The second half of the 20th century is an age that many Berliners might want to forget. Yet out of the ashes of Adolf Hitler’s Nazism and Josef Stalin’s Communism, a vibrant modern city-state is emerging at the forefront of a German nation that refuses to buckle under the relentless economic gloom that afflicts most of Europe. Twenty-two years since the fall of the Wall — a potent symbol of the Cold War era — Germany has reunited as a nation, re-assessed its national identity and brought the seat of government back to Berlin.
With a population of 3.5 million, one third of the city’s area is given over to parkland, a blessing for the summer visitor when temperatures can approach 40 degrees Celsius. The wide-open spaces of Tiergarten (Europe’s largest urban park) cover the city’s very center with Bismarck’s Victory Column at its zenith. The woodland provides cool shade and its paths and lawns give ample space to joggers, walkers, cyclists, rugby players, football players, frisbee throwers, picnicers, dogs and sun-worshippers alike. A stroll through the park also throws up unexpected surprises, such as the English Garden with its teahouse, the Schloss Bellevue — a neoclassical palace built in 1785 which today is home to the German president — and the Soviet War Memorial dedicated to the tens of millions of people who died during the 1939-45 world war. This monument is said to be made from the same marble that housed Hitler’s seat of power at the demolished chancellery. At the eastern tip of the Tiergarten is Berlin’s present day icon, the Brandenburg Gate, which during the Cold War was at the frontline of East-West hostility.
Cushioned below the park, in the leafy south, lies the embassy quarter where 145 nations had moved their diplomatic delegations by 1999 from Bonn, theCold War capital of former West Germany. This area extends into gentrified Charlottenburg via Bahnhof Zoo and onto the elegant, high-end, 3.5 km long shopping avenue known as Kudamm, home to the famous KaDeWe department store, ending in the west of the city at the 300-year-old Charlottenburg Palace and its magnificent landscaped gardens.
Regrettably, yet inevitably, the ghosts of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi entourage still haunt the city, serving as a permanent reminder of the brutality mankind is capable of. The German people seem to have stoically faced up to the evil committed by their own compatriots. They commemorated the genocide with a truly disturbing exhibition detailing the horrors of the holocaust at the Topography of Terror open-air museum, which once housed the now bulldozed buildings of the Gestapo headquarters and the SS central command — the nerve center of Nazism. A walk through here will make the hairs in your neck stand on end and there is good reason behind the warning to parents that the exhibit may be too graphic for young children.
Lightening the mood is a relic of the 45-year-long communist period in the form of the Trabant car, made of papier-mâché with a two-stroke engine and gaining worldwide fame as the most polluting vehicle. But the Trabi still runs (on bio-diesel) thanks mainly to whimsical nostalgia, taking tourists on Cold War sightseeing trips around the lasting vistas of the communist period – Karl Marx Allee, the Stasi (secret police) HQ, American controlled Checkpoint Charlie, Treptow Park with its towering Stalinist monuments dedicated to the working class, and, of course, to the Berlin Wall, a 160 kilometer, 4 meter high barrier that prevented East German citizens from traveling to their own country in West Germany.
The end of the Second World War saw Germany split into two by contrasting ideologies — the democratic West and the communist East. West Berlin was in fact an island surrounded by the Soviet military and for the first two years of its Cold War existence, food and supplies had to be airlifted into the city as the Soviets tried to starve the West into surrender. By 1961 relations between the USA and the former USSR had become so frosty that the infamous Wall came into being. The main reason for its construction was a brain drain that witnessed the intellectual, medical and scientific minds of the East fleeing to the West. Between 1945 and 1961 2.5 million Germans had left the East and the communist regime was feeling its economic effects, hence the Wall to keep them in. Until its destruction in 1989, 5,000 people attempted escape but only 1,600 made it and approximately 200 people were killed trying to do so. Like 18-year-old Peter Fechtner, who was shot by border guards and left in the Death Strip to bleed to death. Exact numbers of those who died may never be known due to the Soviets not keeping records.
In 1989 when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, to the astonishment of the world, heeded Ronald Reagan’s demand to “Tear down this Wall”, the entire Soviet empire, from Prague through Moscow to Vladivostok, crashed down too, presenting history with one of its most dramatic events. Thanks largely to a thick layer of intrigue left by the Cold War, a period which produced countless espionage movies and novels, today the Wall is a huge tourist attraction and the largest remaining section known as East Side Gallery, some 1,300 meters long, lies on the banks of the River Spree and serves as a free space for artists and a prevailing illustration of politics and power gone wrong.
Unter den Linden (Under the linden trees) stretching east from Brandenburg Gate is a verdant boulevard housing the monolithic Russian embassy whose wedding cake style of architecture serves as a poignant reminder of recent history. Along the avenue is the German Guggenheim museum that displays top names in contemporary world art and Bebelplatz where in 1933 the Nazis burned books deemed offensive to the philosophy of the Third Reich.
Unter den Linden leads into the historical part of the city, which is packed with museums and concert halls as well as the Lustgarten, the Berliner Dom, the much photographed Rathaus (City Hall), the Reichstag which gained world attention when Hitler’s Nazi party seized it in 1933 and the new German Parliament. This central area, called Mitte, culminates in Alexanderplatz and the 150 meter tall radio tower that dominates the skyline and which can be ascended for fantastic views all the way to Poland. To the north of Mitte is the theater district where international shows and Berlin’s famed cabarets can be found.
In the years since the demise of communism a high quality yet low cost of living has been attracting a very youthful demographic to the city. Berlin has become a center of popular culture with a celebrated vibrancy to the nightlife and arts scene. Allied to this is a large number of immigrants, with 29% of Berlin residents of foreign origin, including up to 250,000 Turks — the largest Turkish community outside Turkey — and it was here that the modern version of the doner kebab was invented in 1971. This social diversification is personified in the district of Kreuzberg where those searching an alternative lifestyle gathered in the beautiful art nouveau residential properties even before the Wall came down and is a trend that continues to this day.
The post-reunification economic revival of the former East Germany has of course attracted migrants to Berlin in addition to the businesses that have relocated here. BMW now builds motorcycles in Berlin, Daimler manufactures its cars in the suburbs, the Bayer pharmaceutical company provides any manner of health care products, Deutsche Bahn — the national rail corporation — and Siemens electrical engineering have their headquarters here, while a science and business district comprises one of the largest technology parks in the world, not forgetting tourism which brings in 135 million visitors annually. All these factors add to the healthy dynamic of a prosperous modern city.