Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ich bin ein Berliner (for a few days)

Before hopping back across the pond to California for spring break (a month long in the UK!), I stopped for four days in Berlin to experience the history I came to Europe to study.

The best thing about Berlin, in my opinion, is the history (the weather during my stay was a close second). The history not all visible given the destruction of the city during WWII and the fall of the wall in 1989, but what is left makes for great sightseeing.

The Reichstag building is a good example. There was a large fire in February 1933 (likely started by Nazis) and it was badly hit by bombing and artillery until the Battle of Berlin in 1945. It would have been interesting to see buildings like this in their original state. At this point it's like Veterans Stadium in Chicago - an old facade with a modern interior. From the pictures I've seen of the original Reichstag, I prefer the more traditional style they had before. I think the older style gives a better sense of tradition and history. At the same time, the modern design does have some cool features. The use of glass gives the idea of transparency of democratic government - part of the 'never again' spirit after 1945. I think that's a pretty cool idea. There's a huge dome made of glass and mirrors at the top that looks down into the chamber and out over the city.
Note the signs above the doors: 'ja' and 'nein'. It's for one of the procedures they have to tally votes. The MPs walk through the door with a secretary keeping track of numbers.

Here are some photos of the Reichstag building before it was rebuilt:

This is the Russian WWII memorial right outside the gutted Reichstag. It was built before the city was divided up and ended up in the British sector. This caused some controversy in the Cold War. I heard that it's constructed from stones that were part of a major Nazi building (Hitler's Chancellery, I think):
A German soldier outside the destroyed building:

This is one of their troops flying the red communist flag from the Reichstag over a devastated Berlin. The Soviets conquered Berlin hours after Hitler had killed himself. Note that the guy holding the flag bearer has two watches on. He must have picked the extra one up from a dead soldier:

It's important to note that it's the Reichstag building. It does not house the Reichstag because the parliament is now called the Bundestag. 'Reich' carries very strong negative connotations.

The Wall is another example of not really seeing all the history that had been there. It is still standing in certain portions of the city, but you can't understand how imposing it really was without seeing the full construction the Soviets put together. The death strips - stretches of sand, barbed wire, metal pylons, ditches and fences - have been taken down. All that's left is the concrete portion. Looking at photos shows how far the Soviets went to keep their comrades hemmed in and how much construction there's been since 1989.
Now there are just a few short stretches of wall still standing without the added fences and other obstacles. This is one of the more interesting murals in the East Side Gallery. It serves as a memorial to those who died trying to escape the East:
You can also see a watchtower in the first photo next to Brandenburg Gate. Those were staffed by two young East German soldiers who did not know each other and would only be told when and where their shifts were a short time before they were sent out. This stopped them from plotting to let friends or family from the East cross. If they let anyone across, they faced prison time. Here's one close-up:

Here's the Brandenburg Gate:
Apparently, there was some controversy surrounding the reconstruction of the US embassy which is right next to the gate. Americans wanted to rebuild it with the same design it had before WWII, but it had become tough to work around new security regulations for US embassies. There had to be a large amount of space between the building and the street in front of it. The Americans asked the Germans if they would be able to move some stuff around. The Germans, understandably, said no to moving the Brandenburg gate and the holocaust memorial. The US had to settle for a new design in order to keep their spot right next to the gate.

Here's Kennedy with Willy Brandt and Konrad Adenauer in front of the gate:

Just down the road is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It's always great to find memorials and similar designs that you can interact with. It's a collection of thousands of concrete pillars (Berlin has the most concrete of any city I've seen) with undulating walkways. The walkways and tall pillars create a disorienting atmosphere.

There were a few controversies surrounding this, too (it's doubtful that something as important as a German holocaust memorial could be erected without people getting upset about something). At the design stage, there were a number of tasteless designs put forward (a big cube filled with real blood, a coal-fired oven that never went off, etc.). Once they settled on the final design, it turned out that the anti-graffiti chemical they treated the concrete with was produced by a company that had manufactured zyklon-b gas for the chambers at a couple of extermination camps. Also, the site chosen for the memorial was also discovered to be the bunker of the Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels. Neither of those circumstances were acceptable, but they were ultimately short on options and still went through with the plans. I think it's a pretty interesting result:

Just around the corner is Hitler's underground bunker where he married Eva Braun one day before killing himself. It's now filled in with dirt under a parking lot. There's a law that says sites like this have to be destroyed to prevent anyone from using it as a place to promote Neo-Nazi agendas. It would have been interesting to see the bunker and Hitler's Chancellery which sat on top of it, but I can understand why that law is in place. There are other ways to get a sense of what that was like. A great movie called "Downfall" chronicles Hitler's last days in the bunker and there are plenty of photos on the internet of the Chancellery:
Here's a scene from "Downfall":

There's still some Nazi architecture around the city, but most of it was taken out in the Battle of Berlin. This was taken in front of the old Luftwaffe ministry. It's now the German tax collection offices. It went from one hated group to another:

A few other photos:

With Julia (a Berliner and student at Durham) at Brandenburg Gate. She also showed me the less touristy side of the city when we grabbed lunch at a market outside the center of the city:

Marx and Engels in East Berlin:

Outside the Riechstag building:

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