Border guards in crisp uniforms putting a mirror on wheels under the carriage of a bus while going through Check Point Charlie, speaking on the radio in Poland on the day that Solidarity wins the elections, interrogation on a train in a broken English accented by a thick Russian accent, running from Soviet police in St. Petersburg after trading blue jeans on the black market for Soviet kitsch, exploring the wide streets surrounded by drab apartment blocks and walking around Red Square in awe of the Kremlin, St. Basil’s cathedral and the preserved body of Lenin seems like scenes from a period spy movie. This was, however, all a part of the last extended trip I took to Berlin. Twenty-three years ago, when the Berlin Wall still divided the city and I was six, I went on a trip with my father and sister through East and West Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. While this time my visit to Berlin was much less dramatic the traces of the conflict were still visible in the city and though it is less tense than the way things were, the continuance of credit down grades and problems within the Eurozone that Merkozy can’t fix does provide an ambiance which though not as tense could be of equal importance for the health and stability of Europe.
After arriving to the apartment that I’d rented in the western section of Berlin, Josselyn and I rested for a few hours as our early flight and initial problems navigating the city public transit had drained our energy. After this and a meal we decided to go to the German History Museum. My initial apprehension following the coldness of the staff when I spoke in what must have sounded like the German spoken by a provincial adolescent quickly dissipated upon entering the main foyer. Large statues of Friedrich the Great, Lenin and other significant historical figures greet the attendee and when going into the chronologically first room artifacts, models and explanations as to their first historical interactions with the Roman immediately transported me back in time. From a young age I’d been interested in European history, culture, thought and development but I can say without reliance upon this taste of mine that there are few museum as wonderful and amazing as the German History Museum. Simply cataloging all of the pieces there that made me grin with geekish glee would make me happy, but doing so would turn this blog into a history book and it is not my intention to do this. Rather, I’ll simply state that the 2nd floor was composed of the first elements of German history and went until 1917. The first floor was filled with the more recent period and didn’t skimp on documentation related to the Nazis. I could have spent the whole day there, but was only there a few hours.
After this Josselyn and I ate some Japanese food and then walked around the city a bit more before heading back so as to get an early start on the next day.
We started off our day with a guided historical tour of the city. After walking along Unter der Linden past the Reichstag we met in front of Brandenburger Tor, the Berlin equivalent of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. The guide began with a brief history of the various wars that were fought and tragedies that happened to the German people in their history prior to unification as one country. The importance of this was especially evident in the banners hanging from street lights saying “Wir Sind Ein Volk” or “We are one people” as a means of advertising for the German National History Museum. I was curious to see whether modern Germans have the same reaction to Cardinal de Richeliu as the Irish do to Oliver Cromwell, but when I asked the guide he had no response to give me for either way.
Stopping at an unmarked spot, our guide informed us that this was that spot where Hitler committed suicide with his wife Eva Braun and then had his body burned with petrol. I remember passing by that place on a bus tour twenty three years ago and feeling the same sense of happiness that though this persons grave site was in living memory it was institutionally erased due to the horrors he assisted in imposing on so many millions of people.
Fittingly enough after this we went to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an abstract art installation meant to commemorate all of the people of Jewish faith that had been killed in the Second World War. Large and small slabs of poured concrete of varying sizes occupied a city block. Some were of a formidable size and because of the changes in elevation of the terrain made it such that in the center of the installation you feel surrounded and overwhelmed by the proximity and enormity of the blocks. Though abstract, it was quite powerful and Josselyn and I both expressed the sorrows that we each felt.
After this we started walking to Checkpoint Charlie, stopping at a place wherein man workers were killed in an uprising against the East German authorities. Adjacent to this building memorializing them was a dilapidated building which had a sign on it that said “C.I.A. Interrogation Center”. We continued pass this and by a number of building which were scheduled for demolition to turn into a mall. It was currently delayed due to financial setbacks and the ironies of capitalism failing to cover the socialism continued. We walked past the Topography of Terror museum and finally made it to the checkpoint, which had turned from a very serious location to one wherein tourists would get there passport stamped for two Euros by jocular men in East German outfits.
After this we went to Gerndarmenmarkt – site of Franzosische and Deutsche Dom as well as the Schauspielhaus. The square, intended to be one of the most beautiful in Europe, definitely met with the plans of the designers. After this we walked to St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, the first Catholic place of worship built in this historically Protestant city as a way of appeasing the Silesians who were annexed by Prussia from Poland in 1742. We walked along Humbolt-University, once the university of such luminaries as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Friedrich Engels. I quickly looked through the books on display outside of the university as I wanted to pick up a copy of a book by Hegel or Marx in German to put my old studies to some use but saw nothing in my quick peek.
We ended the tour in Museumsinsel, or museum island. While not actually an island, this is where the Alte Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Bode Museum, the Pergamonmuseum and the Neuemuseum are located. After our tour we had some food and drinks then went to the Marx-Engels Forum to visit the statues of, wait for it, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It took us a while to find, and we came across a beautiful fountain of Neptune. After this we went down Rosa Luxembourg Alley to the Mitte neighborhood in order to look at several of the smaller art galleries, such as the Sara Aspeger Gallery. We were planning on going through much more but decided to instead go to the East Side Gallery, the 1200-yard long art gallery painted by 118 artists. While I didn’t find but two of the pieces to be particularly good, just being at this world-historical sight made up for its lack of artistic merit and reading some of the graffiti written on the works provided additional amusement. One of these “vandals” had apparently decided to write a small essay in which he called the Dalai Lama a C.I.A. agent and expressed hopes that Chavo del 8 would never end despite all of the main characters of the show being dead.
From here we walked over the on a graffiti tour to see works by Blu, Nomad, Os Gemeos, Ema and London Police. Many thanks go to TravelAdvisor.com for having this free walking tour available for download to mobile devices. We stopped briefly at a squat house, but as Josselyn was feeling anxious we left without spending much time there.
Sunday began by our going to the Mauerpark, located at Prenzlauer. This area, which once made up part of the no man’s land zone between East and West Berlin now host a large weekly flea market. The irony of such a capitalist venture in such a place is of course amusing, but the large impromptu market was also enjoyable. I like such flea markets as in a way they are similar to museums. Andy Warhol makes a statement along similar lines when he compares going to Macy’s with going to a museum. There is something about seeing all of the human made objects that allows one to consider and think about the human condition in a certain way that non-immersion in them lacks. There was delicious foods and drinks here, several musical performers and a whole slew of goods that would be able to fulfill anyone’s desires.
The amount of music related goods for sale was impressive – there were several record vendors, a pocket DJ mixer seller and several people hocking various used musical instruments – as was the number of locally made clothing and accessory designs. I wanted to purchase a particular picture that was Berlin for display once I return home – but discovered that I wouldn’t have to buy it now and take it home but could order it online once I’m back in the States. Proof again that the Internet destroys many of the particularities of place location. After eating a plum pastery, drinking a coffee and having some delicious tomato soup with fresh sage bread from one of the food vendors.
Following this was a trip to Treptower Park, the largest Soviet Military memorial built outside of U.S.S.R. It was created to commemorate the more than 22,000 Soviet soldiers which died taking Berlin from the Nazis. The iconic main statue of the park is of a Soviet soldier with a child being held by his left arm and a sword at his feet atop a crushed swastika. One could hardly imagine a more powerful monument that so clearly refutes slanders which conflates Nazism and Soviet Communism even though they are variants of national socialism – communist internationalism and Volksgemeinshaft are antagonistic to the core, not complimentary.
Treptower is one of the few places where the traces of Josef Stalin have not been removed from institutional memory. I’ve been to many places once occupied by statues of his, but few remain erected. I find memorial parks like these interesting places for reflections on the relationship between the former Soviet Union and the West. In the discussions on the policies of Stalin and his varied crimes one Krondstadt moment or another is inevitably brought up. Whether it is the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the forced collectivization of the countryside, the paranoid fear of the Trotskyist opposition that caused him to dangerously weaken the ranks of party and military through intrigue, imprisonment and murder or the cult of personality that has made it’s way into modern dictators Kim Jong Il. While no Stalinist apologist, I find that when I get into conversations with people my knowledge of the historical context complicates their information received from movies, pundits and demagogues. For instance, relating the political and economic developments in America at the turn of the 19th and 20th century to those in the just formed U.S.S.R. sheds light on issues and complicates them to such a degree that the Cold Warriors mentality of black and white cannot be sustained. As the period of discussion widens so does the conceptual framework and differentiation becomes about competing forms of modernization and the possibilities of domestic policies given specific constraints.
That said, the park itself was quite pleasant. The wide walkways were filled with small children riding bikes whilst there parents kept a watchful eye on them lest they should fall or get close to a passerby by and risk collision. There were several red flowers and small wreaths laid out in front of the statue of a weeping mother by the entrance and groups of three or four people speaking in English, French and Russian at the 14 scenes from the war on the white, tomb-like monuments leading up to the main statue. Amusingly enough, considering the site I’d just visited, I saw on the metro television a memorial for Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebnieckt, two political activists who’d been murdered by fascist forces in Berlin in 1919.
Following Treptower Park was Siegessaule, or the Victory Column. It was originally built in 1873 to celebrate the Prussian victories over Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870/1871). The base of the column is surrounded by a cast iron relief of scenes depicting the fighting that went on between France and Prussia. These are badly damaged as following the German defeat the occupying French troops stole them and damaged them. Though it was given back lack, they remain unrepaired as a reminder of the indignity imposed upon the Germans. I walked up the 270 for a view of the city in the middle of the Tiergarten Park and was pleased with the view though it was very cold and windy. While I was here, Josselyn went to the Topography of Terror and ended up staying there for four hours. I wanted to go to that museum but I was in so much pain from all of the walking that I’d been doing that I needed to rest my ankle which was still been hurting me since before going to Madrid.
We met back up at the apartment and after a short rest we were both ready to go out and finally see Karl-Marx-Allee. While Josselyn was reluctant to go at first, after promising a steak dinner she quickly changed her mind. The street, originally named Stalinallee, was designed to be a large advertising project for the Soviets following their occupation of East Germany. The streets are 89 meters wide and the apartments on either side are created for both beauty and functionality. This style of Soviet deign, sometimes called “wedding-cake” for its ornamentation, meant that the buildings would often be covered with tiles. Such decorations were a way of showing that decorative minimalism based upon economic considerations need not prevent workers from enjoying the benefits of an advanced industrial society. This sort of functionalism combined with aesthetic beauty has its origins in the English garden communities.
We looked at the Haus der Lehrers building, passed by the Kino International, thought momentarily about entering Café Moskau before seeing their price list , laughed at the advertising for now defunct automobile producers on the top of a building placed there so that the ad-free Communist zone would have more of a “developed” feel to it, passed by the Floating Ring Fountain, the Karl Marx Bookshop and the Palaces of the Workers. I looked for the statue of Karl Marx that was supposed to be there, but we couldn’t find it. Eventually we made it to the Block of Houses designed by Richard Paulick and then ate at the unimaginatively named “Block House” steak house. After a delicious meal we went back to the apartment and prepared for out flight back to Barcelona.