14 July 2007

Berlin: The Ever Evolving City

Berlin, Germany. Few other cities around the globe have played such a significant role in contemporary world history than this capital. The city’s associations with Nazi fascism and Communist authority have left a mark on Berlin, but it’s turbulent history dates back further than the 20th century. As dynamic as any European capital, in fact many would say more so, Berlin pushes head strong into the future in a quest to heal old scars and regain its identity.

Through the history of Germany Berlin was almost always present as the metropolis of the nation. The city was Germany’s Paris or London. Compared with these European counterparts though, Berlin is relatively young and has a much different story to tell. The city began around 1200 AD as a fishing settlement along the Spree River. The name Berlin has Slavic origins and points to this original identity. Down the centuries it held a position of power, notably the capital of the Prussian Empire (the Second German Reich) beginning in 1871. After the loss in World War I the city became the seat of government for the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first democracy. However, as the nation suffered from its military defeat and the world economic crisis of the 1930s a dictator was able to rise to power and overthrow this young republic. By 1933 it was clear that Adolf Hitler, as the new Chancellor, would steer Germany, and with it Berlin, in a new direction. This was the birth of the Third German Reich. During Hitler’s tyrannical reign of power he ordered the destruction and demolition of great swaths of Berlin in order to rebuild it as a proper capital for what was to be his world empire. Worse yet, Hitler’s insane refusal to surrender even when Soviet tanks reached the city edges led to Berlin’s further ruin. The Früher’s insistence to fight brought fierce combat and destruction to Berlin, which now lacks a proper historic district. Once the smoke cleared and the war ended the city began to rebuild, but true hope of a new start still remained half a century away.

As the Allie occupation zones came into effect those under the watchful eyes of the Soviet Union drifted more to the East. As a part of the post-war agreements, Berlin, which itself lay entirely in the USSR occupation zone, was also split into four zones. Those of France, Great Britain, and America remained closely connected, but the Soviet zone followed the above mentioned pattern. Berlin took its first major blow during this occupation era in June 1948 when Soviet forces blockaded the city, taking advantage of the fact that Berlin was in the middle of the larger Soviet zone. Until now transportation between, say, the U.S. Berlin occupation zone and the larger U.S. Germany occupation zone in the southern portion of the country was free and open. Now all roads and rivers leading into Soviet occupied Germany from the other Allie zones were closed. West Berlin, or the city occupation zones of the three remaining Allies, was cut off from support. In response to the blockade the western Allies formed the Berlin Airlift. For this operation Allied planes flew over the Soviet occupation zone and delivered coal, food, and other needed supplies to the people of West Berlin. This lasted until May 1949, when the democratic Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, was officially established. A few months later the communist Democratic German Republic, or East Germany, came into existence as well. West Berlin remained West German territory surrounded by a communist state. Germany, its people, and the city of Berlin were now split into two countries.

In a decade the distance between East and West grew and eventually the East German state, still under the influence of Moscow, crafted a damaging plan for Berlin. One morning in 1961 the citizens of Berlin awoke to find their city physically divided in two. The Berlin Wall was at first a simple barrier of wooden and barbed wire fence, but as years passed it grew in its complexity. At its furthest development, the Wall actually consisted of two cement walls with a no man’s land in between watched over with guard towers. It cut through streets, parks, and buildings. When it reached a body of water the Wall took the form of nets and other underwater obstacles to prevent people from crossing over. The GDR government reported that the Wall existed for the protection of the East Berlin citizens from their former West Berlin friends and relatives. In reality it was built to prevent East Berliners from escaping into the democratic freedom of West Berlin.

Most non-Germans I’ve talked to about the Wall tend to fail to grasp how large and devastating it was for Berlin. As said, the Communist propaganda reported that West Berlin was an island of the enemy German neighbor smack dab in the middle of East Germany. The GDR used this as justification for building the Wall. However, if the Wall’s true purpose was to keep East Berliners and likewise East Germans from escaping into the freedom of West Berlin it had to be more than a simple barrier cutting through the middle of the city. Therefore, the Communists constructed the Wall entirely around West Berlin. It seems a bit paradoxical, but it was actually the West Berliners who found themselves inside the Wall. Now imagine building a wall around a city of over one million people; it would not be a simple task. During a major period of its existence, it was illegal for any East Germans to cross the Wall. The Communist government commanded the Wall boarder guards to shoot anyone seen trying to escape over the obstacle. Indeed, hundreds of people lost their lives in attempting escape. For nearly forty years the city of Berlin stagnated, decayed, and lost its identity.

Berlin lost its former glory during this episode of its history. West Germany made the sleepy university town of Bonn its new capital. The publishing industry found a new home in Hamburg. The banking and financial industry moved to Frankfurt am Main. The movie and fashion industries took up shop in Munich. While East Berlin remained the capital of East Germany, it suffered under the Communist government, economy, and lifestyle. Historical buildings such as the Berlin Palace were lost to history through Communist forms of urban renewal. Germans no longer looked to Berlin as the great metropolis of the nation.

Change began in 1989 when the Wall opened, and a year later on October 3 Germany reunited. The former GDR states entered into the Federal Republic of Germayn and intense debate regarding the future of Berlin commenced. Finally in 1995 after a close vote, the German parliament decided to move the country’s capital from Bonn back to Berlin. The decision meant the country and Berlin would have to confront their past. At first, some state buildings of the Nazi and Communist eras were used by government ministries and offices until new buildings could be constructed or others renovated. In 1999 the renovation of the Reichstag, the building which houses the German parliament, reached completion. The event acted as a symbolic moment for the progress of Berlin and the country.

As the picture at the opening of this posts attests, Berlin is now a construction zone. In fact, more money is pouring into Berlin for development now than any other European city. Berlin continues to awaken from its post-war slumber and brush off old scars. The enormity of the Wall demanded large tracts of land, all of which are now open to development. For example, Potsdamer Platz was a main commercial district in Berlin before World War II, but the Wall cut straight through the middle of it. The result was the abandonment of land on both sides of the barrier. Now high rises and urban entertainment centers are rising from the former no man’s land. Hitler’s last stand bunker was demolished over a decade ago and replaced with a parking lot and small park (incidentally, no signs or postings hint at the former use of the land). In the first years after the Wall’s fall it was an urban planner’s nightmare. Streets, train tracks, subway and sewer lines all had to be reconnected between the previously divided city. Now though, city planners can have a field day with redesigning bleak Communist public squares and boulevards, and guiding Berlin’s fast-paced growth and evolution. This construction atmosphere is one reason why Berlin possesses such a dynamic personality.

Every visitor acts as a witness to the ever changing, ever progressing city of Berlin. The city, Germany’s largest now home to around three million, is successfully fighting to regain its identity. Once or if the construction slows, the cranes come down, and the dust settles Berlin will be the gleaming modern metropolis for Germany, and perhaps for the continent as well.

With that said, one can probably imagine that Berlin is one of my favorite cities. The title of my favorite German city always goes to either Berlin or Munich depending on my mood. Last weekend was my second visit to the city; the first came three years ago. I was able to notice many changes and new buildings since that trip, an observation which came as no surprise to me.

Dylan and I left last Thursday evening in a small and cramped car destined for Berlin. The driver was a German friend of Dylan’s who lives in Berlin but comes to Eichstätt for three days every week to attend classes. Neither I nor Dylan understood why she would bare the six hour one way drive every week. We didn’t ask questions though since we only had to pay for a portion of the gas to get there, a cheap price compared to train tickets. We arrived at our hostel a little after midnight and soon went to bed.

We awoke early the next day and started by searching for our new hostel. Availability in the city’s hostels was tight, and this was the only solution we could find. After moving across town we began exploring.

One of the first sights we came across was Alexanderplatz. Before the war this was supposedly the busiest public square in all of Europe. In its heyday the square consisted of five levels, but two were removed at the beginning of the 20th century. Seeing as it was entirely in East Berlin, the Communists decided to remodel the square and left it resembling a bleak parking lot with a few splashes of their typical soulless artwork. On this visit Dylan and I found it ongoing yet another remodeling by the current city government. I have more faith that these renovations will leave a better mark on the square. In the not so old movie “The Borne Supremacy,” a short chase scene takes place in Alexanderplatz. At least two of the features added by the Communists remain today and can be seen below, the World Clock and the Fernsehenturm (Television Tower). Below those is a shot of the square at dusk.

From Alexanderplatz we strolled to the Neu Synagoge, or the New Synagogue. Originally built toward the end of the 1800s, this house of God was burnt by the National Socialists (Nazis) during the Kristallnacht raid on
November 9th 1938. Before the blaze it was regarded as one of the architectural landmarks of Berlin. The flames were put out but mostly only the façade remained. The synagogue was rebuilt and renovated through the early 1990s.

From there we crossed the
Spree River and the Museum Island, and caught some glimpses of the Berlin Cathedral, see below. Nearby is the former site of the Communist-destroyed Berlin Palace, which is now under reconstruction.

Dozens of street vendors throughout the city sell memorabilia from the Communist era. Most of it's fake, but I suppose one might be able to find some authentic pieces.

We soon entered what one can consider the center of
Berlin, a city which comprises multiple neighborhoods and communities each with a center of their own. We soon found ourselves on Unter den Linden (Under the Lindens). New York has Fifth Avenue, Paris has the Champs Elysees, and in Berlin one enjoys Unter den Linden. The wide and linden tree shaded boulevard is Berlin’s most famous. In the 19th century cafes and exclusive shops lined the sidewalks. Today foreign embassies, government offices, and souvenir stores mingle with the older remaining institutions. The western terminus is the Brandenburg Gate, and to the east is the site of the former Berlin Palace.

At one point we crossed an intersection only to look down the other street and spot the American embassy. Actually we only realized it was the embassy after our curiosity drew us to the fortified building. A terrorist warning is currently in place for all Americans in Germany, and as the photo below shows the embassy keeps security at the highest level. I would have taken a closer shot but signs and guards told me I couldn’t. Dylan and I remarked that the barricades made usage of the other buildings across from the embassy impossible for businesses and inconvenient for residents. Indeed, the corner floors of the surrounding buildings were blackened and empty. I felt a little disheartened to see the steps the embassy must enforce in the face of terrorist threats. Most other embassies we came across had only a few door guards on hand. However, the British building also employed a few street barricades on the narrow lane before its front entrance.

Eventually we stood before the Brandenburg Gate, arguably
Berlin’s most recognizable landmark. Built at the end of the 1700s, the former city gate has symbolized division and unity for Germany. While the Wall stood it incorporated the Gate into its length; when the Wall fell Berliners from East and West streamed through the opened gate to find loved ones and celebrate. Here are a couple views of the national treasure.

Almost as close as a building can get to the Gate, the construction for the new American embassy continues. My guess is that this new structure will provide new security measurements which will avoid the problems caused by those impromptu ones taken at the current site. Either way, the new structure looks like it will be more aesthetically appealing.

A short walk north of the Brandenburg Gate is the Reichstag. This building houses the German parliament, and one could say it’s the equivalent of Germany’s capital building.

It originally opened in 1894 and the parliament used it up until early 1933. It is now commonly believed that the National Socialists, who had been steadily rising to power in the parliament, set the Reichstag ablaze in a covert operation. After the fire Hitler blamed the burning on Communists and used this as justification for further limiting the civil rights and liberties granted by the constitution of the
Weimar Republic. Soon after, the parliament voted to surrender its power (the Nazis used different tactics to ensure this vote), and Hitler’s government became official.

With the decision to move the capital back to Berlin the Reichstag is once again the flagship building for the federal government. The building was restored during the 1960s, and Sir Norman Foster added his famous glass dome as a modern take on the original in the late 1990s. In front of the Reichstag stretches a large grassy field well used by locals and visitors alike. In 1999 the building official welcomed parliament and the glass dome opened for visitors. Dylan and I entered the waiting line and an half or so later reached the top and enjoyed the panoramic view of the city.

After the Reichstag we walked to Potsdamer Platz and came across some of the city’s old scars. The first photo below shows the site where the Gestapo headquarters once stood. In the second picture one sees a section of the Wall still standing.

The last sight for the day was the recently completed Holocaust Memorial. We learned that this is actually a privately constructed and maintained site and is not connected with the German or Berlin governments. The large memorial site consists of hundreds of blank vertical stones. The center of the site slopes down in a depression and a visitor soon finds himself dwarfed. We both expressed concerns if this simple design appropriately memorializes the millions of lives lost. We spoke with the sole security guard we saw on the site and learned that many foreigners randomly come across the memorial without a clue as to what it is. He told us that younger visitors will often jump from stone to stone, or run through them playing. As a result, at least one person injures himself per week at the site. We found it more disturbing that the architect originally intended for skateboarders and graffiti artists to make use of the memorial. The plans were throw out after the weekly cleaning costs were considered. The guard was also quick to point out that Berliners know why the stones stand there and respect the site. For now the site’s quality as a memorial remains undecided, but I would certainly say it provides an interesting target for photographers.

The next day we went to the Berlin Zoo to check up on a four-legged celebrity. Before we found him we came across these sun bears which entertained us for some time. The one on the left is trying to hide from the rain, while the cub is about to insist on playing.

Soon after, we found the object of our search, Knut. Perhaps you have heard of this famous polar bear cub. He gained international press coverage when his mother rejected him after birth and was adopted by
Germany’s Environment Minister. The zoo staff continues to raise this cub that has become a symbol for environmental protection and action against global warming.

After the zoo we briefly stopped by at the Gedächtniskirche, an anti-war memorial. The church received heavy damage during a Berlin air raid in World War II and today only the original main tower remains, with an obvious portion missing.

Next we toured the Jewish Museum, which presents the story of German Jews from the last 2,000 years. It also included a holocaust memorial, which Dylan and I found better. Still rather simplistic in design, this memorial was contained in a large and dark open room. On the floor of this room lie hundreds of steel faces upon one another, each about the size of a frisbee. As one carefully walks over the faces the metal clanks echo through the room. I believe that the best memorials create the intended effect and reverence without a cue to do so. Here, for instance, all people fell and remained silent in the room although no sign requested such respect.

The museum was really the last main sight we visited in
Berlin. The next day we overslept and missed our train, but caught a later one. After eight hours of riding and waiting on trains we arrived back in Eichstätt. It was a fast but fulfilling two days in Berlin. I look forward for the day when I can return.


natalie said...

I realize this is going to be too late for you, but it's not for me soooo
I hope you had a great day !

These picture are great by the way.

Nick O. said...

Thanks for the birthday wish! Likewise for the compliment on the photos. See you soon.