The opening photo captures one of the many contradictions of Berlin. What you are looking at is the famous TV tower constructed by the East Germans in the 1960s, designed to celebrate the technical prowess of the Communists. (Launch of the first orbiting satellite, first man into space, etc.) It dominates the skyline in much the same way the Eiffel Tower is visible throughout Paris. It was space-aged looking by design.
In the photo above, the tower is framed by the Protestant cathedral Berliner Dom, which is located on a spot known as Museum Island. There is irony in the picture if you look closely. Communism is inherently secular — crosses and other religious symbology were banned at the time – so imagine the chagrin of the old EG leadership when it became clear that the sun hitting the silver ball at certain angles would produce a cross? Oops. Germans at the time dubbed the TV tower “the Pope’s revenge.” The moniker is still used by many locals today.
That is one of the interesting facts we picked up on a four-hour walking tour of the city run by Original Berlin Walks. Our guide, Jacob, was a Brit who came to Berlin 15 years ago and stayed. Coincidentally it is the same time frame as our American-born guide in Munich. Jacob’s love for the city was obvious from the many stories he told. We covered a lot of ground during the walk, which was good for orienting ourselves. Today we will head back to Museum Island for a look at some of the offerings, which like in many European capitals contains the booty from their colonial pasts.
We started the day at an exhibition space called the Topography of Terror. It traces the rise and fall of the Nazi regime through a series of photographic exhibits that are at times pretty grim to look at. It’s a very comprehensive exhibit that started as a special offering at a nearby art museum as part of the 750th anniversary of the city. It was so popular that the Germans gave it a permanent home in a building on the site of the former SS, SD and Gestapo headquarters.
That building had been heavily bombed and was bulldozed after the war. Much of the area remained a desolate no-man’s land during the years of the Berlin Wall. The wall was directly across from the new museum, which would have been in the old West Berlin. It is up the street from what had been the ex-headquarters of the Luftwaffe. The latter building now houses the German ministry of finance. It’s a huge building comprising an entire block that is across and down the street from the museum site, but during the Cold War would have been separated by the Wall. The Luftwaffe building wasn’t bombed because the building was so huge, Allied pilots would use it as a marker from which to orient their bombing runs. The East Germans during their reign blandly referred to it as the House of Ministries.
There is too much interesting history to share but we made the obligatory stop at the Brandenburg Gate and a new memorial to the Jews murdered by the Nazis. It’s an entire block with stone markers of varying sizes. Very different, almost like a maze. The fact Berlin faces up to its place in history is notable, unlike in the U.S. where we tend to sweep the bad stuff under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen.
We we later wandered over to a dull car park that is notable for one thing: it’s atop the Fuhrer Bunker in which Hitler met his ultimate end. The Germans deliberately keep the site undeveloped and unmarked to prevent Nazi sympathizers from easily finding and glorifying it, especially poignant given the risen of rightwing extremism around the world. Some people do evidently turn up on Hitler’s birthday to leave flowers, which the authorities quickly scoop up and throw out. The only other thing in the area of note is an apartment block where the East German figure skater Katerina Witt once lived. Last stop was the old Checkpoint Charlie. It’s now a replica, but Pat did go through the real checkpoint during a college-era visit in 1981.
Much of what we have done for the first couple days has taken place in the former East Berlin. It’s not surprising that it is an area targeted for gentrification. We are in the Mitte district, in an area that is chock-a-block with bars and restaurants, all in easy walking distance. On our arrival day we went to a nearby park that during the Cold War was in West Berlin, blocked off by the Wall. The current street would have been in the so-called Death Strip, where you would be shot by sentries if you entered it and and approached the wall. The marker below commemorates one attempt by Berliners to tunnel under the wall to escape and some of the barriers placed by the Communist authorities.
On Sundays there is a big outdoor market in the park, and a huge karaoke/sing along. The market kind of caters to tourists, but those include a lot of visitors from France, Italy, England and elsewhere in Europe. It’s not all Americans. We picked up some snacks for our apartment and listened to some of the sing-a-long. A video snippet of that follows.