Not so sexy Berlin

We are “poor but sexy”.

So claimed the departing mayor of Berlin recently.  This statement is oddly apropos as Berlin is a city of contrasts.

This November marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the divisive Berlin Wall.  Countless articles have been written lauding the city’s vibrant art and entertainment culture and the accomplishments of the hipster start-up entrepreneurs. This is the “sexy” side of things.

Yet, I can’t help feel that the “poor” overwhelmed the “sexy” on our recent visit.  By this I refer not to economics but to the dull and unattractive construction projects, brusk demeanor of the people, and inescapable scars of history (think Nazis and Communists).

Our tour guide explained to us that visiting Berlin and focusing only on the oppression of the Nazis and Communists is like visiting America and concentrating only on the abuse of the Indians and slavery.  In the early 19th century, Berlin was a city of enlightenment and tolerance, filled with beautiful buildings and monuments that symbolized its renaissance.

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How sad to think that this legacy has been replaced by the tyranny of the Nazis and the oppression of the Communists.  Ghosts of WWII and the Cold War are everywhere.  As we walked along the cobbled streets of Berlin near Humboldt University, we stopped at this plaque commemorating the Nazi book burnings in 1933.  It is a quote from the poet, Heinrich Heine, who died in 1856.  His words are both prescient and chilling: “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings“.

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Further along we came to Checkpoint Charlie, a symbol of the Cold War, where American and Soviet tanks once faced off during a perilous period in 1961.  The Iron Curtain has been lifted, but the dull physical structures and depressed emotional paralysis of the Communist era still linger.

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Leaving the Cold War behind, we entered the warmth of the Christmas markets.  We drank in the Christmas spirit as we glugged Gluehwein, a delicious warm spiced wine, in the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt filled with tempting treats and festive wares.

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But it was back to the cold both literally and figuratively when we slogged stone sober through the bleak Sachesenhausen concentration camp on an appropriately gray and frigid day.

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Quote at the gate: “Work makes you free.”

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The Berlin Wall is gone, but its remnants are symbolic.  On one hand, there is the austere gray concrete structure that stands above the ruins of the Nazi SS building where prisoners were tortured in small underground chambers.

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On the other hand, there is the vibrant East Side Gallery, a colorful art installation splashed across a 1.3 km strip of wall.  It has become an international memorial for freedom.

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Both sections portray meaningful messages.  Near the former Nazi headquarters:

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On the East Side Gallery:

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The physical barrier of the wall is gone, but the psychological division remains. The sense of East vs. West is still very apparent.   Everyone we met identified themselves as either an East or West Berliner, with equal measures of pride.  One of our guides told us to go out at night in the West side of town because, “it is much more illuminated”.  It seems so symbolic that the street lights are literally fewer and dimmer on the east side.  The East still feels drab, and the West is definitely more modern.

One modern building of note is the Reichstag.  This formidable building was used by the Nazis in WWII and then stood bombed and vacant for many years.  It has been restored and now houses the German parliament.  The glass dome on top of the building symbolizes transparency between government and citizens.  It is meant to be a hospitable place.

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And yet, visiting the building is actually a rather hostile experience.  Upon arrival for our specifically timed appointment, we were herded unceremoniously with a large crowd into the entrance vestibule where we could not enter through the front door until the back door had closed.  Seemingly beyond capacity, we crammed into the trapped space, uncomfortably pushed together while we waited for the uniformed guard to press the button and let us through.  From there we waited in a line behind ropes until we were herded again into an elevator even smaller than the entry vestibule, forcing us to mash together once again in a claustrophobic nightmare.  All this accompanied by an unpleasant man barking orders at us in a stern German accent with its halting cadence.

A view within the dome, once we finally made it there!

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The whole experience made me think that there is something unsettling about the Germans’ love of rules and order; there is a stern inflexibility inherent in their DNA.

On the subject of rules, I think it is weird for people to stand at a street corner when there is absolutely NO TRAFFIC and wait for the signal to change.  Jaywalking does not exist in Berlin.  What is up with that?!  The Ampelmännchen, or green light walking man, is a beloved symbol as it is one of the few features of communist East Germany to have survived the end of the Iron Curtain with his popularity unscathed.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Ampelmännchen acquired cult status.  And no one crosses a street without him!

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I think New York Times columnist, Ian Johnson, said it best:

For all those who have witnessed the city’s post-wall fortunes, it feels that this is what lies beneath the art galleries and start-ups: a scarred city content to remain in the second league“.

Poor. Not so sexy.

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