Berlin, ach du Berlin
From Nazi victim memorials to remnants of the Berlin wall, the city Brings history alive in a way that Nothing else can
he German capital has been on my bucket list for a long time and, last summer, I finally made it there. Like most big cities, I had heard conflicting views about Berlin from people who either loved it or hated it, and so I didn’t know what to expect. As always, I’d done my research, making a plan for my time there — but nothing prepared me for how history comes alive in this unique city’s streets.
The title of my story best surmises my feelings for this wonderfully diverse city: German for ‘ Berlin, Oh Berlin’, this is a line from a Greek song — yes, a Greek song! — called ‘ Bleib Treu Café’. Written by twin brothers, the song is an ode to a city they’d both lived in at different times. It was a regular on my playlist as a teen and their poetic description of the city always made me curious.
alive: 1 The Berlin cathedral on the Spree River 2 The city’s past in the form of
graffiti 3 a multi- coloured building near Kreuzberg 4 checkpoint charlie can underwhelm, thanks to fast food chains around 5 Gunter Demnig’s ‘ stumbling blocks’ 6 Brandenburg
Gate 7 The famous ampel
It is not certain where the name of the city comes from, but there is a reported link between Berlin and the German word for bear: Bär, the animal found on the city’s coat of arms.
But the bear is not as famous as the Ampelmann, the walking and standing figure that can be found on the city’s pedestrian crossing lights. Now synonymous with the city, the Ampelmann was created in East Germany by a traffic psychologist who wanted signals to be distinct for the colourblind as well as the elderly. Now, they can be found in parts of East and West Berlin, and souvenirs inspired by the character are very popular with tourists.
The city of 12 boroughs has been moulded into what it is today by a history that has defined its unique character and architecture. The voices of war can still be heard in the buildings and in the artwork seen across the city. Bullet holes, checkpoints, staggering landmarks, and traces of a seemingly invincible wall are all witness to what once took place here. The dark past is still visible in the corners of Berlin, but it has lost its damaging effect to gentrification.
Nowadays, a lively and vibrant wave has carried the city forward, beyond all the death and tears. It is now home to some of the most fascinating architecture, museums, restaurants, cafés and art you could wish to see gathered in one place.
But, make no mistake: this isn’t a city that chooses to forget. Instead, the memories of some of its darker chapters are kept alive as a reminder — often artistic — of past mistakes. This is why Berlin is home to a number of memorials commemorating the victims of the Nazis.
One of the subtler memorials was created by Gunter Demnig, a German artist. He created personal monuments that you can, quite literally, stumble upon in various parts of Berlin. In fact, currently, 48,000 ‘ stolperstein’ ( stumbling block) as they are known, have been laid in 18 countries all over Europe. They are cobblestone- sized plaques, with inscriptions of details for individual victims of Nazi oppression, placed at the entrances of the buildings the victims once lived in.
The remnants of the Berlin Wall can be found throughout the city, either at sites that mark its actual location, in small pieces sold as souvenirs for tourists to take home, or at the East Side Gallery located on Mühlenstraße. It is possibly the biggest and longest ( 1.3 km long) open air gallery in the world, with a collection of 105 paintings of artists from different nationalities — all painted in 1990 — on the east side of the Wall. It is an international memorial promoting peace through artistic expression.
Checkpoint Charlie, the better known of the Berlin Wall crossings — immortalised by le Carré in The Spy Who Came in from The Cold — has become a symbol of the Cold War and the division. A must- see on a Berlin visit, but expect to be underwhelmed when you spot famous fast food chains in the backdrop, somehow diminishing the importance of this monument.
The Reichstag, the building that currently hosts the German Parliament, along with the imposing Brandenburg Gate, are possibly the most recognisable landmarks you will find here. The famous Potsdamer Platz, named after the city of Potsdam is also located in the area.
Nearby, you will find Museum Island that was built from 1830 to 1930. The Island consists of five museums — the Altes Museum, Neues Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie, Bode museum, and Pergamon museum — and is a UNESCO world heritage site. Here, you can also take in the imposing Berlin Cathedral, which lies on the banks of the Spree river. Molecule Man, a beautiful 100- foot sculpture that should not be missed, also lies on Spree river.
In the vicinity, the DDR museum, an interactive showcase of everyday life in East Germany, is always crowded with visitors looking through its collection of objects and images from that era.
Somewhere between Museum Island and the Brandenburg Gate lies Bebelplatz, named after August Bebel, a German politician and writer. It is home to several historic buildings, among which are the State Opera and Humboldt University, one of the oldest universities in Berlin. But it was also uniquely touched by the darkness of Nazism. It was in this square that, on May 10, 1933, the Nazis destroyed over 20,000 books that were seen as a threat to the ideology of the ‘ Third Reich’. Now, a subterranean installation by artist Micha Ullman marks the event: its empty bookshelves, visible through a glass pane embedded in the pavement, commemorating a mindless act of intellectual atrocity.
As in any big city, Berlin’s people rush around; yet, their haste has a relaxed calmness that I have not experienced before. This is perhaps a result of the confidence that I saw in most Berliners, in the way they carry themselves, in the unique ways many of them dressed and the distinct lack of pretentiousness that seems a staple in any city of its size and profile. There is something in the air in Berlin that I felt infused with while visiting, something that has made me feel selfassured. It was something I don’t feel very often on my travels nor one I can explain.
Like most big cities, it is home to many people — 3.5 million, to be exact. The streets are bustling with citizens from all places, languages of all sounds and music of all kinds. Though a divided city once, there is a distinct sense of unity and community now.
But the people are not the only part of its distinctiveness. The landscape of the city is so diverse, with a third composed of forests, parks, gardens, rivers and lakes. Tiergarten, the city’s urban public park, is worth a stopover and perhaps a picnic. There is something for everyone’s taste here, and, as clichéd as it may sound, it’s hard not to want to pull a JFK and shout: “Ich bin ein Berliner”!
THE WALL THAT WAS: ( clockwise from above) The story of the wall displayed on buildings; steel poles mark the course of the wall; a historic photo shows people trying to greet loved ones beyond the wall
SPOTTED: The Reichstag, home to the German Parliament, is one of the most recognisable landmarks here