An August 2008 trip
to Berlin by Owen Lipsett
Quote: This journal is intended to cover Berlin’s historical monuments and buildings, as opposed to its formal museums, which I discuss in a companion journal, even though, strictly speaking, you could argue the monuments are museums and vice versa.
Attraction | "A Hollow Tooth and a Haunting Memory"
The church’s interior was decorated with 2,740 square meters of wall mosaics depicting scenes from German Imperial history, with the aim of placing the Hohenzollerns (who were descended from the last Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights) within this tradition. Some of these are still visible in what remains of the entrance hall, which has been converted into a memorial hall, which contains a cross forged from nails found in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (which was destroyed by Luftwaffe raids) as well as a cross given by a pair of Russian Orthodox bishops in memory of the victories of Nazism. The spire originally stood 113 meters high, of which only 63 meters are left. As a small plaque explains, the church has been left in ruins as a monument to the futility of war.
Although not a historical monument on a par with its predecessor, the new church, built next door, on the sight of the old church’s nave, makes an interesting counterpoint. Its hexagonal bell tower is 53.5 meters high, with a flat roof, and has been nicknamed "the Lipstick and Powderbox" by Berliners. Designed by Egon Eiermann, it is worth stepping inside as it’s highly unusual in that its walls are made primarily of blue glass set in steel and concrete, with the result that it glows blue when illuminated at night. (The clock on its tower is lit blue by diodes as well). I personally found this color incredibly calming, and it makes a nice and hopeful counterpoint to the jagged edge of the ruin next door, whose importance you might want to consider while sitting inside.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on December 9, 2009
Berlin, Germany 10789
+49 30 218 50 23
Attraction | "Shopping Mall... And Historical Sight"
Potsdamer Platz was originally the site of a customs gate that restricted peasant access to Berlin during the 18th century (yes, feudalism was alive and well at that time.) It subsequent served as a military parade ground, and, as the city grew, a major traffic junction. The inevitable traffic jams engendered by the customs post led Huguenot refugees from France to begin to establish roadside stands to feed passing travelers which later grew into more sizable and permanent establishments. Its prosperity grew as first two railroad termini (appropriately enough, one was to Potsdam) were established nearby, followed by both of Berlin’s internal railway systems (the U-bahn and the S-bahn). With the city’s expansion (following the end of feudalism and direct taxation), Potsdamer Platz became its commercial center and music halls, hotels, and government ministries were all located in the vicinity.
Between the First and Second World Wars, Potsdamer Platz was the busiest traffic intersection in Europe, and the area had a vibrant nightlife to match. Fashionable hotels, theaters, and luxurious department stores opened up nearby. One of these, Wertheim, was the largest in the world when it opened in 1897 and was progressively expanded so that by 1937 it was twice the size of the Reichstag Building. Unfortunately, it was essentially expropriated from its Jewish owners by the Nazis as part of their "Aryanization" campaign (compensation claims are still being fought over in court today); the Nazis also renamed many of the surrounding streets to glorify party figures.
The area was essentially obliterated during the Second World War, having been a particular Allied target because it contained many Nazi government offices. It was the epicenter of the sometimes violent struggle for control between the various occupying forces in Berlin, and ultimately was divided almost equally between the Soviets and the other Allied zones of occupation. Although there was briefly a checkpoint between the zones on Potsdamer Platz itself, once the wall was built, passage possible only through nearby Checkpoint Charlie.
While it became a popular nostalgia stop for visiting dignitaries to West Berlin, the small stores that abutted the wall were a pale reflection of its past glories. Perhaps given its prior importance, it shouldn’t be surprising that the section of the Berlin Wall stretching across Potsdamer Platz was among the first breached in November 1989. After reunification in 1990, the Berlin Senate held a competition for a design to redevelop the area, which was won by the Bavarian Firm of Hilmer and Sattler in October 1991. So much construction took place that it became known as "Europe’s Largest Building Site." While the result isn’t to everyone’s taste, it appears to have served its purpose of redeveloping the area into a futuristic business district. In any case, as it’s a major transit hub, you’re likely to pass through it on the way to Checkpoint Charlie, Topography of Terrors, the Reichstag or the Brandenburg Gate, so it’s worth taking a minute to take a look at the area and to this about its history, which may be every bit as impressive as its future.
Public Square, Center of Berlin
Berlin, Germany 10785
Attraction | "Unmissable, But It's Harder to Find than you Think!"
The wall encircled West Berlin not to keep its citizens out of East Germany (which they could visit with a visa), but to prevent East Germany’s citizens from entering West Germany, since once they entered West Berlin they were immediately eligible for West German citizenship and able to travel to the West. Before 1961, 3.5 million East Germans (over 20% of the country’s population) had escaped to West Germany by this method, in the following 28 years, just 5,000 managed to do so, including a number of border guards who defected. While statistics vary, historians believe that at least 100 East Germans died trying to cross the Wall. For obvious reasons, it’s unknown how many people attempted to get across the Wall but neither succeeded nor were killed. The Wall itself was located several meters into East German territory, anyone who managed to cross it still had to run across No-Man’s Land (also in East Germany) to get into West Germany.
Considering its iconic and fearsome history, I personally found the Wall to be visually underwhelming, which I suppose is a testament to how well Berlin has reintegrated. Seen in isolation the concrete slabs of the wall look unexceptional and they were much shorter and thinner than I had expected, although that’s cold comfort of court to the friend and loved ones of those who died trying to cross it. Much of what has been preserved survives because it became a popular template for graffiti artists in East German, a fitting combination of an authoritarian monument and a subversive art form. You can see some of best examples of this on a few sections scattered and reerected around Potsdamer Platz (see my separate entry), one of the commercial centers of modern Berlin (former located in the east) and at the so-called "East Side Gallery" near the old East Berlin Train Station (Ostbahnhof) on Mühlenstrasse where some of the best graffiti art from East Berlin is visible in a single place.
Ironically, I thought the most powerful section of the Wall to visit was the "Topography of Terror" ("Topographie des Terrors") memorial, which uses the wall as a backdrop for an outdoor museum with information on the Nazi seizure of power and that regime’s barbarity. Since it’s located below ground level and there’s an overhanging roof (to protect the exhibits from the elements) it physically creates a certain kind of claustrophobic and the graphic photographs and text leave little to the imagination. It’s a mistake to conflate Nazi and Communist atrocities, although the USSR and Nazi Germany were Allies at the beginning of the Second World War (and the USSR held on to the territory it conquered after the war), but authoritarian regimes share a desire for control, regardless of their politics. This juxtaposition also illustrates how the people of what was East Germany suffered under over half a century of authoritarian rule between 1933 and 1989.
For further information see www.berlin-wall.org
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 9, 2009
East Berlin, just a five min walk from station
Attraction | "A Gate To German History"
It’s easy to visit the Gate as by its nature it has no fixed opening hours, although the north and south wings of the gate are given over to Berlin’s most central tourist office and a room for quiet reflection respectively. If you prefer a louder form of reflection, there are a number of (expensive) cafes in adjacent Pariser Platz to gaze at the Gate and also watch the world go by. Illustrating the highs and lows of German history, it’s a short walk north to Berlin’s Monument to the Murdered Jews or south to the Reichstag. Just to the west is the lush Tiergarten, while Unter den Linden runs to the east and is home to many of the city’s greatest cultural and academic institutions, as well as many foreign embassies and expensive hotels.
Attraction | "Berlin's Most Famous Building - With the Best Views"
The original Reichstag building was built between 1884 and 1994 to house the Parliament of the (relatively) newly united Germany, with the costs largely covered by reparations France had to pay as a result of the Franco-Prussian War that help secure Gemran unification. However its iconic inscription, "Dem Deutschen Volk" ("to the German people") wasn’t added until 1916, in the heat of the German Empire’s final military campaign, the First World War. It remained the seat of the German Parliament under the Weimar Republic, until the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, which resulted from the "Reichstag Fire Decree" which suspended civil liberties and was declared after a Dutch Communist attempted to burn the building down (quite possibly with Nazi participation). Fittingly, the famous image of a Red Army soldier raising the Soviet flag over Berlin, symbolizing Nazi Germany’s defeat was taken at the Reichstag in 1945. Although the Reichstag was in West Berlin (but literally next to the Berlin Wall), it was unused prior to unification as West Germany’s capital was located in Bonn.
After German reunification, it was decided that the Federal Parliament (now known as the Bundestag rather than the Reichstag) would be moved back to Berlin and in 1995 a refurbishment program began, including the construction of a then-controversial (but now iconic) glass dome by the British architect Lord Norman Foster. Prior to this, the environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the building in fabric.
It’s easy to visit the Reichstag, as it’s open daily from 8 am to midnight, with the last admission at 10 pm. You should bring identification and be prepared to pass through metal detectors and it’s worth noting that waits can be quite long (in my case two hours on a weekday evening in August). A visit involves taking an elevator to the roof and then having the opportunity, should you so choose, to walk down through the dome. The roof offers outstanding views over Central Berlin by day or night, while if take the walk down during the week, you may very well see the Bundestag in session. (You have to book in advance to visit the Bundestag Chamber itself). There are an expensive restaurant and a cheap coffee bar on the roof, but no public toilets (something to keep in mind given the long lines.)
The Reichstag/German Parliament
Platz Der Republik
Berlin, Germany 10557
+49 30 2273 2152
New York, New York