After missing my connecting flight from Frankfurt to Berlin, (add 120 euro to my credit card, subtract 4 hours from my vacation) I finally arrived in Berlin! Exhausted and run down and apparently unrecognizable — literally, I was catching up with a friend I met while in Queenstown, New Zealand and walked straight from the subway to the cafe he was at without stopping to change and he didn’t recognize me. But I digress!
Our first morning in Berlin we went on one of the many free walking tours available in the city. This one was offered by Brewer’s Berlin Tours. I love doing a quick (2.5 hour) walking tour of a city on my first day because it helps me orient and make sure that I hit the highlights and also find some other sites to explore on my own later. I feel like the main things you think of when you consider Berlin, other than the nightlife, are the Brandenburg Gate, WWII, and the Cold War.
So this is really embarrassing to admit, and my mom who was a former history teacher, will likely be so ashamed of me, but until this trip, I hadn’t realized actually that the Cold War was over Germany and a direct result of WWII. I actually thought that the Berlin Wall was a wall erected as part of WWII to define borders of a Jewish ghetto in Berlin. Please don’t shame me for that, but the two wars are so inextricably linked that somehow I obviously missed a key piece in history class. Let me say though, that travel is an amazing way to educate yourself, and the lessons are so permanent and unforgettable! In case any of you happen to have made the same mistake, I’ll be sharing these photos in a much abbreviated historical context. Hooray for history and learning!
The Brandenburg Gate stands aside from this complex history with a war-torn history of its own. The city of Berlin was originally a military fortress and the site of the current Brandenburg Gate was a simple entry customs gate before the city along the road to Berlin from Brandenburg. The fancy new gate was commissioned by the king of Prussia to signify peace after the Thirty Years War. The figure on top is the goddess of Victory riding in a Quadriga. After Napoleon defeated Prussia, he removed the Quadriga to Paris. When Napoleon was later defeated by Prussia, the Quadriga was revamped to include the Prussian Eagle and Iron Cross, and then returned to the Brandenburg Gate which became a symbol of Victory. The Nazis in WWII used the Brandenburg Gate as a party symbol and planned to incorporate it into an enormous public forum, from which to promote their propaganda, a plan which fortunately never came to fruition. The Brandenburg Gate and the Quadriga suffered much superficial damage during WWII, which was subsequently repaired under a joint effort of both East and West Berlin governments. Since then, it has become a symbol of unity and freedom, particularly during the Cold War, where President Ronald Reagan famously called for Gorbechev to “Tear down this wall!” Today it continues to serve as a reminder of peace, unity, and freedom.
We are all familiar with the central tension of WWII. Recovering from WWI, or rather not recovering, economically speaking, Germany united behind Adolf Hitler against the Jewish people along with other minority populations. During this time, over 6 million European Jews were murdered, almost the combined population of LA and Chicago. I really admire the German people for the way they have accepted their mistakes and made sure not to glorify their history with monuments to their empire, but rather creating monuments to honor the people who lost the most in the war, like The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Our guide made a point of telling us that the name was essential, not remembering “people who died” or “loved ones lost” since the Jews did not simply die and were not lost. I think that takes a lot of courage. (Lest you think I’m lauding too much, obviously it is the right thing, but doing the right thing can still take courage.)
Walking through this memorial, it is easy to become lost, feel dwarfed, feel the walls surrounding you and rising above you, calling to mind just a fragment of the chaos and isolation that maybe those being persecuted were experiencing and feeling the unimaginably large number of people killed, families disrupted, and opportunities stolen. It’s really not something I can describe and is a living piece of work to be experienced anew by each visitor, as memorials should be. Beneath this memorial is a museum dedicated to telling the stories of several individual Jews and several families, sharing personal letters, recollections, and photographs.
From here we crossed the street to the site where Hitler’s Bunker had been, where he committed suicide. There is only a small plaque to mark this location and the Bunker has been thoroughly destroyed to ensure no idolatry occurs here.
Just a short walk away, before reaching Checkpoint Charlie, there is a stretch of the Berlin Wall, that still stands, accompanied by a timeline of the Jewish persecution leading up to WWII (perhaps this type of intertwined history is part of what led to my initial confusion? just saying.) which also bears biographical witness to the many great Jewish professors, doctors, lawyers who died during the initial persecution, whether they were abducted and abused, committed suicide, or were forced to flee to end their persecution.
After WWII, Germany was not trusted to govern themselves, so it was divided into four parts, each part to be overseen by one of the winning Allied Force countries: Russia, the US, France, and Britain. Russia would govern what would later become East Germany, while the other countries would govern West Germany. Berlin, being the seat of government and power, would also be micro-divided into East and West Berlin, accordingly. The ruling countries of West Germany were investing resources into Germany to help rehabilitate and re-establish, whereas Russia was extracting resources from Eastern Germany and East Germany was beginning to suffer. As such, many Eastern Germans chose to migrate to West Germany, creating a population and resource crisis for the Russians, who made it illegal to go to West Germany. The only way to West Germany after that, was through Berlin. Eastern Germans could go to Berlin, located inside East Germany, and then board a plane and fly to West Germany, until eventually this too was blocked. In an effort to stop this migration, in the middle of the night on August 13, 1961, the Russians decided to erect a fence between East and West Berlin, which would become the Berlin Wall, dividing families, friends, and neighbors for the next almost 30 years.
Along the course of the wall were several check points through which certain people with appropriate credentials were allowed to pass. Among these checkpoints, is Checkpoint Charlie. Today Checkpoint Charlie is purely touristic, with a recreated checkpoint and actors dressed as American soldiers, who, according to our guide, frequently moonlight as strippers. Far more fascinating, in my opinion, is the free outdoor museum across the street which details the history of the wall and the attempts made to cross it!
The wall finally re-opened after an ill-informed political figure made a statement regarding future plans to open the wall to persons who applied for strictly regulated visas. Unfortunately for him, a journalist asked when the wall would be opened, and not having an answer, this individual assumed effective immediately. The stand-in governments of West Germany made a huge media play informing people that the wall was open, and the checkpoints became saturated almost instantly! The check point officers, also being uninformed on the matter, did not have the staff to police such numbers and were forced to just let the people through.
The photos above are taken at an area of the Berlin Wall called the East Gallery, where the wall remains, decorated with murals by artists from around the world. This was by far my favorite part of Berlin.
My second favorite part was Charlottenburg Palace, named for Prussian Princess Sophie Charlotte for whom it was constructed to entertain artists and philosophers. Who can’t resist a gorgeous palace and beautiful grounds! We rented bicycles and were able to bike down the Unter den Linden (street of linden trees) which was closed off for the Unity Day celebration, and then along the river straight into the gardens and around the grounds, just enjoying a perfect October day with friends!