Wandering and Wondering

Berlin, Monday, October 17, through Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Potsdammer Platz

Potsdammer Platz. Remnants of the wall in the foreground, East Berlin in the background behind the billboard.

On Monday evening I came up from the subway and stood in the Postdammer Platz.  I paused to absorb my first look at the heart of Berlin. To my right, in the darkening city, gleamed a festival of commercial skyscrapers, the gaudy epitome of western capitalism; to my left, only stocky gray buildings staring lifelessly, monuments to the drab austerity of the East Berlin’s communist past. Beneath my feet was a line in brick, where, until November 1989, the infamous Berlin Wall separated the two competing ideologies, each with the intent to overwhelm the other.

Since I had focused on Germany’s Nazi period on the trip thus far, I’d all but forgotten the similarly tragic era that immediately followed for many of its people, years I realized that coincided with my own childhood. I was born a mere 20 months after the fall on Berlin. Adolph Hitler, his mistress and his minions were dead in a bunker a few blocks from where I was now standing. Seventy percent of the bustling city around me was blasted to rubble by the Soviet army, enraged at a nation that had wreaked similar havoc on its territories during the war. And the two liberating armies advanced toward Berlin from opposite sides of Europe, allies only as long as the German enemy remained a buffer between them, both aware it would be mere weeks before they would confront each other as adversaries. The wall went up just in time, it might be said. Time, yes, during which both forces enhanced their depleted stocks of military hardware with ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction. But also time for each to gain some distance from the global war, absorb its true horror, and contemplate the consequences for the whole human race should another like it break out in the nuclear age. That loathsome wall created a breathing space, a symbolic time-out, that permitted animosities to cool, new leaders to emerge, and some sense of reason to prevail. And then on cue, as if Destiny had decreed its purpose accomplished, the wall came tumbling down; and the artists and children came out and painted colorful murals on what remained of it.

Berlin Wall

A standing section of the Berlin Wall turned into an art gallery

This was the motley city I emerged into that night after the drive across former East Germany from Buchenwald that day. And my emotions were as mixed as the city’s history as I readied to explore its monuments, museums, parks, grand avenues, shopping malls and back alleys. After a quick walk from Postdammer Platz, along the edge of the Tiergarten, to the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, I concluded that Berlin was too vast for a self-guided tour, even though I was famous for heading off on my own in cities more exotic and perilous, Istanbul and Kuala Lumpur for two.

So, knowing I had Wednesday in my pocket for more personal exploration, on Tuesday I did the Circle Line “hop on, hop off” bus thing. This provided an excellent selection of attractions with enough information in the brochures and taped explanations to give an adequate overview. Beyond the few photos here, I won’t try to recap; any Berlin tourist guide or website will do it better.

Just to summarize: Berlin’s past, to me, represented the very worst of humanity. Those tendencies reach back earlier than the Nazis, as I discovered during the several hours spent on Wednesday in the comprehensive German Historical Museum on the famed Unter Den Linden, the Great White Way of Berlin. No doubt, Berlin’s infamy, living by the sword, reached its glorified apex under Hitler, thus bringing down on its head its destruction by the Russians and sundering in two by the wall: dying by the sword.

Rebuilding Berlin

Rebuilding Berlin. A museum under reconstruction along the Unter Den Linden

Nevertheless, in the last 20 years, there is, emerging from both its extreme hubris and its utter humiliation, a new city with a new life and a new people, the mythical Phoenix rising from the ashes. Not a blundering bat, blind to its past failings (see the post to follow about the Jewish Memorial). Not a divided country, the smug west scorning the less fortunate east, but a united nation, now the strongest economy in Europe. Its transformation has been so complete, despite, or perhaps because of, its troubled history that even I, the grandson of a ethnic German on one side and the grandson of ethnic Jewess of Germany on the other, experienced a genuine sense of hope when that city’s whole story—past, present and future–became apparent to me. And from there I understood why and how an American president, John F. Kennedy, could address this city on June 26, 1963, only 18 years after the end of the war and six months before his own assassination, and say: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (“I am a Berliner.”)

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