Thursday, June 14, 2012

Currywurst and Kreuzburg: Berlin, Germany (6/7/2012)

11/6/2012, 6:00.  I am sitting on a train from Itzehoe, Germany to Hamburg, Germany as I write this.  I am traveling to Copenhagen today.

    As had become our custom, Jeff and I started the day off on the 7th later than intended.  We had planned to catch a free city tour at 9:00, but the tour group was nowhere to be found when we arrived at the Brandenburg Gate.  It was no problem, though: we had delicious German pastries for breakfast and took a walk around the the nearby Tiergarten, a massive park in the center of Berlin.  Once a no-man’s land in the Cold War era (a large portion of it was a barren garbage pit), brave artists from around the world moved in during the 1960s and left large memorial sculptures scattered all over the lawn.  Although every single tree in Berlin was cut down during the war, this park is now a tranquil green oasis, its paths lined with mature trees and enclosed by untamed forests and ponds.  Jeff and I walked and talked and returned to the Brandenburg Gate to meet the 11:00 free tour-- a successful change of plans!
    Just like Budapest and Prague, the free tour was hugely awesome.  (I’m telling you: find one on your European vacation!)  This one was three-and-a-half hours (on the long side), but we saw and learned about many of the most important sites in the city.  Our tour guide, a charismatic thirty-ish year old from Leeds, England, showed us the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial, the former Luftwaffe headquarters, a section of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmenmarkt (old churches), Humboldt University, the Museum Island, and a few other key spots, and gave us the historical low-down.  I particularly enjoyed the fact that most of Berlin’s important history is within the last one hundred years, more so than most other European cities.  I scribbled some notes about it(as usual, skip if this bores you.  It’s mostly for my own sake that I write this, but read if you like.)
Early history: Berlin was founded at two swampy Slavic fishing villages.  Hundreds of years later, there were many kingdoms in the region, generally divided into four areas: Prussia (the largest), Bavaria, Saxony, and another one I didn’t catch (haha).  If I remember correctly, in the 1700s the kingdoms were united under the rule of the sovereign king of Prussia, the Kaiser.  (Although the guide didn’t use the term, this is often called “The First Reich,” or first German Empire.)  I don’t exactly when or why it ended. 
“Second Reich”: Kaisers Wilhelm I and II ruled from 1871-1918 (with someone else between them, I think.)  Wilhelm II was rather aggressive militarily, and was the leader when World War I began.  Germany received basically all the blame for WWI, including a reparations bill of 193 billion reichsmarks, causing their economy to plummet into poverty.  They printed more money to attempt to fix the problem, but this caused severe inflation.  ($1 USD had equaled 8 reichsmarks: it now equaled 43 trillion.)  The U.S. gave the first ever international loan at this time.  During this time, Germany was called the “Weimar Republic.”
Adolf Hitler and the Nazis took over and was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933, and World War II began in 1939.    70% of Berlin was destroyed during the war.  After the war, Berlin and east Germany were occupied by the Soviet Union.  Although they tried to take all of Berlin by blockading all roads out of the city and cutting off electricity, the United States (and other countries, I think) sustained the longest airlift operation in history in 1948, dropping resources to the people of Berlin.  The city was therefore forfeited by the USSR, although it was later divided into East and West Berlin by the Wall.
The former Luftwaffe headquarters, a WWII-era concrete building, became an official East German government building in the ‘50s.  In 1961, a major protest against the Soviet Union took place in front of the building.  Today, a giant photograph of the East Germans protesting contrasts with the similarly-sized mural on the building’s wall, a Soviet painting depicting the false ideal of German culture at the time.
Checkpoint Charlie, the famous checkpoint between East and West Berlin, was the site of a face-off between Soviet and American tanks (in 1961, I think.)  A tense moment in history: it could have been WW3.  Of course, the Wall fell in 1989, reuniting East and West Germany as one country.
The square of Humboldt University was the site of an infamous book-burning, where in the 1930s all the university books about tolerance, modern science, and other such ideas were destroyed, leading up to the War.  There is a glass window embedded in the cobblestone square, through which one can see an underground memorial to the book burning: a vast underground room filled with empty white bookshelves, accurately and dramatically representing the number of books that were incinerated.

What amazed me most about Berlin were two things: first, how bluntly it confronts its dark history, and second, how new and modern and creative it was.  The Holocaust Memorial is one of many powerful examples of how the Germans fess up to former transgressions: situated in the very center of Berlin, it is a massive grid of large rectangular stone pillars.  From the edges it is at ground level, but if a person walks along the narrow paths between the pillars towards the center, the level of the ground sinks deeper and deeper, and the pillars get higher and higher.  There is no plaque, no dedication, no message describing the significance of the Memorial, but perhaps that makes it all the more powerful.  Along with the Holocaust Memorial and the book-burning memorial I mentioned above, the city remembers the Berlin Wall with a line of bricks embedded in the ground, and by the East Side Gallery, a length of the wall which has been maintained and divided into sections reserved for graffiti artists-- the world’s largest open-air graffiti art exhibit, I was told. 
    The second amazing thing was the city’s modern, youthful vibrance.  There are hipsters everywhere-- young people (and old) with interesting fashion and rusty antique bicycles.  Actually, there were bicycles everywhere.  Almost every main street Jeff and I explored had a designated bike lane.  Although I didn’t particularly like Berlin’s city rail network (above and below ground), it was well-connected.  Most noticeably, there are mostly new buildings, for obvious reasons.  Many of the neighborhoods, including Kruezberg and Fredrichshain, had thriving ethnic neighborhoods, cool restaurants with outdoor seating, funky shops, organic food, etc.  If an American twenty-something felt like relocating abroad, Berlin might be an attractive option-- and, I’m told, the city has room for more: currently populated by 3.5 million people, it allegedly has capacity for 7 million.
    As I have mentioned, Jeff and I spent much of the day after the tour exploring Berlin’s neighborhoods.  We also spent a long time searching for a recommended authentic German restaurant, but in vain: we asked half a dozen people, and searched where they said, but couldn’t find it (Curse you, Max and Moritz’s!)  Later, we returned to our hostel dorm, where we met six Irish twenty-year-olds on their way to Poland for the European Cup soccer tournament (they were setting up screens in the city squares of Prague and Berlin for public viewing-- soccer is HUGE in Europe.)  We were invited to join them on the hostel rooftop for some brews, but we had to spend quite some time arranging Jeff’s bus travel and accommodations for the coming day: he would be traveling to Düsseldorf and flying home the following morning.  I also made tentative plans for travel on my way to northern Germany, where I would stay with friends of friends.  Another day full of awesome!

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