April 25, 2010
Berlin, etymologically, means swampland; it was built on marshes and has a high water table. That was my first clue that my fantasies about the city might not be realized. Or, maybe it was the trip into the city that set the tone; it was reminiscent of Athens: Take the metro only to find out that you must transfer because part of the line is shut down; you find this out when you are the only people left on the train! Fortunately, a combination of questioning, perseverance and kindly German strangers were sufficient to enable us to finally reach our destination—the start of an overview walking tour of Berlin. We finally arrived at the meeting point after taking: bus, U-Bahn, bus, S-Bahn. This was a 1.5 hour trip; coming home took even longer—U-Bahn, bus, bus, U-Bahn, bus; but, the process was quite similar—only the transfer points were changed. This was much longer than we were led to believe it would be. We are hoping that the lines will be open again, tomorrow, and there will be fewer transfers. Pray for us.
On the bright side, Hotel and City Camping Berlin is on a canal in a wooded area, quiet and serene and even has modern, desirable bathrooms. We enjoyed the sunset last night.
Jacob [J=Y; a is short vowel sound], our Original Berlin Walks guide, has an MA in History in Germany—I think these things count for more over here; so, I was impressed. We wanted to compare this service with the Sandeman's New Europe city tours we have used in Amsterdam, Paris and Prague. I'd say it was a wash; but, the business model is different: Sandeman's is free; but you tip what you believe is fair. Original Berlin Walks are fee-based: With our double discount for owning a Rick Steves book and producing it and the Berlin Welcome Card, we paid only €8 each for this 4 hour tour. This ended up being a bargain.
We were blessed with a lovely, sunny day, which always helps; we hope the prediction of rain for tomorrow is typical of weather reporting reliability—we are really enjoying not having to turn on the heater before we get up in the morning.
One of the first remarks by Jacob was to inform us—and startle me—that the country of Germany only began in 1871. I often forget that the current form of Europe is relatively recent. I had always thought of a very young US, as compared to an older (more mature?) Europe. Now, the cultures of the European continent go back a very long time; but our American form of government has been around longer than that of most current European nations.
Interestingly, much of the tour was in what used to be East Berlin. Brandenburg Gate, the center of old Berlin, was a disappointment as a monument; but, I did enjoy the history surrounding it. This was the most important—and only surviving—of 14 city gates: It was the one through which the emperor entered the city. Conquering Napoleon entered through this gate, then sent the statue on top, The Goddess of Peace, to Paris. A few years later, the Prussians defeated him and brought it back as the Goddess of Victory.
I was fascinated to look from East to West and see an amusement park operating on the other side: There was a Ferris wheel and a giant crane that lifted people into the air. The platz in front of the Gate had the usual tourist phenomena: boring mimes, including a Native American in authentic (I suppose) dress and two gentlemen: one dressed in green—the other in red—suit and bowler. I have no idea what they represented. Note that tourism is a major city industry!
Several of the main museums are conveniently co-located on Museum Island. Two of these have important artifacts “borrowed” from other ancient cultures: The famous 3,000 year old bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti—“the most beautiful woman in Berlin”—and the fantastic second century B.C. Greek Pergamon altar. I have looked forward to seeing some of the “missing” items from Greece, Turkey and Egypt in museums in Paris, London and Berlin.
Columns surrounding New Museum--there were obvious bullet holes from WW II, deliberately preserved by the Germans as a reminder.
The Germans are, surprisingly to me, rather uncreative in their naming of public buildings: There is the Berlin Cathedral, the Old Museum, the New Museum, and much more. This is the land of Goethe, for goodness' sake. But their naming process has evolved in the area of Nazi history, which has become an acceptable subject of study: Many countries have Holocaust Memorials; the Germans are facing their past, now, and have a “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” [Separate memorials are planned for other victimized groups targeted by the Nazis.] I heartily applaud this trend; I wonder if we US citizens would be so reflective, were our roles reversed. This memorial is thought by some to be reminiscent of the old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, where—due to limitations of space—there are multiple layers of bodies in the cemetery. Add in the course of time, allowing the variously-sized headstones to display at different heights and angles and you have this modern memorial in Berlin. Its site selection was based solely on location, location, location—it is in a very heavily trafficked area.
There is an interesting story about the construction of this site. The architect wanted the memorial to be provocative of reflection about the Holocaust and the memorial; in fact, there is absolutely minimal description of the site or its purpose; and he wanted to permit graffiti to be written onto the blocks; this would allow the public to discern what contributors were actually thinking. The Jewish community thought this would be inappropriate. So, it was determined to make the blocks graffiti-proof with a chemical. But, it turned out, after the implementation, that the chemical had been provided by the German company that had produced Zyklon B during the Nazi extermination program. They did provide their current product for the memorial free of charge; but, it was a most unpleasant irony for some. A further irony is that they discovered the bunker of Joseph Goebbels under one corner of the memorial grounds during construction.
Hitler’s bunker is buried under a parking lot, not far away. The idea is to prevent Neo-Nazis from having sites around which to create shrines. For a convincing portrayal of the final days of the Third Reich, view Bruno Ganz as Hitler in the movie Downfall.
Soviet apartment blocks with location of Hitler’s bunker under the grassy area
Humboldt University was the home of many famous students: Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, the brothers Grimm and over two dozen Nobel Prize winners—including Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg, I believe. Einstein taught here until he decided to turn his part time gig at Princeton into a full time position, escaping the Nazis.
Neue Wache, the Emeror’s New Guardhouse from 1816, was once a memorial to the victims of Fascism. After the fall of the Wall, it was transformed into a national memorial “to the victims of war and tyranny.” It houses the tombs of the unknown soldier and the unknown concentration camp victim under Käthe Kollwitz’ statue of Mother with Her Dead Son.
A major disappointment, for me, was the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. There is a section of wall remaining—probably more, but that is all I saw; that was fascinating. But, everything about Checkpoint Charlie is a re-creation: therefore unreal; this bothered me. It seemed lacking in history and embodied the worst elements of pandering to tourists. But, we will return tomorrow; Claire has strong memories of her visit 21 years ago—just before the wall fell. Maybe a closer look at the museum will change my perspective.
Trabants are East German products that have been recycled as tourist vehicles—the few that remain in service!
The architecture of Berlin is a disappointment. But, we are comparing it with Prague, an utterly fantastic city, and are not allowing for the fact that there was very heavy bombing here during WWII. Besides, we have not seen it all; maybe we missed a lot. Some of the buildings have been torn down: Either they were demolished, run-down, or they were politically incorrect. There is currently a great deal of construction going on and the cultural center of Berlin is returning to its former glory.
Decorative remnant of the Soviet, now Russian, Embassy
Frank Gehry Building. He wanted it to be a whale, was told it was inappropriate, so he put the whale design on the roof. You can just see the flukes.
Upper Eastside Berlin—Funny how the former East Berlin is now the upscale side
New construction--it's everywhere!
Nazi Air Ministry, converted to Communist administrative building, converted to current Finance Ministry
Mural on the former Nazi Air Ministry Building
Unter Linden Strasse—Berlin’s answer to the Champs-Elysées—they built this boulevard, planted a bunch of Linden trees and creatively named it Unter Linden Strasse
Bebelplatz was the site of a notorious book burning by staff and students in 1933.
These walking tours, however wonderful, are simply exhausting. Today’s turned out to be 4.5 hours, in addition to 3 hours of travel time, we finally staggered back to Homer with a ten minute walk from our last bus.
When you start by burning books, you’ll end by burning people. ~ Heinrich Heine, 1820