Maggie and I had been to the “old” Berlin – she in 1988, a year before the Wall came down, then both of us right after, in 1991. Maggie remembers East German soldiers everywhere: in the train stations, guarding monuments, patrolling the streets. In 1991, we saw bullet holes in walls, leftovers from WWII and the shadow of the East German logo on walls, which had been up for 50 years and only pulled down recently. We remember Berlin as an intense city; everything on edge, everyone at the limit of what they could tolerate and still function. Berliners did their best to cover up the stress with humor: painting the Wall, inventing sarcastic names for city landmarks, but still the tension showed through.
Berlin today has a totally different vibe; and with only one week we discovered a new Berlin much to our liking – upbeat, modern architecture, museums, art galleries, and the beautiful 18th Century Brandenburg Gate, an iconic symbol to all Berliners and visitors of the reunification of East and West Berlin. They haven’t covered up the past, they’ve included it in the cityscape. There is a monument to the victims of the Holocaust that covers a city block; an entire museum is devoted to the horrors of the Nazi and Communist secret police. There are monuments that show the former sites of churches and synagogues. The former site of Hitler’s bunker is marked with a plaque (there’s an apartment building there now). The path of the Berlin Wall is marked on the ground as it winds through town. The emphasis, though, is on living today. In the heart of town, on Potsdammer Platz, there was a week-long festival called Berlin Queer Days. Brandenburg Gate was the backdrop for an outdoor music festival. Many of the Brutalist concrete buildings that were thrown up after the war have been pulled down and replaced with modern architecture.
This stop was special for Maggie and me because we got a chance to spend time with family and friends: Maggie’s brother and sister-in-law Paul and Susan shared our apartment for a few days, which we had planned months in advance. A short time before we left, our friends Kirby and Maureen asked for advice on where to go in Europe; we told them we’d be in Berlin, why don’t they meet us there, and they took us up on it. Naturally, knowing Paul and Susan were going to be there and that we were all political junkies and yellow dog Democrats was a big incentive, too. We all had a great time, and got along just like Maggie and I thought we would. We’re all more or less the same age and the same political persuasion, so we had a good time talking politics and trashing the other side.
Traveling with other people is a treat, because you do things that you might not have otherwise. Because of Kirby and Maureen, we caught a free show of live music at the Brandenburg Gate. Paul and Susan wanted to go to Potsdam, which Maggie and I had never seen, so we got a look at the Bridge of Spies, where spies and other prisoners were exchanged between East and West during the Cold War. We also got to tour the complex that hosted the Potsdam Conference, where Britain, the U.S. and Russia decided the fate of post-War Europe.
Paul, Susan, Maggie and I shared a two-bedroom Air BnB apartment in the Sony Center.It’s a great location for convenience and access to metro lines, but a little noisy at times, with crowds of people in the huge central plaza and the streets around us. Typical for Germany, there was no air conditioning, so we had to leave the windows and front door open to get a breeze going in the afternoon. That probably isn’t an issue 51 weeks out of the year, but we happened to hit Berlin during a heat wave, so we had to put up with it. It got cool at night, so the heat wasn’t a big issue.
Paul and Susan are walkers and history buffs like us, so we had a good time exploring the city and learning more or German history. Once again, we saw how easy history is to learn for Americans, and how complicated it is for other countries. Now that we’ve spent a little time learning, we know a little more about The Reformation, the 30 Years War, and even their more recent history, which we were pretty familiar with.
Back on our own, Maggie and I went to the Olympic Stadium, scene of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The place is definitely impressive for its massive scale and utilitarian design. Today there are just a few reminders of the past, like the plaque showing the 1936 gold medal winners. Today it’s the home of the Berlin soccer team, and the pool is used by everybody.
The impression we came away with is that Berlin is a more complicated place than Americans typically give it credit for. It was the center of a world that is thankfully past, and also taking its place as a leader of a world to come. I would argue that because of its troubled history, Berlin is uniquely positioned to help the rest of the world fall into the extremism that might otherwise take hold. We would be wise to pay attention to Berliners’ take on current events.