I’d always wanted to visit Berlin, Vienna and Budapest. I had many invitations, and for one or more reasons they never panned out. This time, I just went, for time does not stand still and age creeps up insidiously. I’ll cover Berlin in this article, and the other two cities in articles to follow.
Berlin, at first impression, is an artsy city trying to reclaim its bohemian past, one so well documented by Christopher Isherwood in his memoir Goodbye to Berlin. Between Isherwood and today lies a horrible legacy, the Nazi regime and its atrocities followed by the Soviet annexation of half the city, and most of that tragic stain is still being cleaned up. About 80% of Berlin was destroyed in WWII. The renaissance of the city is creditable, notwithstanding the bullet marks still remaining on walls and statues everywhere.
We took a guided walk through the Jewish sector. Brass plated squares embedded into the sidewalk opposite apartment buildings indicated names and dates of birth of residents taken away to concentration camps. Plaques on buildings reminded us of what once had been Gestapo torture chambers in several places in the city; in fact I walked through an apartment block and was told that Hitler’s bunker had once been below ground here. A bronze table and a fallen bronze chair in a park keeps the memory of Kristallnacht alive. A facade of the railway station that shipped Jews in batches to their demise sits in the middle of the city surrounded by restaurants and a soccer stadium. A 200 metre stretch of the Berlin Wall remains for the tourists, next to a garden shed-like structure in the middle of the road, which I was told was the fabled Checkpoint Charlie. Beside the crumbling patch of wall, lay the Gestapo HQ (in fact, Hitler had situated all his government departments within a cloistered area of the city), which was completely gutted and rebuilt as a museum (free to all) named the Topography of Terror. A visit to this museum was sufficient to bring the horror of Nazism alive for me. The Nazis were very good at documenting and photographing everything and everyone under their control for propaganda purposes, and this documentation, recovered after the war, served to damn them in a post-war world by becoming artifacts in museums such as this. A further visit to the Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood within the city, teeming with ethnic and artistic diversity, revealed the other side of the holocaust—well worth the visit; and yet I was less enamoured by the photo exhibit of Israel: looking at the faces of Palestinians sealed off behind their wall (yes, there is an operating wall in Israel) while their rulers paraded the periphery, it seemed that everyone in that state was on guard, living in fear. “Never again,” had been the motto after WWII. I’m not so sure, after seeing that exhibit.
But Berlin is more than just the legacy of Nazism. The Tiergarten, in the heart of Berlin, is a 5 sq. km. park, larger and wilder than New York’s Central Park, filled with statues of dead writers and music composers, glades, playgrounds, flower gardens, and criss-crossing paths, all converging upon the Victory Monument located in the centre. The Tiergarten is a controlled wilderness, for at certain times of the day the sprinklers come on to remind you that this is still a municipal park. The city streets lead into courtyards which once housed multi-class communities (the rich at street-side, the factory workers in the middle, and the prostitutes at the rear, per our guide); now they are filled with bars, shops, theatres and museums. One such courtyard housed the Claerchens Ballhaus and its famed restaurant Spiegelsaal, taking me back to the movie Cabaret. The front section of this building remained in its WWII-destroyed state; but the mid-section still functioned, baring its garish vaudevillian signage and decor.
We visited the Brandenburg Gate, eternally buzzing with tourists, and I found the Hotel Adlon, situated immediately behind the gate, and immortalized by Isherwood, to have an interesting history: Michael Jackson dangled his infant son from its balcony, and it’s a destination where half of Hollywood’s glitterati (and Hitler!) have stayed. The Nazi legacy washed away from me when I visited the museums, especially the Gropius Bau, where the possibilities for creating a better world were revealed through modern art.
The food in the city is A plus, and the entertainment, be it a night club or orchestral performance, is top class. And I saw how popular the city is when a 80,000 strong electronics convention (one of many that have staked their annual claim here) descended during our stay, making taxis scarce and slowing traffic on construction-ridden streets to a crawl. I found it a very easy city to walk around in; given its circumscribed past of walls, occupation, destruction and reconstruction, many attractions are within a short distance of each other.
They say that Berlin is the least German city, and yet it’s the capital of the country and appears to be Germany’s most international city (the post WWII period, when the city was divided into British, American, French and Russian sectors, and filled with spies, is still within recent memory). History has certainly left its mark, and I felt that Berlin was a city trying desperately to raise its head above a maniacal past, inviting people from all over to make it happen, whether that be in creating art and music, designing new architecture for reconstruction, or simply by living there. It is certainly a city to keep coming back to, just like those conventioneers do every year.