Friday, April 20, 2012

Berlin Was Fascinating, But...

Our arrival at the massive Berlin Hauptbahnhof left us wondering if we’d gotten off the train at the airport by mistake. The futuristic construction of metal and glass soared upwards around us, enclosing a multileveled atrium of escalators transporting travelers up, down and around its honeycomb of corridors and railway tracks. Our first impression of Berlin was that it was grand, sleek and modern and that characterization pretty much held firm throughout our five-day visit. The reconstruction that arose from the rubble after all was nearly leveled in the devastating bombing of WWII and then resurged post-reunification when the Berlin Wall fell is a lesson in how a city can stand back up, brush off the dust and completely reinvent itself. Historic areas like the Potsdamer Platz (now a showcase of modern architecture), Pariser Platz (in front of the Brandenburg Gate and new American Embassy) and the storied Friedrichstrasse (once the site of a terrifying Cold War stand-off) have been completely rebuilt in the image of a contemporary metropolis. It’s actually quite a surprise when you catch a glimpse of a building that is old in central Berlin. Even the steeple of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on the broad, fashionable Kurfürstendam boulevard, left in its post-bombing condition as an ongoing reminder of the destruction of war and as a symbol of the city's resolve to rebuild itself, was covered in a modern sheath as it undergoes refurbishment to prevent further deterioration. Poor Joe was seriously disappointed he didn’t get to set his eyes on the iconic image of the damaged tower. Unfortunately, despite the addition of a few new buildings, the sprawling Alexanderplatz with its 1,200-foot high East German-built TV tower and open plazas retains its bleak Soviet appearance. But most everything else that was old is now new again in Berlin.

A suitably modern hotel served as our Berlin home base -– the Spanish-owned Eurostar, all sky-high plate glass and steel rising almost directly above the Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof in the Mitte district. We were surrounded by the familiar German names we’d encountered so frequently in history books and seen pictured on the big screen (the Unter den Linden, River Spree, Spandauer Vorstadt quarter, Leipzig Strasse and Friedrichstrasse) and it was comforting to have a Starbucks around the corner for venti morning coffees and buttery croissants. We did also indulge in German fare: we ate currywurst (pork sausage in a warm curried ketchup and a favorite among Berliners), partook in the Sunday brunch ritual in the trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood and had lunch in the truly amazing food court on the top floor of the KaDeWe department store (crab salad sandwiches and fresh strawberries with whipped cream). We never made it into one of Berlin’s most famous landmarks, the enormous Reichstag, home of Germany’s Bundestag parliament, since we needed to have reserved visitor spots at least a week in advance given that it was Easter week. But we did spend a good amount of time out front gazing at its imposing facade while Joe filled me in on the building’s history, including a catastrophic fire in 1933 (possibly set by the Nazis who blamed it on the Communists, a ploy which helped augment and solidify Hilter’s hold on power). While I was getting my history lesson, the weather, which had been cold and gray since we’d arrived in the city, suddenly took an even further turn for the worse and we were pelted with biting winds, hail and sleet. The relative warmth we’d enjoyed since the middle of March had made us wonder how we’d managed to dodge the typically chilly first days of spring. Well, it was just our luck to run smack into them in Berlin and the freezing weather with blustery winds immediately made us regret that we’d shipped back to the US almost all our winter layers. Despite the “lovely” April weather (it was April Fool’s Day, after all), we managed to endure a walk through the famous Tiergarten Park without getting frostbite. As is the wont of early spring flora in defiance of the glacial temperatures, the cherry trees were flowering and patches of daffodil and crocus color dotted the lamp-lined pathways.

Just east of the Tiergarten is the Holocaust Memorial, officially called “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” designed by American architect, Peter Eisenman. I saw the representation of a horrific cemetery but Eisenman’s project text describes the full city block as an “ordered system, which has lost all touch with human reason.” In what could perhaps be considered a fitting physical placement, the memorial is within view of where the Führerbunker, Hitler’s final subterranean residence and site of his suicide with Eva Braun in the final days of April 1945, was located before it was finally destroyed after reunification. The spot is marked with an informational signpost and the terrain is covered by an unremarkable parking lot. I was particularly anxious to visit Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on the western edge of town, designed by Walter March and built by the Nazis for the 1936 Summer Olympics. As a piece of epic architecture, I found the structure itself beautiful -- a gargantuan yet graceful geometric masterpiece in light natural stone with its symmetrical columns and interior lower half below ground level. Der Fuhrer intended the Olympic Games and his grand Olympiastadion to be the ultimate showcases for Aryan athletic prowess and racial superiority. How appropriate that the arena-cum-propaganda tool became the site of the four gold medal wins by African American sprinter Jessie Owens.

And then, of course, there is that troubling Soviet era. Several blocks down Friedrichstrasse from our hotel was the intersection that put the street in the global spotlight. At the end of October 1961, just over two months after the Berlin Wall split the city in two, American and Soviet tanks faced off at the Checkpoint C (Charlie) crossing gate from West to East Berlin. Both tanks at the barrier had live ammunition ready-to-go and each had orders to shoot if fired upon. The chilling stare-down ended without violence but the Cold War had begun in earnest. Today, the barbed wire and dividing wall at Checkpoint Charlie are long gone and only a cobblestone trail in the pavement shows where the wall used to stand, separating families from each other and freedom from subjugation. The soldiers standing ready with rifles cocked have been replaced by a faux guardhouse complete with sandbags in front of which actors dressed in full military regalia pose for pictures for the cost of a euro. Vendors peddle East German military paraphernalia and odds and ends from everyday life in the GDR in what has come to be known as ostalgie – nostalgia for the ost (east). And I thought, really? What a strange era to inspire sentimentality and spawn its own portmanteau.

Two significant stretches of the Berlin wall still remain intact. One is a couple blocks from Checkpoint Charlie next to the outdoor museum, the Topography of Terror, which stands on the site of the former headquarters of both the Gestapo and the SS and is accompanied by a riveting exhibit which details the oppression of the Nazis. The other section of the wall, just short of a mile long, is further south near the Ostbahnhof along the Spree and is covered with colorful murals by artists from around the world. The more we explored Berlin, saw pictures of its eastern sector beyond the wall and recognized the day-to-day realities of life in a divided city, the more disgusted we grew with what the Soviet and East German governments had done.

Berlin was fascinating with so much to see and we easily could have extended our stay by a week and not done all on our list. We never made it to neighboring Potsdam or Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s summer retreat, and there were several other museums and neighborhoods we would like to have visited. Multiple dark chapters of history unfolded in the city and now that they can be viewed through the lens of history, Berlin draws tens of millions of travellers every year. It’s obvious that the city has once again taken its place as one of the great capitals of the world – it’s dynamic, energetic and appealing – but it was impossible for me to forget for even a moment Berlin’s reprehensible Nazi past. While no one actually demanded, “Show me your paperz,” I always had the uneasy feeling that someone just might. Exploring the capital city of a country with such a shameful past was difficult since the urge to curse all Germans was there at every turn. And that kind of hateful emotion makes me extremely uneasy.

After more than a dozen trips to Germany for both business and pleasure, I remain uncomfortable as a visitor; I just can’t warm up to the place. I have no appreciation for the language, delight in little of its food and will never get accustomed to the brusque Germanic manner. But a trip to the history-laden city of Berlin was a must and thus our trip itinerary included just one lone stop in what is perhaps my least favorite country in Europe.

Pictures of our adventures:

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