"Berlin is poor, but sexy" - former Mayor of Berlin
August 9-22 I went to Germany with two friends: Preeti, who lives in Singapore and Linda, who lives in the Bay Area. So many people have asked about this trip, I was going to do a little email and while writing it, I discovered that I have so much to say, I upgraded to a blog post.
Berlin is an amazing city, with a pretty incredible history and I recommend for everyone to go there someday! World War 2, its atrocities and its destruction and unique post war reconstruction shapes entirely what Berlin is today. It is important to understand a bit of the history of Berlin so you can truly understand modern the Berlin, full of relaxed beer gardens, the capital of responsible and stoic politics, full of feasting on amazing food and dancing at all night dance clubs, because Berlin wouldn’t be what it is today if it didn’t have such an interesting and troubled past.
Sooooo, here we go nerds!
In the 13th century Berlin was the capital of Prussia, which spanned most of Northern Germany and Poland. Between the 1870-1930s Berlin has always remained the capital, but the boundaries, names and rulers of the surrounding area have changed due to various wars, overthrowing of monarchies and classes and the rise of the Nazis. Prussia became the German Empire which became the Weimar Republic which became Germany in 1933 when Hitler became the Chancellor. That is a horribly abbreviated history of this region, but I don’t have all day!
From 1933 when Hitler took power to April 30, 1945 when Hitler committed suicide in an underground bunker in Berlin, the city was the center of the Nazi Party and was the enemy of all of Europe, (with the exception of the Italian Fascists) including the United States who joined WW2 with boots on the ground in 1941.
What was interesting to me was how the language and the feel of World War 2 continues to be to prevalent in our modern day, especially when it comes to warfare. Germany, Italy and Japan were called the Axis powers, which is the same language George Bush used when he called the countries he identified as the cause of terrorism of the US “axis of evil” in his state of the union address after 9/11. And don't even get me started about being there during the Charlottesville protests. It is not fun being asked to to explain to Germans why there are people carrying Nazi flags on college campuses in America. But I digress!
Anyway, the taking of Berlin and the death of Hitler signified the end of World War 2, but this came at a huge cost to the city of Berlin. It was bombed to pieces, and almost every building in Berlin was destroyed.
Here are some images of what Berlin looked like after 1945.
Museum Island then:
Museum Island Now:
Brandenburg Gate then:
Brandenburg Gate now:
THEN! In order to really make sure that Germany couldn’t start another war, the entire country was split into 2: East Germany (run by Russia) and West Germany (run by France, the British and the United States. And to FURTHER make sure that Germany couldn’t start another war, the Allies took Berlin (which was now in East Germany) and split that into 2: West Berlin (run by the Allies) and East Berlin (run by the Soviets) . People were not allowed to cross over from East to West and if East Berliners and East Germans got over to West Germany they were allowed to stay, so many people fled East Germany and in 1961 the East German government put up a wall around West Berlin in ONE NIGHT!
Berlin Wall then:
Wall Now (a mural of happier times)
A checkpoint in between the two countries then:
Checkpoint Charlie now:
West Berlin became a walled city in East Germany, and the only way to get in and out was by one road and maybe one train line….and later only by air.
I’m going to skip the entire history of East and West Germany because I am running out of time, and it is super depressing, but after a half century of division the Berlin wall fell in November 9, 1989 to much partying in Berlin, which still continues today!
So that sets the stage for modern day Berlin, phew! And we can finally get to my trip! It is the newest country I have ever been in: basically Germany, as we know it today, is only 28 years old. The entire city of Berlin has had to reinvent itself since the fall of the wall and it has done so with democracy and tolerance. Train and bus infrastructure is superb. Bike lanes are everywhere in the city and since the city is flat and spread out, everyone rides bikes there. Mail is delivered by bike, some trash is collected by bike. It is a bike paradise. My friends and I rented bikes and biked all over the city!
Berlin also has a very loose vibe, you are allowed to drink wherever you want. People are wacky and fun, like they are in San Francisco. In spite of the fact that Germany just recently made gay marriage legal, 20% of the Berlin population is gay. Also, Berlin has resettled 65,000 Syrian refugees. It is an amazing place!
Ironically, the hip parts of Berlin are the former East Berlin. East Berlin was rebuilt after WW2 with many large scale Soviet style buildings which have been transformed into artist spaces, nightclubs and offices. Due to the strong Germany economy, many buildings are now being demolished and fancy housing complexes are being built all over East Berlin, making Berlin much more expensive to live in than it was 5 years ago.
Hands down my favorite place was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by Peter Eisenman, and opened in 2005 to commemorate the 3 million Jewish holocaust victims of WW2. The memorial consists of 2711 concrete blocks on a grid, on a 4.7 acre site. The ground undulates and the blocks also change height, so as you walk through the memorial the blocks grow above your head, eventually dwarfing you and blocking out most of the sky. It is an immersive experience and very hard to describe how powerful it is. The scale and the repetition of the blocks create this unique experience for the people visiting it, where you might be filled with sadness at one moment and have the urge to play in the field of concrete the next, which my friend Linda said was a pretty good reflection of the human spirit in the midst of terror. One of the best architectural projects I have ever seen.
There was also a Roberto Burle Marx exhibit that I dragged my poor non-landscape architect friends to (they loved it though)! RBM was a landscape architect, from Brazil, but he was half German, and spent the beginning of his career as an artist in Berlin.
My friend Gosia took me to visit the office of the amazing Topotek 1 where she works as a landscape architect.
Gosia was on maternity leave when I visited her and one of the best gifts of my trip is that she had her baby when I was there and I was able to see him!
Berlin is just so delightful. Every square inch of the city is full of live and fun stuff going on.
and my trip wouldn't have been as wonderful as it was without my lovely lovey lovely friends Preeti and Linda!