By Derek Wilson
Berlin is a city still fighting to throw off the negative image that engulfed it for most of the 20th century. In parts it is a modern, cosmopolitan city but it still has areas that have been neglected by governments and people alike. The visitor to Berlin can take in nearly 800 years of history strolling around Mitte, the middle of the city, and see sights as relevant to Berlin’s foundation in 1237 as to the future years and decades to come within a couple of moments walk of each other. Berlin of course has many districts each with their own distinct and unique flavour from leafy Charlottenburg to post wall trend area Prenzlauer Berg. The tour described here is Berlin in a day, something that could be done by a traveller with a four wait between trains at the new Hauptbahnhof – the biggest station in Europe with an estimated 250,000 daily users. The condensed nature of this tour does not make it any less worthwhile to see – and by the time you’re finished, your feet will assure you that a place in a beer garden has been hard earned!
This particular walk is best suited for those with imagination. Many of the sights are beautiful buildings, that is true, but the time will be more enjoyable to those who can imagine the scenes beyond the mere bricks and mortar. This tour takes in the very starting point of Berlin, now the Museum Island in the Spree, from when Berlin was an insignificant village with nothing other than fishing and local barter. Reducing this vibrant capital city of over three million people to little more than a hamlet on the small island is good starting point for the walk as this is the only way that the complete impact of Prussia on Berlin can be understood. The transformation from a quiet backwater to the bustling city it became under the eyes of the Prussian military kings is remarkable. The architecture from this time is second to none and many of Carl Fredrich von Schinkel’s architectural masterpieces can still be viewed. After Schinkel’s work is viewed you can then see another crucial phase of Berlin history, that of the Nazi era 1933-1945. Adolf Hitler firmly believed that Friedrich the Great and his mighty Prussia was the forerunner for his own leadership of the mighty Third Reich. Many of the Nazi sights in Berlin can still be seen but those who can transport their minds back through time to this terrifying part of the cities heritage will be rewarded with an emotional and thoughtful experience. And as quickly as the seemingly invincible Nazi regime fell a new system of government and oppression replaced it. The Soviets were eager to claim their reward for 20 million war-dead and Berlin was their showpiece prize. Despite failing to drive out the other victorious war allies they were able to impose their own Communist regime on the Eastern half of Berlin and Germany, leaving only West Berlin as an isolated island of capitalism in the red sea behind the iron curtain. This dark city was the setting for dens of spies to play their deadly games and you can stand in the very spot where Russian and American tanks stared each other down in 1961 across Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous border crossing through the Berlin Wall. Remnants of the wall are now scarce but a section is seen on this tour. As our timeline progresses beyond 1989 and the mauerfall one still needs imagination but now to look into the future to see what lies in store for this ever developing city.
We begin our tour at Hackescher Markt. Now this is one of the trendiest parts of town in the middle of Berlin and has enough cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs to keep you enthralled regardless of your entertainment preference. This was also one of the biggest Jewish quarters in pre-war Berlin. Around 170,000 Jews made their home here until 1933 but after the Nazi oppression that number dropped by a huge amount. There are currently 25,000 or so Jews in Berlin. The Hackescher Hofe is a stunning building that contains many bars, cinemas and theatres along with a dazzling facade. In Christmas the square here hosts one the most bustling markets in Berlin where you can pick up all sorts of warm food and presents. From here we go under the S-Bahn line and approach what is now known as Museum Island. This piece of land, essentially sitting in the middle of the River Spree, is where Berlin began. This was originally a small fishing village that was of little consequence to anyone. It was only when the mighty Prussia came to the fore, several centuries later that the free city of Berlin really began to make the world take notice. The Electors and Kings of Prussia that reigned here did so with mixed fortunes but Friedrich the Great is the most well known. His obsession with Prussia’s military might ensured the Berlin economy ticked over but he was also liberal towards religions and this encouraged an influx of refugees from all over Europe. The economy was geared towards supplying the army both with men and the equipment, clothes and food needed to be ready for war. The island now plays host to some of the most spectacular museums in Berlin; The Pergamon, the Old Museum, the New Museum, the newly reopened Bode and the Old National Gallery. All are worth a visit in their own right.
From the Museum Island we walk through the Lustgarten towards Unter den Linden. Nowhere in Berlin can more history be viewed in one sight than the Lustgarten. It was originally the gardens of the Imperial Palace but had also been used as a military parade ground both by the Prussians and the Nazis. On one side it is flanked by the imposing Doric columns of the Old Museum and on the other there remains the wing of the Palace from which Karl Liebknecht declared a socialist republic after defeat in the First World War brought down the German monarchy in 1918. Liebknecht’s dream was short lived as the Weimer Republic managed to quash the Communists to ensure it’s own birth. However Liebknecht is remembered in Berlin by having his name lent to a huge Allee which passes through Alexanderplatz, a clossal square in the middle of town named after the Russian Tsar which visited the city in 1805. During the war the majority of the Imperial Palace was destroyed by allied bombing and the DDR tore down the ruins with the exception of Liebknecht’s balcony wing. In this place they built the Palast der Republik – effectively the Parliament of the DDR but it also contained restaurants and a bowling alley. After the collapse of the DDR there was a great debate with what to do with the asbestos ridden building and it is now being torn down to be replaced with a replica Imperial Palace. This decision has angered many Berliners, not just at the frightful waste of 640 million Euros but at the fact this is another huge part of East German history which is being erased from history. From here we can also see the huge TV tower in Alexanderplatz. The construction was built in 1969 not only to beam TV signals but to show off the technological ingenuity of the East. Unfortunately the Politburo that ran the DDR were more optimistic than their talent should have allowed and a team of Swedish engineers were quietly brought in to finish the project. As a result no one knows how much the tower cost but it does stand at a whopping 359m tall, making it the second highest in Europe behind the Ostankino Tower in Moscow.
We now turn down the majestic Unter den Linden, the road which leads from the Lustgarten all the way down to the Brandenburg Gate. On the other side of the gate this huge street continues under the name Strasse der 17 Juni, all the way into Tiergarten park. This glorious boulevard was designed in order for Friedrich the Great to ride straight from his Palace to his hunting grounds. It also had the added bonus of intmidating visitors to the city who arrives through the Brandenburg Gate toll booth and reminding them of exactly who the boss was! Walking down Unter den Linden we pass the Prussian guard houses which now act as the German National Museum and as a home to the statue commemorating all war dead. This very memorial caused a great stir in Germany as to the right fashion in which people should remember the past. Given the special nature of Germany’s history is intriguing to see that even something as standard in the rest of the world as a war memorial causes people to become uncomfortable.
The next stop on on our tour is Humboldt University. This is one of many universities in the city but it is the most famous and was home to several noble prize winners including Albert Einstein. Ironically the university was founded by Wilhem von Humboldt when the French were occupying Berlin in the early 1800s following the defeat of the Prussian army. Previous to this there was no major university in Berlin – perhaps an indication of just how much the previously mighty Prussia had declined over the years, led by a series of ineffectual leaders after Fredrik the Great. The magnificent buildings of the university were donated by the Prussian hierarchy to support Humboldt’s push to increase education. It was originally called the Free University of Berlin and was only named after its founder when the Russians occupied the city after the second world war. And in front of the law faculty building is the infamous Bebelplatz. This is the very location Nazi students, roared on by propaganda chief Josef Goebals, staged the burning of the books in May 1933. From the law library and from all over the city students carted books that were deemed to be offensive the German nation and burned them in a frenetic rage. There is now a permanent memorial to this incident under the Platz, in the form of empty shelves with space for 20,000 books – the approximate number burned by the Nazis. This square comes complete with an irony that exists so often in Berlin as it was originally called Operplatz and intended to be a stagecoach parking lot for the adjacent opera house. This contrast between liberal culture and barbaric oppression is undoubtably one of the unique things about Berlin which gives the city it’s distinct edge.
As we walk beyond Babelplatz we soon arrive at Gendarmmarkt, arguably the most beautiful square in Berlin. The dominant building is Schinkel’s concert hall and at either end are two large cathederals, respectively named the French and German. The French was constructed by French Hugonots who arrived in Berlin after fleeing oppression – while the Berlin rulers made them welcome they did insist they pay for their own cathederal! Much of the square lay in ruins for decades after world war two and it was only when the DDR softened it’s attitude towards religion that the square was restored to it’s former glory with the restoration of all the buildings. From the Gendermmarkt we move onto one of the most famous streets in all of Berlin, Friedrich Strasse. Presently this is a cosmopolitan shopping street filled with designer shops. But a mere twenty years ago the street was home to the most famous border crossing in the city between East and West, Checkpoint Charlie. This was where American and Soviet tanks stared each other down in 1961 and the world hovered on the verge of nuclear destruction. Thankfully sense prevailed in that instance but the two super powers continued to peer suspiciously over the wall at each other for years to come. The wall came into existance when Walter Ulbricht, Communist chief in the DDR, persuaded Nicolai Kruschev that this was the only way to stop the ‘brain drain’ that was strangling the East Germany economy. When the Berlin border was still freely passable hundreds of thousands of young Ossis – usually the talented ones, fresh out university with energy and ideas – were able to move to the West unhindred. The border was sealed overnight on the 13th August 1961, at first with barbed wire but the concrete blocks that made the wall soon followed. Laughably it was named ‘the anti-facisit protection barrier’ by SED chiefs but the nature of the border crossing (with it’s guns, mines and tracker dogs) made it clear to everyone that it existed to keep one set of people in rather than the other out. Checkpoint Charlie is now a popular tourist attraction even if most Berliners prefer to avoid the tackiness of it all. The sign warning of the border crossing in the American sector and the small check point hut are both replicas. The Museum at Checkpoint Charlie is well worth seeing for anyone that has a day to spend reading not just about the history of Berlin in the cold war but about Hungary, Czecheslovakia, Poland, Romania and the USSR. It is a fantastic place but be well warned that the amount of reading to be done is phenomenal and no matter how brave and exciting the various escapes over/through/under/around the wall were, eventually they all merge into one another.
But now it is time to take a well earned rest. We have reached the half way point of the tour and lunch is required by all. The local recommendation – for tourists at least! – is the little pizza delhi on Friedrich Strasse. Alternatively the Cafe Adler provides good beer, good food and an eerie atmosphere. If you can still use your imagination just think about the CIA sitting three floors above you, binoculars trained over the wall…we will reconvene at the Checkpoint in 45 minutes for the second half of the tour. Please don’t be late!