Berlin, Germany

So after a lonely four days in Hamburg, I had a complete 180 experience in Berlin.  I found people to hangout with, but also really got into the whole culture and history of the city.  I can’t recall being in a place where in my lifetime such radical change had taken place.  I was a freshman in high school when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down.  I remember wondering at the time what Germany had to do with the Soviet Union.  Why was there such a difference between East and West Germany?  Why did they build a wall separating the city?  It’s all in Berlin, and really the last 20 years have been the final recovery from World War II.

Wikipedia is better at telling the post WWII history of Berlin, but basically, Nazi Germany was carved up by the Allies after WWII.  The US, Great Britain, France and Russia each had their slice.  For some reason, Berlin was divided between a US controlled sector in West Berlin that was surrounded by a Soviet sector referred to as East Berlin.  The idea was that the city would be reunited, but the Cold War prevented that.  Due to massive brain drain from East to West in the 1950’s, the Soviet Union built the Berlin Wall in 1961.  For 28 years, the city was a depressing place for all who lived there.  People died trying to cross the border simply to see family.  All sorts of tricks and tactics were used by East Berliners to get to the West.  By the Fall of 1989, the USSR was losing it’s grip over surrounding territories it held under its communist regime.  Without that backing, the authorities of East Berlin relented to public sentiment, and the Wall came down and we have those iconic images.

German reunification was underway after that, and the capital of Germany was moved back to Berlin from Bonn.  I wasn’t sure what I would see in the former East Berlin part of the city.  I imagined a bunch of depressing Soviet era buildings and sad neighborhoods.  I was quite wrong.  East Berlin has become the most vibrant part of the city in my opinion.  Grant it, I was only there for a week, but I spent most of my time in this area and walked around a lot.  I heard from a local that the energy of the West moved East after the Wall fell in the late eighties.  It was really eye-opening.  Since 1989 when the Wall fell, the city has undergone a massive transformation.

Pariser Platz… the US and French embassies are here.  It’s also a major tourist destination and starting point for a lot of tours.

Section of the Berlin Wall still standing as a reminder.In places where the Wall was completely torn down, stone pavers mark its former location.An old church.  I can’t remember the name, but it’s in the Museum Island area.  There’s a plaza in front with a big lawn.  Loads of people were hanging out on the grass, it looked like a great place to chill for a couple hours.
Checkpoint Charlie.  This was one of the most famous checkpoints when crossing from West to East Berlin.  Facing the East side (former Soviet controlled) is a large photo of one of the last US soldiers to work the checkpoint.Facing the West is one of the last Soviet soldiers who guarded entry into the East.
The only guards there now are actors where for 2 euros will let you take a picture with them.
This is the square where in the early years of Hitler’s reign a massive book burning took place.
Alexander Platz.German History MuseumAltes MuseumThe walking tour I did took us past the Holocaust Memorial.  This particular one is specifically a memorial to the six million jews murdered during WWII.  There are no plaques, signs or engravings on any of the stones.  Its design is left to the visitors interpretation.  The stones all have the same length and width, but vary in height and angle.  One view is that the stones represent the stacks of bodies.  Another is that they represent all the different types of people… men, women, children, old, young, strong, weak, sick and healthy who were killed.
The stones get taller as you descend into the memorial.  The lack of names on the stones give you this sense of how the Nazi’s just saw all jews in the same way.  The ordered nature also reminds you that this was planned genocide.  

All throughout Germany, there are these constant reminders of what happened during WWII.  Some of the memorials pay tribute to the Soviet and Allied forces that lost their lives in the effort to defeat the Nazi’s.  There’s definitely a deep sense of remorse in Germany for what happened, and the events should never be forgotten.  One person even told me that no one knows or is taught more about what happened in WWII than Germans.

On to a more positive note…one-third of Berlin is green space, for example parks or recreation areas.  Scattered throughout the city are smaller, but in the middle of the city is Tiergarten Park.  I had some awesome cool and sunny Fall weather that day and took all of these.

I only had one day where it was cloudy and rainy, so I went to the German History Museum.  The museum covers 900 years of the area’s history, but I was mainly interested in WWI through the Berlin Wall.  These were some of the items that I found the most interesting…

Hitler’s desk

Piece of the Berlin Wall.  This is a Western facing side as it was possible to just walk up and spray paint it in front of the guards.  Not so much luck on the Eastern side.  There was something like a 30 meter “death strip” just on the other side of the wall where you could be shot.The Trabi was the car of East Germany.  You put your name on a list, and in about 10 years, you get one from the state.  It was made of a plastic unibody so the Soviets didn’t have to import US steel.  The car was a real turd, but there was one in mint condition at the museum.  I didn’t believe it was plastic until I knocked on it.

I couchsurfed in Germany with someone that I met in Iceland which was cool.  My host Brian is from Ireland and we hung out a couple days in Reykjavik.  Brian is working while traveling and lives in each place for a month or two.  He has been on the road for a year and a half.  People tell me they envy me for my travels, but I envy Brian’s ability to do what he’s doing.  He has some friends who are musicians and we went to a couple live shows.  Really fun and I got to see some of Berlin’s night life, bars and neighborhoods I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.  

So that wraps up Germany for now.  Berlin really made up for the disappointing stay in Hamburg.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when visiting Germany.  I was really curious to see some of the sites associated with WWII and the Cold War.  I wanted to see how the city had changed since the fall of the wall, and to get a sense of what life in East Germany must have been like.  The trip delivered.  It was a really excellent history lesson.  Berlin is a cool city, and I’m sure I’ll be back.  It’s one of the few cities I’ve been to that I could see myself living in.

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