also took on another one – the hipster capital. Born out of the re-emergence of two separate ideas blended together one simplistic vision – a correlation of a movement that saw Germans build communities within the broken down shacks of east and west. Trendy areas of the city were created – Kurfurstendamm. A regeneration of ideas has seen Berlin soar in recent years to take on the title of one of the top cities of Europe.
Brandenberg and the Jewish Monument
There is no mistaking the significance of the Brandenberg Gate – Berlin’s symbolic centerpiece. Historically, this neo-classical masterpiece is the epitome of 18th Century architecture as seen over by the watchful gaze of Prussian King, Frederick William II. It became a symbol of the reunification of Germany when the wall fell. As the meeting point of Helmut Kohl, who at the time led West Germany, with that of his East German counterpart, PM Hans Modrow, it came to symbolise the full embodiment of unionism at the time.
Today, it is a tourist mecca where thousands gather each day to point and shoot their cameras at the unbridled beauty of stone with bronze cast statues. A few hundred meters away, the parliament building known as Reichstag adorns the leafy and secluded Tiergarten too which many aloof during their lunch break to sample some of the city’s most majestic nature. A corner of this park is devoted to the Berlin Zoo, which also houses an aquarium.
The Tiergarten is planted in flowers that compliment each season. Spring blossoms give a plume of color under an enigmatic charm that creates a warm and inviting ambiance unlike anywhere else in the city. You will be surprised to not feel overwhelmed by crowds here as the gardens cover a wide area of land. Central to the park is the Victory Monument, visible from the Brandenberg Gate, the monument is a core feature of the gardens with its stunning manicured landscapes from atop the viewing platform.
Throughout the park, pieces of WWII memorabilia adorn the trails as jigsaw pieces of a greater imagery. Thoughts rush through one’s mind as they conjure up the exact moment these machines were used, or these tyrannical military leaders lamented their story in the pages of the history books. Each statue or machine is articulately polished to detail. A timeless elegance sweeps through the park, that this once was a place of solitude for victim’s of division, now it was a metropolitan hub where families gather for weekend picnics or lovers stroll through rustic-leafy autumn trails with hands connected.
But perhaps most poignant, adjacent to the park and sitting side-by-side of the Brandenberg Gate lies a chorus of marble and stone statues that act as a memorial to the millions of Jews who were central to Germany’s darkest chapter of its modern history. Taking time out to walk through the vista of stone statues allows for deep reflection into not only the magnitude of the events that took place, but the aftermath on the art of forgiveness and moving forward.
This powerful monument lays a claim to the testament of artistic perseverance offering a glimpse into the orthodox soul of Berliners who have undergone a lot of soul-searching throughout the decades. It is when you wander through the narrow cobblestone aisles that you feel how much impact the previous century had on the resident’s of this city. It is within these walls, surrounded by these grand columns that you feel the presence of ghosts walking among you.
Berlin Once Divided
The poster of a young American allied soldier adorns the street. His steely eyed gaze, along with his impressive poker face cements the fact that he means business. Further along, a second poster belonging to a young Russian competes for the stare-off. Neither side could probably predict that this face-off would perpetuate for another three decades. They merely are symbols of what was once a divided Berlin.
In the aftermath of the wall being torn down, pieces of breadcrumb brick remained. A reminder of the Soviet’s glory days, and the esteem of what was once the American empire. Today, the US still occupies a place in Germany, but long gone are the perils of warfare. The tanks, weapons and artillery, the things that were of common place in 1960’s Berlin, have been replaced by brightly colored sculptures and ornate 20th century blocks with well-spruced sidewalks.
Today, hordes of tourists shuffle through with a modicum of interest. Quick to click their cameras, press buttons on their smartphones but quick to forge a gravitational pull to the next tick on their tour itinerary. Is that cynical? Perhaps. But as a bastion of what was once a divided city, the East Berlin Wall Monument deserves every modicum of respect. It’s value has far outweighed it’s historical context. It’s a reminder of what we were, and what we could become.
Berlin’s value as a modern European capital is through the art of forgiveness and foraging a path and identity all of its own which brings together all the ideas and innovative concepts of a city staring down the barrel of the twenty-first century. The city, as it has throughout its history, regenerated and morphed into something more gratifying and more truer to its roots.
Today, small museums and an art exhibition line the streets, the wall has blended into the landscape as though to hide the remnants of its division. Berlin has combined modern with old; glass office towers straddle the sidewalk alongside traditional Germanic architecture. Unlike in other cities, the combination of new and old works in-sync. The constraints of working with traditional structures employed with new visions has somehow defined this city as a visionary masterpiece, as nature parks and urbanization has done the same.
The Berlin Wall is one sight, worth the excursion. Its value and monumental scar on the city is still healing but its vestige lies in the lessons learned in the hereinafter. A city that bursts with unlimited potential and an unscrupulous amount of curiosity to tap that. It has bounced back and this wall is not a symbol of division, but it has become one of hope.
Berlin: A City of Expeditions
Throughout history, Berlin has shaped the German identity in more ways than one. It has defined each generation, it has grand monuments to challenge any other European city, it has idle suburbs to allow for deep progressive thoughts. But one thing that Berlin has that no other city can compare – stimulating emotion. There is pain, hope, love, and loss.
As you walk through the elegantly manicured gardens of the German History Museum, or are swept in a time warp by Checkpoint Charlie, or even assimilating with the locals at Potsdammer or Alexander Platz, this city gets under your skin. It feels fresh, warm and inviting. It may not have mountains or beaches which are often paramount, but it has chapters. And each one has a rich velvety layer that when one peels it back discovers something silky smooth about Berlin.
It has become a hub for technology, it thrives on its creative juices and vibrant alternative lifestylers. Berlin is many things, benign it is not. And as one of Europe’s many international gateways with budget flights across the globe centered at the city’s Tegel Airport, why would you not book a weekend or week-long excursion to discover Berlin for yourself?