Fühlen: ALL-IN BERLIN
(Translation: All in for Berlin).
So. To bring on Berlin.
Bit of a slip of a trippy morning; the evening previous to this one I had commented on the lack of supplied bath matt in our bathroom; on vacating the shower a great swish of water also cascaded about the floor, rendering it dangerously slippery. Upon the conclusion of my morning bathe this AM, I took great caution in crossing the tiles to hustle my shorts on.
However, on return to brush my teeth, I bathroom bailed on the perilous puddle. Laura came running in at the sound of my howls and wails, helping my topless self off of the floor and aiding my already bruised bod back to my bed (I chucked a singlet on before my quick recline; it wasn’t all tits up).
It reminded me of the ad in NZ a couple of years ago for the awareness of bathroom safety. Do you remember if you are a Kiwi? (It was probably a bit before the paroxysm of MySky and the normalisation of fast forwarding ad breaks). It showcased old Zach mate from Shortland Street (where he was a murdering bastard; he was also the gardening lothario on Nothing Trivial and is a high up business man in the all new Filthy Rich; I am adamant he is actually a bad guy and will come out as a lazy snitch in the season finale) having a bit of a wash, when his lady friend comes in, quirks an eyebrow and chucks him a towel. He’s keen to get his ins and follow her for a bit of pumpage, and in his haste he hurries; no bath mat has been lain beneath the shower swing door and he slips, cracks his head open on the ledge and dies. Pretty heavy stuff. (Actually just asked Kristen the Kiwi across the bus aisle if she remembered it, sparking a fab convo with behind-me Muff Matt about infamous Kiwi ads and how on point we are as a country).
Anyway. It reminded me of that and I limped to reception to request a sponge upper-rer.
To the walking tour!
Tour guide Tarryn escorted us to the place of meeting with our man about town, Ken. Ken – an insanely amusing Irish lad – has been living in Berlin for the past two years studying German history, and has been working as a walking tour guide to supplement his studies. (He was truly absolutely fabulous – if in Berlin, I highly recommend giving him a ring – phone call, not jewellery – and organising a meet up for him to take you about the city. Original Berlin Walks; website available and Facebook findable). And his lyrical lilt made it all the more entertaining, with tales of “King so-and-so the Turd” and what not, as well as on point prods at figures of the yesteryear.
So; a little about German history (I promise I won’t spiel and spiel and spiel!) (funnily enough, Kiwi Muff Matt just perused over my shoulder and informed me that “spiel” is actually German for “play” – how fitting! I promise not to spiel with you in either sense of the word). And, rather than data dump all on WWII and what not, I’m going to divulge the sort-of-simplified ins and outs of another aspect not so commonly known about event of German history – the Cold War.
So Berlin was founded a good 800 years ago. Initially a pagan settlement, crowds of Christians soon massed in en masse (good terminology there for pun purposes) and drove the pagans out (through acts of beheading and savaging). Extremely succinctly, the 16th century saw the emergence of the Kingdom of Prussia with Berlin as its capital, growing and expanding to absorb neighbouring territories.
Oldmate Napoleon trolloped along in the 18th century, invading the area and upon his conquest, splitting the areas up. There were born such regions as Hamburg and Bavaria, which were all unified in 1872 by the newly appointed chancellor Otto von Bismarck – christened with the new name of Germany.
Fast forward to the 20th century, with the WWI outbreak in 1914 as the biggest war in all of history (at the time). With Germany defeated in 1918, the reigning Kaiser (king) fled to the Netherlands leaving a power vacuum. Social democracy developed, beset with all sorts of problems from the get go; what with immense unemployment rates and mounting poverty, democracy was soon insomnious with despair, damage and scarcity (the “disillusionment with democracy”) leaving the door wide open for a powerful persuader to walk on in, garner up the polls and take over – here we meet the notorious Adolph Hitler, and the start of his dictatorship spanning the years of 1933 to 1945. (In the one and only genuinely honest and fair democratic elections in 1932, the Nazi party only took out 37 per cent of the vote, showing that the majority of Germans did not actually vote for them when in unrigged balloting).
This is where my brain was blustered; as with most people making their way through high school around the world, WWI, perhaps more so WWII, is at least a small subject on the syllabus. But for me, the Cold War was very lightly touched upon, perhaps even skipped over, so Ken’s imparting of info on it rendered me rapt and completely captivated.
So after WWII Germany was divided into four areas as a temporary measure to it sort out. It was the onset of the Cold War (named so as direct fighting never actually broke out; thus, a cold war), with the whole east vs west, communism vs democratic capitalism – the Soviet Union took the east of the country, the USA the south, Great Britain the north west and France two smaller regions in the west.
But Berlin, as the major capital, was wanted by all; although technically being in the Soviet Union’s designated portion, it was decided that the city itself would also be split into four segments for the four aforementioned. (How many different “four”’s can you get in one sentence?). In 1949, the western countries unified to become one single independent country, as West Germany, with the Soviet side becoming East Germany – and Berlin was too split as well. West Berlin became a “bubble” inside the East.
But Germans on the Eastern side wanted to be in the west; living conditions were better, opportunities were more optional, lifestyles were slightly more luxurious. East Germany saw a mass haemorrhaging of people over to the West, more often than not the more “desired” for a functioning society – that being doctors, scientists, the highly educated, especially in Berlin. Solutions were suggested, with the wall coming up on August 13, 1961 – the Berlin Wall, constructed to cut the two divisions off from one another and stop the Eastern Bloc emigration westward through the Soviet border system.
Now, the wall has portions still standing all about Berlin, such as the incredible East Berlin Gallery where a good few kilometres of the wall spans the length of the street, all painted upon with incredible street art. There are also spots where the wall stands exactly as was, in dark, dank grey concrete. It was not insurmountably gigantic; in fact, a pole vaulter would have no challenge in hustling across. It was the “no man’s land” in between – filled with nails, barbed wire and trenches and surrounded by guard towers with watchers ordered to “shoot to kill” any one in the death strip – that was the impediment, also known as “Stalin’s Lawn”. There are many a tale of a select few that made it across in the 70s – a family of three on a zip line, some passing through Checkpoint Charlie (to come) undercover – but for the most part, east was east and that was that.
In 1989 the wall came crashing down, with Germany once again unified as a country in 1990.
First off, it must be mentioned; when I told others of my trip, it was astounding the number of responses I received telling me I was going at the complete wrong time of year. “Why not wait until summer?”, “You should be going in June,”, “It’ll be fucking freezing, you’re insane”; that sort of hosh tosh. And it was hosh tosh, because you know what? It’s actually bloody warm mate. Springing out sun! I admit, my first full day in Paris had me in agreement and a few chilly afternoons in London had me with my jacket on, but on this day in Berlin the temp was a solid 23 degrees Celsius. Beautifully sunny, balmy and short-worthy-wearing.
(A really quick random insert here that has NOTHING to do with anything really; ever wonder why “Protestant” was chosen as the name of the Anglican faith? Because it was born as a direct result of protesting the Catholic religion. Now that really knocked my feet warmers to the floor).
Back to Berlin.
Throughout our throttle about the city I came up with my word for Berlin: reflective. I was absolutely astounded with the amount of monuments and buildings dedicated or in remembrance of those that passed on in the war, and for the German role in what happened (that is not in an all-encompassing “German” umbrella, I must clarify; as the world knows, it was not the German people as a whole behind many of the atrocities of WWII). It’s a city not shying away nor covering up its past; it’s not apologetic per se, that’s not the word. It’s reflective, introspective, pensive – a peace-and-move-forwards settlement seeping with history. And the reason behind all the immense use of glass in structures? The whole idea of transparency. After the behind-doors regimes of the past, it is of major importance to the German people that all is open and honest – thus, glass as a symbolic sign of seeing through to the whole picture. It is illegal to deny the Holocaust in Germany, and as part of the standard school syllabus every single German child must visit a concentration camp.
It is a beautiful city, a mishmash of many architectural styles all around the ways. In the city centre I felt like I was in a gigantic chess game with the ornate buildings and elaborately intricate sculptures while along some more side streets I felt like I was walking down a parade of gigantic sandcastles.
(Quick insert from the insights of Ken: we all know that Hitler despised those of the Jewish community and wanted to wipe them out, but does everyone actually know why? Well, after WWI the Nazi spread the idea that the Jews were to blame for the country’s defeat. It soon become the widespread belief that rather than down falling on the battlefield, the Germans fell as a result of the “stab in the back” myth, with Jews going against them for their short term gains. Discrimination began, starting with Jewish persons not being allowed on public transport to what we know are all aware of in concentration camps and mass extermination regimes).
Another thing about the Berlin city, and the majority of German cities and their termings – things are what they appear. So the description of something often fits with its name. The older museum is The Old Museum. The newer museum is The New Museum. The red hued town hall is The Red Town Hall. Things are what they say they are, pure and simple, no pretences.
And we cannot move on without a quick little note of old Ampelmann. On street lights for pedestrians, instead of the normal standard and regular straight up and down man, lights up the Ampelmann. He is the symbol of the preservation of old East German culture (before the Cold War) and is now an icon of much of Germany. There are even a number of Ampelmann stores, with ample apparel and kick knacks – I even saw an Ampelmann deck chair – abounding.
So our tour started at the statue of two pretty set in stone chaps, one being Karl Marx, other as Friedrich Engels, the authors of the 1848 Communist Manifesto and the so-called Grandfathers of Socialism. This was a call to arms to the working class people to overthrow the capitalist system and fight for an egalitarian, utopian society with everyone at the same status as everyone else. (Stalin came on later and was much more extreme and murderous, and since all his statues have been made flaccid and de-erected).
Across all of Berlin are “stumbling stones”, as memorials to individual victims of the Holocaust. Little coaster-sized like bronze plaques embedded in the concrete, they detail a few details of the person being detailed, such as “here lived…” outside the home of a passed on one, or “here learned” outside the University of Humboldt as pictured.
Onto Bebelplatz, the square with many special surrounds such as the first free standing opera house (first time not attached to a church; built in the period of enlightenment in a bid to bring such cultural pursuits to the regular citizens – I liked it a lot as it was called “Hedwig’s Opera House”, and I’m all for anything HP. It went under renovation in 2010 for a two-year uplift that is still going today and sees no sign of near future completion). It is also the site of the tragic event of May 10, 1938, when Nazi students raided the University Library and stole away a good 20,000 books that were in any way against Nazi ideology (I.e., written by anyone Jewish, of same-sex attraction orientation, of different colour, etc). The books were piled into a the centre of the square and lit alight, destroying mastery works of great intellectuals.
To the back of the square lies a large glass window looking into an underground of empty, plain white book shelves to symbolise the loss of literature. Spine tingling-ly, another plaque quotes the words of one Heinrich Heine: “That was just a prelude. When you start by burning books, you end up burning people.” Why so tingling-ly so? Because Heine uttered these words in 1820, more than a century before the occurrence of WWII. (The second plaque also introduced me to my new favourite German word: Wissenschatler – translating as scientist. How fab is that!).
Constructions is EVERYWHERE. On every street there is at least one structure undergoing a rebuild, renovation or – literal – reestablishment. (It’s really cool; some of the buildings undergoing work are actually covered with a massive sheet – sheet? Cover? I don’t know – that has a picture of a building on it. So from afar – and up close what with my one-short-one-long-sighted eyes – they appear as an actual building. See pic two below). Which lends reason as to much of the above ground plumbing systems – what with Berlin being built on swampy, marshy ground, there is the need to flush water out of the ground to facilitate construction.
Perhaps the most stop-and-shiver moment of mine was when Ken suddenly halted us on a random pathway next to a carpark and told us we were standing above Hitler’s underground bunker – the Fuhrerbunker. In January 1945, Hitler emerged from his underground hideout for the last time to award medals to members of Hitler Youth (what with many of the men decimated on the battlefield by this stage, Hitler recruited mere boys – in the age range of 11- 17 years old – to defend the city to the bitter end). In April of the same year, Hitler had his 56th birthday down under (ground, not in Aus or NZ), and married his long term partner Eva Braun a week later. (It is said this union was a sign that Hitler knew the end was nigh, as before this point Hitler had profusely asserted he would never marry as his great love was for Berlin and the great country of Germany). And 40 hours after the couple wed, they committed suicide; first taking an overdose of pills they had tested on their dog first, the two then shot each other and ended their lives. Hitler’s last command was that their two bodies would be taken above ground, covered in petrol and burnt, so as to ensure none of the Allies on the “other side” would take it into possession and parade it around. And upon the remains being identified as actually being Adolf’s, he was thrown into the river so as to make sure there was no final resting place for him.
The bunker itself remains completely sealed, the 40 rooms shut off to all; this is because the Berlin council do not want to be seen as glorifying him in opening up his last place of residence. And the best bit about where the bunker is located? Nowadays, it is surrounded by such establishments that would have him turning in his grave (well, rolling over in the currents) – a gay bar, a Thai massage parlour and an old school set of Communist apartments. Poetic justice, multicultural and simple.
Following on, many conspiracy theories abound saying Hitler did not actually perish and instead fled to Argentina or the like; Ken informed us that such notions came about as a result of the Soviet not actually saying they had ahold the remains of the man in a bid to reveal whom among them were spies and such. The FBI took this non-news of Hitler’s whereabouts extremely seriously with mass investigation into it. There was even an offer of citizenship in the USA for anyone who could come forth with information on the man. As well as this, there was the infamous idea that Stalin had Hitler’s intact skull in use as his ash tray.(He didn’t. Don’t know where that info was filtered in from but it’s smokingly untrue).
Of course, The Memorial to the Murdered of Europe – a stark title for a stark structure. The large field-sized area of 2711 different sized and shaped blocks of concrete represent the six million killed at the hands of the Nazi regime. Designed by American architect Peter and engineer Buro Happold in 2004, the massive work is highly abstract. Designed by American man Pieter Eisenman, the massive work is highly abstract, meaning you bring your own meaning to it. Ideas teem in theories; that the blocks are similar to the tombstones in a graveyard, that they are reminiscent of the carriages taking those forced out to the camps, that they are metaphorical in representing that all were unique as people with no two the same, that from above from birds eye it appears as a rational, laid out system while once amidst it is chaotic and disorientating – such as it would have been for the politically powerfully ruling and the “undesirables” below. Whatever you take from it, it is done to show the banality of evil, allowing to get deep into the labyrinth (both physically and emotionally) to take your own interpretation.
Security guards also patrol around the mass monument, ordering all those clambering above to stand on the blocks to sit down; this is not as it is seen as disrespectful or any such thing, but rather as for health and safety reasons. And down the stairs near the entrance of the maze lies the Museum of the Holocaust that has free entry for all.
Now to Checkpoint Charlie, the most known of all Berlin Wall check point crossings, it became an infamous symbol of the Cold War. It is the location where Soviet and American tanks literally faced each other during the Berlin Crisis of 1961, and was a juncture and physical manifestation of intense tension. If a single shot had been fired, a full on world war would’ve broken loose, but the sides had an agreement to hold gun. Although rumours circulate that it was titled “Charlie” after a rather dishy American soldier – alas! – it is not the case. Rather, it is Charlie as it was the third check point along the Berlin Wall line, with “A” being Alpha and “B” being Beta following the Phonetic alphabet.
As aforementioned about escapes, Checkpoint Charlie was the scene of a couple of extremely strategically planned escapes. One man learnt to contort and hid in the actual seat of a car; another made a homemade fake military uniform and proceeded through with soldiers. One Austrian man’s wife was of East Berlin residency, and the only way he could see her was to get the few-hour tourist visa over to her side of the fence every so often. One day he observed a sportscar along the road and calculated that it was low enough to the ground as to be able to pass under the border barrier. Thus he hired one for himself, picked u his wife and sped under the barrier in blatant audacity, literally catching the policing troops off guard (yes).
While the actual checkpoint office is a recreation of the original, the frame is the actual one from the days of its functionality. It’s amazing now, looking around at the souvenir shops and present day signage as well as conglomerate companies such as McDonalds down on the corner, to think this was a place that literally caused such divide.
Now there is the option here to get a Checkpoint Charlie stamp on our passport for a paltry euro; the cheap fee and being caught up in the antiquity atmosphere I was first in line to get the ink on my increasingly crowded pages. It was only afterwards that I was warned that doing so may jeopardise the authenticity of your passport; apparently, it can sometimes be seen as being the equivalent of stamping on a smiley face. However, I know of lots of people with it on their own that have never had an issue with it – I shall let you know the go when I pass through UK customs in 20 days’ time.
And last one I’ll mention (though there are so, SO many more) – the Aldon Hotel, more commonly known Hotel Where Michael Jackson Dangled the Baby Off the Balcony. Here’s a pic for your perusal (MJ and infant excluded).
So as I said, the word for Berlin – reflective. It’s unbelievable standing in a square and thinking you are literally on the same cobblestones of concrete that hundreds of Nazi soldiers stormed across in rallies. Or that the corner trodding around was the one where Hitler was captured in a photograph as he crossed the road many decades ago. It sends shivers and tingles and goosebumping zingles all over my body.
I cannot wait for my few weeks in Munich to come later in May slash June. And to return to explore Berlin some more. Germany has instilled this immense sense of hope in me; ironic really, as I assumed it would have me leaving with a heavy heart at the human race. But the admittance of the past and the open arena of the present really lifts my spirits.
German? All (Berl)in.