The afternoon I arrived in Berlin was cold and windy with a bit of snow, so I confined myself to a walk around the hostel’s neighborhood. This happened to be Mitte, which means “middle,” and it really is a good location. Unfortunately, it’s also very hip and chic with an emphasis on vintage when it comes to shopping, so going in and out of the stores was only wishful thinking and no buying. Still, I got a flavor for local fashion. I cooked that night, and in the kitchen I met three wonderful girls from Australia who were in the same room: Emma and Taby from Sydney, and Claire from Melbourne. As it turns out, Claire and I have some mutual friends because she was involved in Netzer Australia, the country’s version of NFTY. After Emma and Taby left, Claire and I hung out together for most of the week with Leah, an Irish girl (half American and part Mexican) who was also in their room. Claire is traveling Europe after spending a semester studying in Spain, but Leah was in Berlin to take a language class for a few weeks, and she eventually wants to move to Berlin. I got really lucky at this hostel, and it was nice to have a few friends. More on the hostel itself later.
On Sunday, my first full day in Berlin, I did the free walking tour with the girls from Australia. This tour is world-renowned and shows up in all the guide books and travel websites as a must-do. It was a great introduction to the city, and I couldn’t have seen all of it without a guide. Berlin is huge, and I wouldn’t have known where to start. Also, the city’s history is so rich, complex, and contemporary that I really did need a guide to provide me with the context. If you’re going to Berlin, the walking tour is definitely the best thing to do first.
We started at Pariser Platz, which is important for several reasons. First, it’s bordered on one side by the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s last remaining gate that was commissioned by King Frederick Wilhelm II of Prussia as a sign of peace and finished at the end of the 18th century. The gate survived World War II and was used by the Nazis as a party symbol:
Second, it’s bordered on another side by the Hotel Adlon, which is frequented by celebrities and diplomats/heads of state. This is where Michael Jackson infamously dangled his son Blanket out the window in November 2002. Our guide told us that the hotel’s current high-profile guest was President Shimon Peres, who was in Germany for Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 28 (must be a German or European one because Israel’s is in the spring) and the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The facade of the hotel where Blanket was dangled and almost dropped, and the lobby:
After passing through Brandenburg Gate, I could glimpse the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament, through the trees:
There was a cobblestone path on the street that Brian pointed out to us, which is where the Berlin Wall once divided East and West Germany:
About a block away was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by architect Peter Eisenman in finished in December 2004. It cost 25 million Euro and I think my guide said it’s the largest memorial in all of Europe. The 19,000 square meter site is covered with 2,711 concrete slabs/stelae arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. Apparently, when asked about the symbolism of the memorial Eisenman responded that it’s not supposed to mean anything, and that you’re supposed to come up with your own interpretation. At first glance the stelae looked to me like a mass grave or camp barracks.
Before the memorial was completed, however, there was a scandal in 2003 because a Swiss newspaper reported that the company that was producing the anti-graffiti substance used to cover the concrete blocks had a subsidiary that produced the Zyklon B gas to kill death camp inmates during the Holocaust. The decision to keep working with the company was highly criticized.
We were given a few minutes to walk through the memorial, and I found making my through it to be confusing, a kind of maze By the end, I just wanted to get out. I suppose this is the type of sentiment its meant to provoke:
As a student of Political Science, I was happy to see that Berlin had named a street after one of my favorite philosophers:
Next, we came to these Soviet-style high-rise apartment buildings with red tile roofs, which the East German government built close to the border between the two Germanys as propaganda to show West Germans and the world that East Germany really was a nice place to live in:
Under the parking lot, however, lies what used to be Hitler’s bunker. It has been destroyed, and there is no memorial because the government does not want it to become a sort of shrine or place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis:
Then we passed by the Luftwaffe, the old Nazi air force headquarters. It’s the city’s only remaining Nazi building that is still used today (I think he said it’s the tax office or something), and serves as a good example of totalitarian architecture, which is supposed to look big and imposing and make the people feel small and afraid; that’s why the windows and doors are so huge:
Finally, we got to a preserved stretch of the Berlin Wall. Germany was divided after World War II into 4 occupied zones, and the Soviets got East Berlin. The German Democratic Republic was declared in 1949, and East Germany became a socialist Soviet satellite while West Germany developed into a Western capitalist country. Up until 1952, the lines between East Germany and the western occupied zones could be easily crossed in most places, but the inner German border officially closed that year. It meant that East Germans could no longer travel or emigrate so easily. Families were separated and people in the east were cut off from their jobs in the west. Our guide told us a particularly disturbing story about a guy whose girlfriend was stuck in East Germany. You could buy day passes to go into West Germany if you had enough money, so he seduced a woman that looked like his girlfriend and bought passes for both of them. In East Berlin he drugged her, met up with his girlfriend, gave her the other girl’s identity papers, and they crossed back into West Germany. The drugged girl eventually woke up, and because her father was well-connected she was able to cross back. The guy didn’t serve much jail time.
The first phase of the Berlin Wall was a wire fence erected in 1961, and it was built slightly inside East Berlin to ensure that it did not encroach on West Berlin at any point. The next year, a second, parallel fence about 100 meters farther into East German territory was built. Known as the Death Strip, it was covered with raked gravel which enabled the officers to see footprints, and it offered no cover. If someone trying to escape East Germany was caught in the Death Strip, he would be fired at immediately. The second and third barriers were an improved wire fence that lasted until 1965 and the concrete wall that replaced it until 1975. The Berlin Wall as we know it today is the fourth phase, begun in 1975 and finished in 1980. Constructed out of about 45,000 separate sections of reinforced concrete, it’s 12 feet high and topped off with a smooth pipe that intended to make it harder to scale. There were also mesh fencing, barbed wire, anti-vehicle trenches, dogs, 116 watchtowers, and 20 bunkers.
The wall came down on November 9, 1989 after a GDR spokesman read a note about new regulations for the wall that he wasn’t supposed to read in public, which said that East Berliners would be allowed to cross the border with proper permission but gave no further instructions on how to handle the information. Someone in the audience asked when the regulations were supposed to take effect, and he had no idea, but he said “immediately.” Upon hearing the broadcast, East Berliners went en masse to the wall and demanded the guards to open the border; they eventually yielded, and that was that. So without further ado, the Berlin Wall (the road in front would have been the Death Strip):
After about 2 hours, it was finally time for the break. On the way to our break spot we Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point. Unfortunately, it’s been Disney-fied to the point that I had no interest in spending my money to get my passport “stamped” or take pictures with the “guards,” and everything there is a reproduction:
On the curb were some Trabis, the most common vehicle in East Germany. They don’t perform so well, and are seen as a symbol of the failed GDR and of the fail of communism. You can rent them (probably for an exorbitant price), but after seeing someone pushing one to get it started it didn’t appeal to me:
Right next to Checkpoint Charlie, however, was our meeting point for after the break, which is where most of us ended up going to sit down and have a snack:
The Aroma was on the map I had gotten at the hostel because it was the tour company’s map, and the free walking tour always stops there for its break. I was skeptical at first, but when I saw the place for myself I knew it had to be the one and only Israeli chain. Of course, this one isn’t kosher and they’ve incorporated German cuisine into their menu as evidenced by the hot dog sandwiches that many people on my tour ordered. Unlike the Aroma in New York City, no Israelis work at this one, which was disappointing. I thought it was quite ironic that a tour company that also does tours of Third Reich Berlin (which I did) and the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (which I didn’t do) would make a deal with the only Israeli restaurant in the city that brings in all the tour groups after they’ve seen things like Hitler’s bunker and the Luftwaffe.
The last part of the tour brought us to Bebelplatz, where Nazi students burned nearly 20,000 books by “subversive” authors such as Heinrich Heine and Sigmund Freud (both Jews, Heine being an apostate-turned-Christian) on May 10, 1933. Bebelplatz is bordered by Berlin’s first Catholic church built after the Reformation (damaged during World War II just like everything else in the city and rebuilt), the Deutsche Staatsoper (one of Berlin’s three opera houses), and Humboldt University, Germany’s most prestigious university, whose graduates include Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and Karl Marx:
In the center of the square, there’s a memorial underground. It’s supposed to be empty bookshelves:
Because of the snow, we couldn’t see the plaque on the ground engraved with Heine’s 1820 German epigram: “Wherever they burn books, eventually they will burn people too.” Today, Humboldt University sells cheap books (mostly secondhand) on the sidewalk in front as a sort of gesture to compensate for what happened in 1933:
The tour ended with the statue of Frederick the Great, the king of the Prussia during the second half of the 18th century. And he really was great: a supporter of “enlightened absolutism,” religious tolerance, modernization, he built the Sanssouci palace in Potsdam, and he corresponded with Voltaire. That’s about as good as you could get with a monarch at that time. Here he is on a horse:
We were walking back to the hostel when we saw a store that sells Ampelmann paraphernalia. Ampelmann is the guy on Berlin’s traffic lights, created in 1961 when traffic psychologist Karl Peglau introduced the first pedestrian signals to GDR capital in response to the growing threat of road traffic accidents. Berliners respect the Amplemann, and no one crosses unless he is green. I am so used to New Orleans/New York City/Jerusalem, where people cross streets whenever they feel like it regardless of the traffic lights. Anyways, this is the Ampelmann:
The store sells all sorts of things, from Ampelmann gummies to tote bags (which I couldn’t resist for 4.50 Euro each) to bottle openers and cookie cutters:
After so much Italian food I was ready for some (you guessed it) Asian. It turned out that there was a really cheap Korean place a block from the hostel. I’d never had Korean, but I ordered some sort of tuna-tofu-vegetable-kimchi soup and it was delicious. Also, the restaurant was called YamYam, which was totally cute-sy. Claire, Emma, Taby, and Leah; Claire and I:
Wow, that was much longer than I meant it to be. Coming up: more walking tours, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s favorite kebab, and wombats!