Most people say : “Forget about the mistakes of the past and move on with the future.”
The Germans say it differently : “DO NOT EVER forget the mistakes of the past (and make sure you remember them well too!), and move on with the future.”
This is very apparent in a city like Berlin. Germany’s largest city with a population of 3.5 million, Berlin used to be capital of the Kingdom of Prussia, the Weimar Republic, then headquarters of the Third Reich (SS Nazi regime), then capital of the Soviet-ruled East Berlin, and now capital of a reunified Germany. For a technically “young” city, its history and culture is as colourful as it gets.
It is really an eye-opening experience to be in a city like this, it is not afraid to reveal its shameful stories to the world, the dark, horrible atrocities their own fellow countrymen had committed, and the invaluable lessons they learnt from them. No, they are definitely not proud of what they had done in the past, but they fully acknowledged them with courage and commemorate with respect the victims of their crimes and their families; they certainly spent much money and time paying back their debts of war (only in recent years have they finally finished paying up!); they openly reveal their mistakes to the world, and with the strong will and determination to make their country better, moving on. It is with this brave, positive and admirable attitude that Germany has grown to become the strong nation as it is now.
History stares you in the face at every corner you turn; memorials and monuments here and there; office buildings which used to be of some historical significance back then. There are countless museums to tell you their stories for those willing to spend the time learning them. Remnants of the infamous Berlin Wall are still seen at various places; if not, a long double-lined brick can be observed lining the middle of roads curiously all along the city centre, the base of which the now demolished Wall used to stand.
Rentals and food are surprisingly cheap in this capital city, compared to its other European counterparts. A big, delicious Bratwurst with bread from a side street vendor would only cost you €1.20. A decent full course meal in a restaurant would probably only buy you a starter back home. Public transportation is excellent too. Trains and buses run almost 24 hours, and you can get connections to almost all destinations within or out of the city centre. People are generally friendly and helpful (even sometimes when they can’t understand your language).
If you have limited time in Berlin and would like to see as much of this city as possible, it is recommended that you join one of the day tours. There are plenty of these around, some are even free, they are conducted by volunteer guides who operate on tipping basis. 3.5-hour tours conducted in German, English, Spanish and other languages; and they have more or less the same itinerary. The guides are mostly non-Germans but who have impressively vast knowledge about German and especially Berlin history that will blow your mind. As you go along with them, you would realise that their passion toward this city is simply contagious, inadvertently drawing your own interest in it too.
Sights and attractions
Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) – One of the oldest, most historical and well-known landmark of Berlin, it was built in the 18th century and originally functions as a city gate, the main entrance into Berlin. It was a symbol of peace. The Quadriga (horse drawn chariots) crowning the Gate was a symbol of victory. Later after the Berlin Wall was built right next to it during the Cold War, it sat on the very border and became a symbol of a divided city (between East Berlin and West Berlin). When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, tens of thousands of euphoric revellers flocked to the reopened Gate and were celebrating at this very spot, climbing atop the Wall, cheering and drinking and partying all night. Celebrating the end of the Cold War and a new beginning of their lives. The Brandenburg Gate has then become a symbol of a reunified Berlin.
Reichstag (seat of the German Parliament), – The late 19th century building used to house the Parliament of the German Empire, then the Weimar Republic, then was set on fire, then was taken over conveniently by Hitler’s regime, and is now functioning as the Bundestag, the seat of the modern German Parliament. The striking new glass dome is open to public access but by strict appointment and subject to various scannings and security checks. Visitors to the glass dome can have a 360°C panoramic view of the city of Berlin while walking along the spiral viewing platform. At the same time, they can also look down directly into the transparent spiral and see into the plenary room right below, where all the important decisions are discussed and finalised daily, and watch them while they are in session. The idea is to create a concept of transparency and openness between the Parliament and the voters, that the Parliament works for the voters and this is what democracy is all about.
Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) – Ironically, just a stone’s throw away from the prestigious grandeur of Brandenburger Tor and Reichstag, you will come across this spooky large open space which is filled with nothing but thousands of imposing concrete rectangular blocks, of various sizes and heights, no labels, no literature, no entrance and no exit. If you have not known what it is, you would think that this is just an open air abstract art gallery. The story goes way deeper, naturally. The Holocaust Memorial is one of many built to commemorate and honour the 6 million Jews who were annihilated by the National Socialist Regime during the Holocaust period. It is the most visited site in Berlin.
It is truly ironic that such a central, prime location was chosen to build such an enormous memorial for such a cause, which represents the shameful side of Germany, highlighting the monstrous atrocities of their war crimes. This alone should tell you something about the Germans. Their way of remembering and dealing with their heavy historical burden is truly unique. To know more about this place and its significance, read the post : “Holocaust and the Horrors of Concentration Camps – PART 1”.
Topography of Terror – This is the actual site of which all the central institutions of Nazi persecution were located during its reign of terror from 1933-1945 : the headquarters of the Secret State Police (Gestapo), the Reich SS Leadership and Security Service (SD) of the SS, and the Reich Security Main Office. It has both indoor and outdoor exhibitions. On one of its borders is a 200-meter-long remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, preserved in its original state with all traces of destruction during the transitional period.
Checkpoint Charlie – Berlin’s No#1 tourist trap, this is one of the American sector’s checkpoint crossing between East Berlin and West Berlin, which is most popular because of the colourful and creative escape stories that happened here during the Wall period. This was also the exact spot that almost got World War 3 started – where 20 American and Soviet tanks stood 100 meters apart on either side of the checkpoint in a tensed situation, canons facing each other in a ready-to-fire position. And it all started because some diplomatic bloke wants to cross over to see the opera.
Now the only thing remaining here is the replica of the famous signboard that says in 4 languages : “You are leaving the American sector.” There is also a private and expensive museum here that among other things exhibits the tools and devices used by the people to escape the Wall.
There is really nothing to see now except a guardhouse (which is not even the original checkpoint, as the original one has been moved into a museum), and 2 “guards” in security uniform standing in front of it, with whom you can pose for pictures for €2. Oh, and these “guards” also moonlight as escorts during the night. (????)
Tiergarten – Once a royal hunting ground, Tiergarten is now one of the world’s largest urban park located in the middle of the city centre. The middle of the Tiergarten is the notable sculpture Victory Column (Siegessäule). This park is popular among Berliners for jogging, strolling, walking your dog; and in the summer it is also a popular spot for picnics, sunbathing and naked BBQ parties.
Schloss Charlottenburg – Largest palace in Berlin. 17th century exquisite royal palace, residence of the Prussian Kings and families. There is also a baroque style royal garden surrounding the palace, ala-Versailles design. The lake in the garden was half frozen during our visit, naturally.
Museumsinsel (Museum Island) – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An island in the Spree River in the central Mitte district, Berlin, Museum Island is so called because on this particular tip of the island is the cluster of 5 world-class museums, some of which were built in the 19th century. The 5 museums are namely : The Altes Museum (Old Museum), The Neues Museum (New Museum), The Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), The Bode Museum, and the newest but most popular The Pergamon Museum.
Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer, 1961-1989) – The Berlin Wall became an international symbol of the division of Germany during the Cold War when Berlin was divided into 4 sectors : American, British, French on the west and Soviet Union on the east. The Wall was built by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), East Germany, to separate themselves from all the other 3 sectors, claiming that their intention was to prevent fascist influence by the westies into the eastern side, hence preventing East Germany from becoming a socialist state. So the Wall was also called Anti-Fascist Protection Wall (by the easties only). But the real situation is, they wanted to prevent the easties to escape into the west, and naturally, that was what happened. Numerous easties tried all sorts of methods and devices to escape the Wall to the other side. Some were successful, some were not.
East Side Gallery – the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall in the present day, after the famous fall of the Wall in 1989. Located just next to the River Spree on the east side of town, this mile-long section of the wall has become an open air art gallery now, murals drawn by commissioned artists with colourful designs and thought-provoking messages all along the entire stretch. A well worth visit, make sure you walk the entire mile.
“I painted over the wall of shame so freedom is ashamed no more. Inferno ruled too many years, until the people chose the light. I put my faith in you, Berlin, and give to you my colours bright!” – Fulvio Pinna, Italy
“We have to get to know each other better…… it makes us understand one another better, trust each other more, and live together more peacefully.” – The United Buddy Bears
With this motto, the Buddy Bears tour around the world promoting tolerance, international understanding and living together in peace and harmony. They are now found everywhere around the city of Berlin; along the pavements, in train stations, inside shopping centres, at restaurants; you can almost make it a game to try to spot them, with all their colourful and creative designs. These are all I managed to collect in my few days there. 🙂