A doughnut in Berlin.
It is with some embarrassment that I admit two quotes sum up my entire knowledge of Berlin, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, J.F.K., and ‘In Berlin by the wall you were five feet ten inches tall’, Lou Reed. It is with equal embarrassment that I admit that this is because I am British. My knowledge of German culture as a whole extends to social stereotypes involving middle-aged men in Lederhosen and bath towels on sun loungers. I could argue in my defence, that the British media hardly goes out of their way to rectify this cultural malaise. They only choose to mention our European neighbors when we have beaten them at football or when they do something the Press judges to be suitably heinous like not wanting a war, or not buying British beef! But ultimately, the fault is mine and it is with this in mind that I set out for a few days in East Berlin for my first taste of German culture.
I have flown into most of Europe’s capital cities and thought of nothing more than what cultural treats lay in store once I landed. But flying into Berlin I realized how polarized and quietly racist the British psyche is concerning Germany. Instead of reading my guidebook with anticipation and excitement, all I could think of was if this was where the dam busters had flown. Looking out of the window all I could think of was bombs dropping below and David Niven, saying “OK chaps that’s the Hun seen to; lets turn home for tea and the white cliffs of Dover”.
They say that history is written by the victors; it is easy to forget that while we have spent the last fifty years making movies about our glorious victory, Germany has been coping with the calve up of it’s land by the allied forces and the hostility between the same so called allies. A situation polarized in Berlin when in 1961 a 70 mile concrete wall was erected to stop the flood of economic refugees from east to west [15 000 a day at its peak]. Although most of our troubles ended in 1945, in Berlin they continued until the fall of that wall in1989.
Unification however, has come at a high price. Bringing East Berlin into the economic fold has put the city in financial crisis; couple that to the cost of joining the Euro and the German economy has gone into almost complete meltdown. While this is terrible news for Berliners, it is great news for the budget traveler. With the Euro running at 1.45 against the British Pound, Berlin has gone from one of the most expensive cities in Europe to one of the cheapest.
Arriving in Berlin at the aptly named Zoo train station is like arriving in Time Square in New York [without the 1990s Disney makeover]. The architecture is brash, neon is in abundance and it is easy to see where all the money poured in by the West to make Berlin shine in the face of the East was spent. The whole area around Zoo train station is a monument to bad postwar architecture. A short trip by tram, not crossing any noticeable border and we are in Mitte, the heart of old East Berlin. The first thing to strike you is the difference in architecture. Where the west of the city is brash and modern the East is austere and utilitarian. Again, I have to admit I did imagine James Mason stood on the street corner smoking a cigarette in a raincoat. However, back in the real world, one unforeseen benefit of the annexing of the city is the East has escaped the rabid modernization of the West and although Berlin as a whole lost 1 in 7 buildings to the blitz, the area around Mitte has managed to hold on to a quaint pre war feel. With its courtyards and small back streets it is ideally suited to café culture. The old East austerity has given way to cafes bars and shops quickly establishing it as one of Europe’s most fashionable areas. Adidas chose to open one of its first Adidas originals stores here and the home furnishing shops drip with named European designers.
Mitte means middle and although that name seemed laughable when the wall was up it now seems more fitting. Most of the cities monuments and museums are within its borders and with its shops and galleries it has once again become its cultural heart. On the aptly named Museum Island you can see the original gates of Babylon at the Pergamon museum, a must see, and the Altenationalgalerie has one of the largest collections of 19th century art in Europe. The area is dominated by the Fernsehturn, a television tower built in 1960s under Eric Honiker’s German Democratic Republic to a height of 365 metres. Affectionately known as the death star by the locals due to its cylindrical steel revolving restaurant and observation deck it was built to demonstrate to the west the technological prowess of the GDR. It encapsulates in its stark modernism the contradictions of this fascinating city. All around you can find reminders of its inner conflict and forty years of division: three opera houses, three symphony orchestras and God knows how many museums. After all, whatever one side of the divide had the other had to outdo.
Another reason to visit Berlin is its centrality to recent European history, turn any corner and the ghosts of Hitler’s fascist dream will be there. Outside one of Berlin’s university buildings just off Friedrichstrasse, is the site of the infamous Nazi book burning where books by such German luminaries as Albert Einstein, Bertold Brecht, Franz Kafkaand and Vladimir Mayakovski were declared unfit to represent the fascist dream by Joseph Goebbels. Their works were ripped from the library shelves of the university they had made famous and burnt ceremonially, signaling the beginning of Nazi intolerance and a forbearing for the future. The site also represents the continuous struggle the city appears to be embroiled in as to its future direction. A haunting monument built beneath the university square of a library with no books on the shelves and only one locked entrance has been closed. The Israeli artist responsible, Micha Ullmann, has threatened to take the work away completely if the council go ahead with their plan to build underground parking next to the site.
Struggles between past and present for the soul of the city can be found everywhere. The site of the new monument to the Jews who died during the Second World War has had similar problems. Even the name was a contentious issue as it ignored all the other minorities persecuted and exterminated by the Nazis such as homosexuals the disabled and the mentally ill. During excavation the site of the new monument was found to be on the top of Josep Goebbels bunker where he poisoned his six children before taking his and his wife’s life just before the Russian army stormed the city. Some view this as inappropriate, others as fitting. Both these issues highlight the problems Berlin has deciding the direction of it’s future.
Berliners point out that Hitler’s Nazi movement was borne in Munich not in Berlin and feel aggrieved that Berlin is so closely associated with the Nazi legacy. Young Berliners will point out that the Nazi atrocities were conducted three generations ago and they believe it is time to move on. The city has changed immeasurably since John.F.Kennedy gave his famous speech to a huge crowd in Rathaus Schoneberg, a large square in West Berlin, in 1963 but his words of hope seem prophetic today. “Freedom is indivisible”, he said, ” and when one man is enslaved all are not free. When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when the city will be joined as one and this country and this great continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe”. He then famously skewed the dialect stating, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin and, therefore, as a free man I take pride in the words `Ich bin ein Berliner`!” apparently Germans don’t use articles when referring to professions or national origins so instead of stating I am a Berliner, a metaphorically impacting statement, he actually said, I am a doughnut.
However Kennedy’s belief in reunification was well founded and although the fractious nature of Berlin society is borne of a turbulent past it has given rise to a liberal and dynamic society. Berlin has none of the restrictive draconian laws we are used to in Britain; you can drink all night; you can drink in the street and if you really want you can drink in the street with the prostitute you are at liberty to employ, as prostitution is completely legal. The working girls have health insurance and are registered taxpayers.
Berlin is a truly evolving city and although coming to Berlin to see the wall and Check Point Charlie is as good a reason as any, there are so many more. Berlin is a City in a true state of cultural and physical evolution and with their economy proving to be a great incentive to the travelers budget there has never been a better time to sample true German culture and hospitality. And maybe you will find yourself declaring `I am a doughnut`!