“… Saying the unspeakable with brutal heart on sleeve honesty. A no sugar coating kind of city.”
Berlin is a relatively new city, largely rebuilt after being heavily bombed during World War II. It sits atop a swamp with a river that sometimes flows the wrong way. With a preoccupation with sex, fastidiously obeyed traffic rules and its historical heart on its sleeve, it is described as the most subversive city in the world.
Paris will always be Paris; but Berlin has had to reinvent itself.
It doesn’t have the stability of London: unemployment continues to be one of the city’s main struggles. Its poor and sexy underbelly characteristics are the key to its intrigue and survival.
We flew into Tegel airport in Berlin. The airport itself was constructed from rubble in only seven days, a testimony to women’s impetus to get the job done and reflecting the German characteristics of dogged capability and tenacity.
Germans aren’t generally a patriotic bunch, but they all slavishly use German brands: B.M.W., Audi, Mercedes, Birkenstocks and Bosch—they’re advocates of high quality.
Mani hotel in Mitte, the cultural heart and old town of East Berlin where we rest our heads, is the first indication of the city’s kinky fetishes. Vending machines in reception display, not chips, chocolate and soft drinks, but “sexy packs” complete with handcuffs and other sex toys!
At risk of making the place sound seedy, it is actually beautifully elegant, styled in a minimalist yet glamorous way, which is why the fetishes are so surprising and funny. You wouldn’t want to share a room with someone whose body you don’t want to see from every angle, though. Filled with unavoidable mirrors, it’s a voyeur’s delight, complete with chocolate body paint in the fridge. Then there is the garden of lust, lustgarten—we didn’t see any lustfulness there, though.
The trams and the bland grey-beige army of communist buildings in Mitte strike me immediately. Three of the things that make up the brand of Berlin come from communist East Berlin: the traffic man pedestrian symbol, ampelmann, the T.V. tower—an ugly building, apparently taller than the Eiffel Tower—and Brandenburg Gate.
The non-descript communist buildings are juxtaposed with grand domed edifices, reminiscent of Latin romantic architecture—18th century Berlin was heavily French influenced—purposely constructed to appear old. Berlin cathedral, for example, was actually built in early 1900s.
Construction continues at a vociferous rate.
The city is still very much a work in progress, particularly around Unter den Linden, the main street in East Berlin. It strikes me as strange that they are rebuilding a royal palace costing one billion euro when they don’t have monarchy. Our Insider Tour walking guide, Barry, an entertaining Irishman, told us why.
When Berlin was rebuilt in the 1990s they didn’t want an excessively Disney-like result, like Dubai, so architecture is restricted and controlled. Even Frank Gehry had to tone down his design of D.Z. Bank. In Pariser Platz, the American and French embassies are uninteresting. It’s called Pariser Platz to reinforce German domination of Paris—one of many nods to one-upmanship. The Goddess of Victor on top of Brandenburg Gate is another example of the German chest-beating competition with France.
Brandenburg Gate, an iconic place of celebration on New Year’s Eve and for sporting matches, as well as a site of demonstration, was once trapped east of the Berlin Wall. It is now a symbol of German reunification. Prussian emperors, Hitler, and Napoleon marched through this neoclassical royal city gate. The Hotel Adlon, right by Brandenburg Gate, is where Michael Jackson famously dangled his baby son out of the window. Scraping the barrel a bit for a tourist attraction, I thought.
The names of the museums are amusingly unimaginative, the Old Museum and New Museum. Karl Frederich Schinkel designed the Old Museum, influenced by Italian romantic architecture.
In fact, it seems he’s designed half of Berlin.
Konzerrhaus Berlin is an original building, and one of Schinkel’s best designs. The Pergamon Museum is impressive. Containing monumental relics of one of the ancient wonders of the world, Pergamon, it exhibits colossal marble and stone palace ruins, temples, ceremonial sculptures, jewelry and art. The Ishtar gate of Babylon, featuring a whole street from Babylon, is the largest construction to have been excavated and displayed in a museum.
All these monuments provide insight into religion, trade, industry, engineering, science, architecture, art and literature creations from B.C. years to the 8th Century A.D.
Disappointingly, the Pergamon Museum features nothing made by Germans or belonging to Germany. All treasures are stolen—sorry, discovered and excavated by Germans from the cradle of civilization: Ancient Rome, Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia.
Religion and dictatorship don’t usually get along, but the Nazis were an exception (along with Franco). Nazis Christianized Berlin by putting crosses on everything and by excluding the Jews. We visited what is now called The Central War Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny, designed by Frederick Schinkel. It features a sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz, depicting a woman and son, and the mother’s guilt of sending him off to war. The word written on the sculpture, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, means struggling to come to terms with past, epitomizes both the sculpture and Berlin.
It brings to mind George Santayana’s words, “Those who forget the past are bound to repeat it,” which is why the Germans are so admirably honest about the horrors of their Nazi history.
Another stark reminder of mass hysteria and Nazism is at the old library at Babel Platz. This marks the burning of 20,000 books that were considered non-Nazi (i.e. Jewish, communists, gays). Importantly, they burned all books by the Institute of Sexual Research. An exhibit lies under the ground called Bibliotech, depicting empty shelves symbolizing the burned books.
There is a link between this event and the concentration camps at Auschwitz. Heinrich Heine once said, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”
Research reveals only three out of ten are proud to be German, whereas the British are a much more patriotic eight out of ten. Bavarians and Berliners, however, are incredibly proud. In Berlin, there’s strong history of anti-Nazism and large numbers of immigrants. Berlin was religiously tolerant (ironic given the subsequent mass slaughter of Jews and other non-Nazis), and therefore a haven for religious refugees, particularly from France, fleeing the Sun King who threw all the French Protestants out.
The Berlin Wall, otherwise known as the Iron Curtain, was erected by the Socialist Party regime in 1961, because of the Nazis. It reinforced the East v. West divide—both of Germany, and the rest of the world.
It is ironic that the wall, the biggest tourist draw card, no longer exists. The center stage of international East West confrontation culminated at Checkpoint Charlie, which used to be a ten lane border facility erected by East Germany, now a tourist circus, with McDonald’s and fake soldiers (strippers by night) earning a living posing for tourist photos.
West Berlin embraced Americanism because it represented freedom and had saved them. Trabant cars are a symbol of East German nostalgia. Volkswagen are now making them—the irony of a capitalist brand making communist cars for hipsters is not lost!
Around 75,000 people tried to cross the wall, 5,000 of whom succeeded, most were border watch guards or construction workers who took their chance when the wall was first erected and not really finished. Around 200 people died trying to climb the wall. The East didn’t want to kill people at the Berlin Wall, it was bad press. They used more subtle ways of repressing people than the Nazis: threat of job loss and separation from family was enough deterrent. Escapees from the West was a different situation, they were welcomed with open arms by the East.
Silence fell as we looked at sickening photos and read the horror stories of Nazi terrorism at the Topographies des Terror, the building that was the Nazi headquarters, command center of the Holocaust.
It reveals the banality of evil in that ordinary office workers stamped documents, administering the deaths of thousands of families—people were dehumanized, referred to as cargo in a day’s work here, before going home to their own children.
We visit Hitler’s bunker, where he commanded the Nazi regime from, and where he committed suicide with Eva Braun the day after they were married (which was coincidentally the same date as William and Kate).
The bunker is located underneath a car park, unmarked. This site flies in the face of Berlin’s honest depiction of history, which for the large part does not sugar coat nor disguise. But Germans are afraid the emotive pull of Hitler could still influence people today and become a neo-Nazi site if there is too much focus on him. So it’s appropriate that Hitler’s memorial is a car park covered in rabbit shit—Berlin has huge rabbit population due to the Berlin Wall.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a block full of shame. It represents every group terrorized and killed by the Nazis—six million dead people. It avoids the word Holocaust. There’s a moral difficulty in that the groups are called the same as the Nazis called them. Does it, therefore perpetuate the Nazi regime? It’s a divisive place. Lefties like the memorial’s acknowledgement. Right-wingers don’t believe they should highlight the genocide in their history when other nations don’t—like Turkey and Austria.
The memorial provides parents with a tool to explain to their children the difficult issue of what happened. The concrete tablets, like gravestones, feel eerie and somber, befitting the mass murder. Yet it’s aesthetically bland, without any meaningful interpretation of Holocaust victims. It’s best viewed from the rooftop bar opposite.
It could have been more creative but like all memorials it will never please everyone, and really, why should mass murder be depicted in a beautiful way?
Yet interestingly, I get an inkling from Berlin and its history of Hitler as a troubled and probably delusional person, just like in the film Downfall. Without evoking sympathy I perceive how people got swept up in Nazism through a huge collective error of judgment. If we put ourselves not just in the victims’ shoes of “that could have been me” but in the shoes of the Nazis themselves, we may see a glimmer of their humanity underneath the horror of it all.
On the last day, we take a stroll down the East Side Gallery, Freidrichshain. Part of the wall is decorated with colorful artistic murals, and partially ruined by graffiti. We can smell the swampy origins of the city wafting up through the drains as the harsh sun beat down on our heads, penetrating the concrete.
We were overjoyed at lunch, being given the mini pretzels we had been searching for the whole trip, along with the elusive steins, the huge traditional beer jugs.
I guess they are the tourist stereotypes. I passed on most of the German food. Pig knuckle and fried potato with cabbage is not my thing, neither is curried sausage. Though I did enjoy a delicious herring and apple salad, copious beers, and great Asian food in hip and trendy Kreuzburg and Chen Che, a fabulous Vietnamese restaurant in Mitte.
As we hailed a cab to the airport, we saw an old emaciated-looking man, semi-naked, riding a bike—very Berlin, and a grim reminder of what we’d experienced.
Our friend spontaneously said without thinking “he looks like he’s been in a concentration camp,” which was very Berlin too—saying the unspeakable with brutal heart on sleeve honesty.
A no sugar coating kind of city. Sensible and practical, yet full of surprising quirks, and a fascinating yet deeply disturbing history, reminding us of the depths of human capacity.
Like elephant journal on Facebook.
Assistant Editor: Moira Madden/Ed: Bryonie Wise