Category Archives: Berlin
How can a city go through so much turmoil and destruction, as Berlin had done during the 20th century, and still emerge as Europe’s leading democratic capital in the 21st century? During our recent visit, we found a modern, vibrant city, a people who had evidently come to terms with their country’s recent past, recognised its full destructive impact, picked up the pieces and had moved on.
As I read Antony Beevor’s detailed analysis of the final downfall of Berlin in 1945, I struggled to understand how a city could rise up once again from such total devastation. What Hitler had meted out to the Soviets during the German invasion of Russia in 1941 was going to be repaid through spectacularly violent retribution by the Soviet Red Army.
The focus of the book is almost entirely on the progress of the Red Army as it marched down from the north. Stalin played a game of ‘cat and mouse’ with his western allies, concealing his real intentions, because he wanted the Soviet Union alone to claim the prize of taking the German capital. And he succeeded. Truman and Churchill were outwitted by their communist ally, and it was the Soviets who successfully fought their way, street by street, to the heart of Berlin, and finally raised the Soviet flag above the crumbling Reichstag.
As a former army officer turned historian, Beevor gives a detailed descriptive and tactical account of the final march on Berlin, but you need a strong stomach to digest the appalling levels of violence exercised by both sides. Not a book for the squeamish…….
Beyond the guide books, I wanted something to give me a different perspective on Berlin before heading off on our visit. This volume by Rory MacLean, Berlin: imagine a city did just that. I wasn’t sure about its format at first, but a few random chapters in, I tuned into the idea of getting a glimpse of the inside of the city through a series of 23 vignettes.
Each chapter is devoted to a mini-biography of someone, whether famous or unknown, who either had an impact on the city, or who was impacted by the city. From Frederick the Great to Bertolt Brecht, from David Bowie to Marlene Dietrich, from Christopher Isherwood to John F Kennedy….along with unknown nationals and migrants……their lives were all intimately tied up at some stage with the fortunes or misfortunes of Berlin.
This is a city that has had a turbulent recent past. If there had been any vestiges of an ancient and medieval past, they were all successfully wiped away by the utter destruction of the city by allied bombers during the last war…….and its reconstruction developed a city of two halves. During the Cold War years, the political division between east and west spawned two ‘cities’ that were a hemisphere apart……..and since the fall of the Wall, the strip in ‘no man’s land’ that came to be called death strip, became the biggest building site in Europe, and is where some of the most exciting and innovative architecture is to be found today.
This volume is an unconventional way to begin your journey of understanding Berlin, but it makes a very interesting read, nevertheless.
Getting into the Reichstag requires some planning and patience, though entry is free to visitors. I tried to book tickets online, but there was nothing available for weeks in advance. We sought inside information from some young staff on the gate, and they advised coming early in the morning to join a queue……which I did the next day…….when I arrived at 7.30am, I found myself second in line.
The lady in front of me had arrived at 7am in the hope of securing tickets for her entire class of students. We chatted until a third person arrived, and discovered he was waiting to get tickets for his whole family. I had been warned about carrying ID for both of us (in our case, passports) but the other two were unaware that ID was needed, especially for those in their groups who weren’t present in the queue. As I secured our tickets for an evening visit (the Reichstag stays open until midnight) I watched the other two walk away dejectedly, presumably to return and make a second attempt.
The Reichstag, which is now the seat of the German Bundestag, was built at the end of the 19th century, to house the government of the German Empire. In 1933 it was severely damaged by fire (believed to have been caused by Nazi arsonists) and more or less fell into disuse until reunification in 1990, when it was decided to move the capital from Bonn back to Berlin, and to rebuild the Reichstag to house the parliament.
The prestigious contract was granted to the famous British architect, Sir Norman Foster, and he replaced the old dome with a magnificent glass dome, including a spiral walkway that takes visitors to the very top. We started our visit just as the sun was setting, so the views over the city illuminations were mixed with the luminescence of the fading sunlight. The upper balcony was a place to linger to enjoy the urban panorama, the base of the dome was also a place to linger, to study the information boards delving into the complex history of the Reichstag.
And right beneath us, looking down into the well of the dome, you could gaze on proceedings in parliament which, at 9pm, understandably had more visitors in the viewing gallery than deputies on the floor.
You have to remember that Berlin (and Germany) was not just subjected to the devastating division between east and west during the cold war years, but in the 1930s and 1940s it also suffered the appalling oppression of the National Socialists.
Germany had undergone a social and political revolution with the coming of the Third Reich, which initially promised to be the saviour of the country following defeat in WW1 and the economic depression but, in fact, turned into the force that ultimately destroyed Germany by 1945. Instead of being liberated by the allied troops at the end of the war, the division of Germany into four sectors spelled the advent of years of ‘incarceration’ for those in the east.
Curiously, on the same site where a long section of the Wall has been preserved, you will also find the museum of the Topography of Terror, which is housed in the area where the National Socialists had their centre of operations, including the buildings where dissidents were interrogated and tortured.
The museum provides a detailed and honest account of the brutality dealt out by the Nazis. I found the same message coming across as I did in the Documentation Museum in Nuremberg (which I visited 18 months ago en route to Istanbul). The blame for the war and its destructive consequences was entirely the responsibility of the National Socialists, including the utter annihilation of much of Germany. At no point did I see the merest suggestion that the allied troops bore any of the responsibility.
I guess that Germany’s ability to swiftly come to terms with its own past has been a cornerstone to the rapid reconstruction of a country that has, once more, become the leading nation of Europe……both economically and morally.
Our hotel in Berlin was located 100 metres from the site of the Wall, inside the old American sector. By a hair’s breadth, those who lived along this strip had found themselves just inside the western sector when the barricade went up overnight on August 13th 1961. Many families were split. People were cut off from their places of work. People who had stayed the night in one sector found they couldn’t return the next day to the other sector. What had once been the easiest crossing from east to west Germany, suddenly became the most difficult………indeed, the most lethal.
The no-man’s land created by a second wall became the killing zone, better known as the ‘death strip’, where more than 100 would-be escapees lost their lives. Over the years the barricade was upgraded until, in 1975, they began constructing the ultimate retaining wall measuring 12 feet in height. But none of this prevented more than 5000 people making a successful bid to cross the border; some in hot air balloons, some through the sewers, some in daring car dashes through checkpoints, even some on crude zip wires. If the desire was strong enough, some would most definitely find a way.
“Ich bin ein Berliner” (JF Kennedy) and “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” (Reagan) were powerful milestones on the road to the Wall’s demolition, but none more powerful, perhaps, than Bruce Springsteen’s rock concert given in the eastern sector just 18 months before the wall came down. His invitation to play may have been the GDR’s attempt to appease its own younger generation, but it had exactly the opposite effect. It simply made them hungrier for more of the same.
The line of the Wall has now become a defined cycling and walking route around the city. What used to be the ‘death strip’ has been the biggest building site in Europe for many years, and it is along this strip that you will find some of the most avant garde buildings and creative open spaces that you’ll find anywhere in an urban setting.