Monday, April 22, 2013

Historical Berlin

We booked ourselves into a walking tour of Berlin this morning (Original Berlin Walks - Discover Berlin).  We walked to the meet up point outside Hackescher Markt train station in time to join our guide David, a young PhD student, and the others in the group by 10.30am.

From there it was only a short walk to Museum Island on Berlin's Spree River and an opportunity for David to give us an introductory, but eloquent and intense, history of Berlin since the Middle Ages, and the place of these grand old buildings on Museum Island in the evolution of that history.  What is difficult to grasp is that most of these buildings were SEVERELY damaged in the last years of WW11 and have all had to be rebuilt and restored, mostly in the last twenty years, after reunification.

This gem of a building is now Berlin's Old National Gallery - housing a collection of 19th century art.

Museum Island was the scene of some of the fiercest hand to hand fighting in the last days of WW11 (between German and Soviet troops) so despite all the restoration and repair work over the past twenty years the surfaces of most of these buildings on Museum Island are riddled with bullet holes and shrapnel damage to this day.

This building (below) is now the site of Berlin's Old Museum (the antiquities collection).  It was very chilling to realise that the large square fronting this building (where the green grass is now growing) was where the huge mass rallies of troops would be staged in Berlin preceding the war years. Adolf Hitler addressed the rallies from the stairs of this building.

This is a shot of the Berlin Cathedral (nicely contrasted with the old Soviet era TV tower in the background) - also fronting the parade square from the Nazi Germany era.  The cathedral still looks to be a fairly ravaged building - it's magnificent dome was only repaired in the mid 90s.

We stopped for a while in front of the Deutsch Historisches Museum, which David explained was originally built as an armoury for the old Prussian army. 

Then we are on Unter den Linden (under the lime trees), Berlin's most significant boulevard, running east-west from the site of the former royal place which used to be on Museum Island right through to the Brandenburg Gate.  Our first stop is the Neue Wache ("New Guard House") which has been used as a war memorial since 1931.  

I have seen old film footage of Hitler and Himmler laying wreaths, with great solemnity, in this memorial. After reunification in 1990 the German government placed this enlarged version of Kathe Kollwitz's sculpture "Mother with her Dead Son" in the centre of the memorial - directly under the  oculus (opening in the dome) and dedicated the memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny. The Nazis would have hated this sculpture!

Here we are looking across to the  Humboldt University of Berlin, which has some very distinguished alumni, including Albert Einstein, Engels, Karl Marx, the brothers Grimm (Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty!!!!), Mendelssohn, and many others.

To take that photo I was standing in Bebelplatz (in front of the University's Law Faculty building).  Bebelplatz (then known as Opernplatz) was where over 20,000 books from the University's library were burnt by the Nazis in May 1933.  Books by "degenerates" and opponents of the regime were targetted.  There are very discreet and thoughtful monuments to this event in Bebelplatz today, including this plaque bearing a very prescient epigraph from an 1820 work by Heinriche Heine: "That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people."

Of course the reward for all this walking and heavy reflection is this close up view of the Brandenburg Gate, which has come to be such an iconic symbol of Berlin and all the dramatic events of history over the last 100 years or so for the German people.

We're very excited to see this view today because the last time we saw it in 1975 we had to stand on rough wooden scaffolding overlooking the Berlin wall from the old British sector. All we could see was a back view of Brandenburg Gate and the area all around it was grey and desolate - buildings still damaged from the war and all the empty rabbit infested spaces of the death zone between the inner and outer fortified walls.

Now the area around the gate on the former East side is filled with new embassy buildings and the old Hotel Adlon, since 1997, is back to its old luxury 5 star glory days (This is the hotel where Michael Jackson was filmed dangling baby "Blanket" from the balcony.)

We got a peek at the restored Reichstag building too - but we'll look at that more closely another day.

Turning South down Ebertstrasse it's not long before we come to the amazing Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  It's a huge 4.7 acre site covered with 2,711 concrete slabs (reminded me of tombs) or "stelae" arranged in a grid pattern on an undulating base.  It has a very powerful impact, filled with unease and foreboding (I think) - and yet the smaller slabs around the perimeter are used by people in quite playful ways - making you question the purpose of the memorial!!

Then it is another short walk to this very ordinary car park, and the realisation that we're standing directly on top of the Fuhrerbunker, that was constructed in the garden of the Reich Chancellery.  The bunker was so well fortified that it was not destroyed by bombing at the end of the war.  The East Germans opened up some parts of it when they were constructing the foundations for the apartment blocks now surrounding the bunker site, back in the late 80s. They made sure that whatever remained of the bunker was destroyed. Today there is very little to indicate that this was the site of the Fuhrerbunker, where Hitler, Goebbels and the rest ended their lives in late April 1945.

We're walking past Potsdamer Place here. Rob counted at least 10 cranes - the story of modern Berlin - at least on the old East side anyway. All the reconstruction efforts have resulted in big debt problems for Berlin (64 billion euros at last count).  As the Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit has been quoted as saying "Berlin ist arm, aber sexy" (Berlin is poor, but sexy).

... and then we reach the Ministry of Finance building on Wilhelmstrasse - the only significant building remaining intact (apart from the 1936 Olympic Stadium) that was constructed in the mid thirties as an expression of the grandeur and power of Hitler's National Socialist Party.  During the war it housed the Luftwaffe bureaucracy, headed by Herman Goering.

Around the side of this building is the site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo and the Nazi SS (destroyed at the end of WW11).  There is a section of the Berlin Wall that was never demolished here. It now forms the backdrop to the outdoor memorial and museum "The Typography of Terror".

Then we start walking Westwards  down Zimmerstrasse towards the old Checkpoint Charlie, the name given by the Allies to the best-known crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold war years.

This is pretty terrible copy of a pic Rob took of Checkpoint Charlie the afternoon we crossed over to East Berlin (for an afternoon back in 1975).  It was such memorable thing to do. All we did was walk up Friedrichstrasse and then a left turn into Unter den Linden for a ways. It was grey and desolate, no cars, few people, no shops, lots of bombed out buildings, very grey and oppressive. We were so glad to get out.

This is Friedrichstrasse today (the shopping street as it is now known).

This is a copy of a pic of Friedrichstrasse that I took in 1975. Those char blackened buildings had trees and bushes growing out of them.

We ended the four hour walking tour at Gendarmenmark an expansive square that is the site of the Konzerthaus and the French and German cathedrals.  The Konzerthaus is one building that the East Germans did complete the repair and reconstruction of before reunification, so its been back in working order since 1984.

We'd grabbed a sandwich along the way but we felt the need for a good rest and reflect - and a beer by this stage, at one of the lovely outdoor cafes fronting the square. This weird green coloured drink is a direct result of me not being able to read German. I thought that Berliner Weisse Grun sounded like a friendly sort of beer - instead I got this amazing concoction.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon and whatever energy we had left at the Deutsch Historisches Museum admiring the beautiful IM Pei extensions to the Museum (and this beautiful glass canopy over the courtyard) - and then some intense time at the "Diversity Destroyed. Berlin 1933-1938" exhibition which we found really intense and full of learning.

It was late afternoon by the time we approached Alexanderplatz where we braved the Berlin Underground for the first time to save us the walk back to our apartment.

Rob has fallen in love with the Prater Garten and would happily drink beer and eat bratwurst there for the whole week. Tonight we compromised and ate at the Prater Garten Gaststatte (restaurant). We didn't even drink beer and I ate some trout. Rob had Kassler ham, sauerkraut and mash and was a happy man. 

1 comment:

judy l said...

You are bringing back lots of memories from our trip to Berlin in 1992 Jude. I thought I saw the Hanging gardens of Babalon or something in one of those museums. Just simply uplifted from the middle east. Jurgen and i used to love the cafeteria's in the big department stores (Karlstadt etc) lots of different types of cabbage on offer there.