I arrived in Berlin at around 10am, having taken a total of four trains from Wroclaw to get there [it was much cheaper that way]. I hadn’t actually intended on visiting Germany, but I’d heard so much about Berlin from just about everyone I’d met that I decided I had better spend a few days there. Besides, Berlin was behind the Iron Curtain [with the exception of the Allied part of the city] that I figured I could still class it as ‘Eastern’ Europe – my definition of Eastern Europe is basically the countries that were behind the Iron Curtain. It keeps it simple.
I arrived on a Saturday, and after stashing my bag at the hostel I decided to try to find some kind of guidebook about Berlin, so that I would have a map and some idea what the city holds – the hostel wasn’t particularly helpful and it is a big city. I managed to find the biggest bookstore in Berlin and got lost inside there for about an hour [there’s about 4 floors, with a big English section] before leaving, mission successful, with guidebook in hand.
I headed back down Friedrichstraße and accidentally came across Checkpoint Charlie. I spent a while reading all the information on the boards around the intersection. Checkpoint Charlie is described as the cheesiest tourist attraction in Berlin and I have to agree. There’s a little booth set up representing the old checkpoint, and when I went there it had wreaths and piles of flowers in front of it, as well as some dignitaries, flags and rows of chairs behind it. As it turns out my timing was impeccable – it was 13 August 2011, fifty years to the day since the erection of the wall on 13 August 1961. There was a big speech and stuff commemorating [hardly celebrating] the raising of the wall, but I couldn’t understand anything so I decided to go into the museum.
The Checkpoint Charlie museum is interesting, but at €12.50 it’s the most expensive museum in Berlin and it’s not worth the price. It’s got a collection of artefacts, memorabilia and newspaper clippings relating to the building of the wall, escapes over and under the wall, escapes from East Germany DDR [Deutschland Democratic Republic] and a little bit on the fall of the Berlin Wall. I spent a couple of hours there and enjoyed it, but I felt a bit ripped off at the cost.
I didn’t get up to much else on my first day. I wandered around Mitte, the area I was staying in. It’s nice, but for a backpacker it’s a bad place to stay. It’s close enough to all the main sights, like the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, and close to metro stations, but:
- Everything is really expensive.
- There’s no atmosphere
- No pubs, bars, clubs are nearby
- No reasonable restaurants, and hardly any at all
- Everywhere in Berlin is close to a metro station
- It’s just not fun.
If I go back to Berlin, there’s no way I’m staying in Mitte again. I’d prefer to stay in Kreuzberg, where there’s life and fun and food is affordable.
On my second day in Berlin I thought I’d do a free walking tour – they’ve been interesting every other time I’d done them, and this was no exception. The free tour meets at the Starbucks at Pariser Platz, before the Brandenburg Gate. I did a double-take when I saw how many people were there – in excess of two hundred. Thankfully when the time came everyone was split into groups of twenty-four; if this hadn’t happened I’d have just left as a couple hundred people would be too much.
The group I was in had a guide called Lewis. He was from the Netherlands and had a funny beard that kind of creeped me out a little, but he was entertaining and fairly knowledgeable about the city. We started, not surprisingly, a few steps down the square at the Brandenburg Gate. There were plenty of street performers, a couple of guys selling giant bubble wands and a guy stamping postcards with ‘original’ DDR stamps. When I saw a guy hand him €10 and get no change my interest dissipated pretty quickly.
After going through the Brandenburg gate Lewis pointed out the lines of bluestone bricks that cut through the road before us, and explained that this marks the position of the Berlin Wall. Through Berlin you can see these bluestone lines, always marking where the wall once stood. It’s strange to think that you’re standing with one foot on either side of where an eight foot wall of concrete that separated families and friends, colleagues and classmates, stood for twenty-eight years.
We headed next to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This place was simply odd. There’s no signs telling you what it is, no information; just a concrete field of concrete stelae of various sizes, all rectilinear. Apparently the architect never gave any explanation for his design, and it’s not obviously representative of anything specific. It seems to affect people differently, and different people interpret the memorial in different ways. Some think it looks like a cemetery while others, walking through it, see it as a miniature city of miniature skyscrapers. I think that the memorial is more about feeling than about representation.
Walking through it, you feel disoriented. What started off as two foot high concrete blocks soon tower over you, and you realise that the ground isn’t level. It goes up and down on all angles and so you kind of watch where you put your feet. It’s like a perfectly organised forest of concrete, rectangular trees and as you walk deeper inside towards the centre, you are descending further. The stelae are arranged in a grid, and people wander around from all directions; you don’t see people coming from the sides until they step in front you. Children run through it like a playground and the light plays strangely across the pillars. It’s disconcerting and very isolating, watching people stepping in and out of existence. Everything is grey, and then suddenly the stelae become shorter as you head out of the centre; colours reappear in the buildings surrounding the memorial and the real world returns. This too is a little disorienting; among the pillars it is easy to forget the sounds of traffic, or the sounds are muffled and somehow distant.
The next stop was Hitler’s Bunker. I didn’t know what to expect here. I certainly didn’t expect to be standing in a carpark, but I can understand the rationale behind this. The bunker in which Hitler hid and later killed himself remains underground. After the war, the Soviets built apartment buildings for high-up members of the Communist Party and important people like Olympic gold medal winners there, and the area immediately above the bunker was turned into a car park. There’s nothing to identify the site. By turning the site into something so banal and so mundane, rather than turning it into a museum and letting people tour it, the place can’t become a place of pilgrimage or a sacred site for Nazi supporters, Neo-Nazis and other twisted people who idolise Adolf Hitler.
It was at Hitler’s Bunker that I heard what can only be described as the single stupidest thing I have ever heard. At this point in my life anyway, as I’m sure there are plenty more geniuses out there. So, as we were walking away from the carpark, the very blonde English girl in front of me turned to her friend and said
I always thought that Hitler’s bunker was a treehouse. You know, with little curtains and wooden tables and chairs…
I could not stop laughing. Was she for real? Unfortunately yes, and she couldn’t even claim an unfamiliarity with the English language on that one. A treehouse? How sensible a hiding spot would a freaking treehouse be when you are being attacked with bombs? Not the most secure retreat. And the term ‘bunker’ has no association with tree houses. She was the highlight of my day.
Following Hitler’s Bunker we visited what is now the tax office, with a big Soviet era mural out the front depicting the glories and wonders of Socialism. We saw a part of the Berlin Wall and went to Bebelplatz, where the Nazi book burnings took place in May 1933. It seemed sad and yet ironic that the mass destruction of ‘dangerous’ books took place in what seemed to be a square dedicated to tolerance and cultural understanding; Bebelplatz houses the State Opera House, St Hedwig’s Catholic cathedral [the first Catholic church built in Prussia after the Reformation; Prussia was staunchly Protestant], and the Humboldt University law faculty. There is a plaque with a quote from Heinrich Heine that states ‘Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people.’ Heine’s ‘warning’ came almost a hundred years earlier. There is a memorial to the book burnings in Bebelplatz that is very clear and direct; a glass window looking down underneath the square into a room lined with empty bookshelves.
We had one more stop before the end of the tour, and it was at the very vague memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny. It’s in a building that has been used for a number of things over the years and now houses a statue of a woman cradling the body of a young man. On one side of the statue is buried the body of an unknown concentration camp victim and on the other the body of an unknown WWI soldier.
Apparently this caused a lot of controversy among victims’ groups, in particular from the Jewish community, as it suggested that soldiers as well as civilians could be victims of war, and this suggestion apparently insulted the victims of the Nazi regime. Personally, what I’m more interested in is where the bodies that were enshrined in the memorial in 1969 came from. Were they exhumed from mass graves and reinterred? Wasn’t anyone concerned that this may have been a little disrespectful, or did the fact that they were ‘unknown’ mean that no one really cared? Or does the fact that the bodies were reinterred in a national memorial mean that the ‘honour’ outweighs any disrespect to the victims resulting from their exhumation?
Above the statue of the woman and her dying son there is an opening in the roof, so when it rains or snows the statue will be wet or covered in snow.
We ended in front of the Berliner Dom on Museum Island. After leaving the group I thought I’d go to the Pergamon museum, but after seeing the queue I changed my mind and headed instead for the DDR Museum. The DDR Museum was brilliant, a completely interactive museum about life in East Germany up o the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had a lot of fun there, climbing into a blue Trabant and trying to start the engine, listening to music and watching videos, opening doors, exploring a typical DDR family kitchen, looking at propaganda and more. It’s kitsch but it’s great fun and a good way to spend an afternoon.
When I left the museum it was pouring with rain. I’d held off leaving in the hopes that the rain would abate – typically it rained on the day I forgot my umbrella – but after about 20 minutes I gave up, wanting to get out of the museum doorway. I ran about 30 metres up the stairs and into the nearest shop, an icecreamery, arriving absolutely soaking wet despite being in the rain for about thirty seconds. I had an icecream to justify remaining in the shop and after about half an hour the rain eased enough to make walking the few kilometres back to the hostel a possibility.