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Berlin: A Journey into Modern History, Part 1

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The European Union has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to mark its six decades of establishing peace and democracy in Europe. Whereas up until World War II there’d been a major European war every 30 years or so, peace and cooperation have reigned since. Even with the Union facing a terrible economic crisis, and with protests raging in Greece, the response by Angela Merkel, leader of Europe’s most powerful economic power, is to pay a visit to Athens with warm personal greetings. Not tanks.

I recently spent six days or so in Berlin. While Germany’s capital has many beautiful buildings and other grand sites, a visit here puts one in a swirl not of many centuries of colorful history, as happens in other major European cities, but of often grim, sometimes still raw, but equally fascinating modern history.

My arrival in Berlin came by way of a subway-and-bus ride from Tegel Airport followed by a confused half-hour of wandering around Potsdamer Platz wheeling my luggage over miniature cobblestones, looking for the hotel. My wife had arrived several days earlier for some business meetings and we were going to continue the trip together as a vacation; for the first few nights we’d stay where she was already ensconced, at a hotel in Potsdamer Platz.

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Potsdamer Platz was the ruined wasteland the old man shuffled through in the movie Wings of Desire. It’s amazing what has happened to the place, and to the rest of Berlin, in the decades since Wim Wenders’s 1987 film. The neighborhood around the sprawling plaza is forested with shiny new office buildings and corporate complexes like the Sony Center. Wide boulevards feature bike paths on which cyclists ride (and, to the shock of this New Yorker, observe the traffic rules). And cranes, cranes everywhere. The entire city looks like it’s under construction.

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Gaily graffiti-ed sections of the Berlin Wall are positioned here as a tourist attraction too. More on the Wall later.

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On our first full day we took in a couple of the city’s main attractions. P1050851_tiergartenWe skimmed the edge of the Tiergarten – Berlin’s huge rectangular urban park – and saw the memorial to the Holocaust’s homosexual victims. It’s a big rectangular solid, the edge of which you can see in the inset photo.

Our walk took us to the famous Brandenburg Gate. Note: not everyone we saw in Berlin looked as intently mean as the people in the photo below. Though I will say Berliners in general are fairly pushy, which doesn’t mean unfriendly, and I actually like cities like that, as they remind me of Gotham.

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We then paid a visit to the Reichstag. It’s free to visit this huge, stately building, still used by the government today, but we had made online reservations for a specific day and time, as things are tightly controlled here. If you go, bring your passport! We hadn’t, and were given a stern lecture before being admitted. It’s grim, but still a reality: It is disconcerting to receive a stern lecture in a German accent.

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Inside, you’re crowded into a large elevator and taken up to the lower viewing deck surrounding the great glass dome:

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You can view the city from every direction:

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Inside the dome you can walk up a ramp to the upper viewing deck for even better angles on the sprawling city below, but the geometry of the dome offers its own interesting view:

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However, the most fascinating thing about visiting this site, to me, was the circular display of historical photos depicting the history of German government going back to the 1890s when the building was erected. An image of Albert Einstein attending a session of Parliament at the dawn of the Nazi era sticks with me. (Here’s one.)

We next visited the city’s Holocaust Memorial, an art installation of stone rectangles of varying heights set on an undulating paved surface.P1050867_holocaust_memorial1 The whole thing suggests, without mimicking, a graveyard. Below, an underground space functions as a tastefully organized museum not of artifacts but of memories, with family stories and other evocations of the millions of dead.

Among the taller stones of the aboveground memorial, one feels a bit like one is in a maze (inset), although, with children darting to and fro and area workers eating sunny lunches on the stones at the outskirts, it isn’t predominantly a place of gloom. And the unremarkable buildings just beyond remind us that in spite of the horrible history of the 20th century, today we’re in a peaceful modern city.

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I’ll close this installment with a striking instance of the banality of evil: a view of the site of Hitler’s bunker, the underground burrow in which Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun killed themselves on April 30, 1945. What’s there now? A parking lot, and with nothing but an informational sign to mark the location. In a way, it seems appropriate that the last hideout of history’s worst murderer should be reduced to, well, nothing.

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Continued in Part 2

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://www.lunch.com/JSMaresca-Reviews-1-1.html Dr. Joseph S. Maresca

    It’s amazing what a 67 year peace dividend has done for Germany, its people and the world. This very important lesson should be heeded by countries like Syria, Iran and North Korea.

  • Marie Warder

    Well-written, interesting, and beautifully illustrated, I really enjoyed reading your story which took me back to a happy time, years ago, when my husband was temporarily seconded to Lufthansa, and I had the privilege of going with him. Wonderful to be able see how “polished” the country city has become since those post-war years!