Life and Death in Berlin — Part 2, Death

Life and Death in Berlin — Part 2, Death

This is a continuation on my first post about life in Berlin, focusing on the darker side of the city’s history.


Historical Memory

Memory is not passive—either in a person or in a country. We choose what we remember; we can shape how we remember it; and our memories, in turn, shape how we act. History is messy, the truth is neither plain nor simple, and in human affairs there is no such thing as an apolitical fact. Opposing groups emphasize different episodes of history, interpret (or misinterpret) those episodes incompatibly, and sweep aside inconvenient episodes that do not fit their narratives. These narratives are not just background; they provide groups with their identity, giving them a historical trajectory and a goal to strive for. Thus it is not just for the dead, but the living, that we must attend to how history is remembered.

Nowhere is this need more apparent than in Berlin; nowhere can we see more clearly what power historical memory can wield. It is said that knowledge is power, but in history we had better say narrative is power. For the past is past, and not around to refute politicians who twist it to their advantage. The historical past is, to a large extent, a creation of the present; and it is recreated every time a book is written, a speech is delivered, or an article is published in the newspaper. The past that the Nazis created was of a mythic Germany, of a virtuous and heroic people, unduly hampered by foreign elements and racial impurities. The past that the Soviets conjured was of a dark night of bourgeois repression only recently lifted by the liberating proletariat army. As we all know, these narratives gave rise to atrocities—atrocities which, if the narratives had triumphed, we would remember as victories—and thus we are now faced with the task of remembering differently.

For this reason, a trip to Berlin is both horrifying and heartening—horrifying because of the crimes committed there, heartening because those crimes are not being ignored or swept aside. I have mentioned elsewhere that you can visit Madrid and never guess that, less than a hundred years ago, there was a horrendous civil war that ended with mass executions. The same cannot be said of Berlin. Indeed I think Berlin is a model of how historical atrocities should be framed and memorialized. The city has every reason to be proud.


Monuments of Death

The first of these somber monuments I visited was the rather cheerfully named Checkpoint Charlie. The name is really just Checkpoint C (Charlie is the NATO phonetic marker for “C”). Checkpoint Charlie is the most famous border crossing between East and West Germany.

Checkpoint Charlie Sign

As you may know, defection from East to West was high during the postwar years, particularly among the young and well-educated (not population most countries want to lose). To prevent this, the border between East Germany and West Germany was sealed off, and strict regulations put in place about leaving the country. But for many years the border crossings in Berlin remained much easier to get through (this was because the city was jointly controlled by the four occupying powers), making Berlin a kind of gateway to freedom for many hoping to flee the Soviet Union. All this ended in 1961 with the erection of the Berlin Wall. By that time, East Germany had lost 20% of its population.

In truth the checkpoint isn’t much to look at. It’s a small, white guardhouse with some sandbags sitting out front. There were two men in uniform carrying American flags. I was unsure whether they were actual American soldiers or enterprising men in costume accepting money to pose with tourists. In any case, the most memorable image of Checkpoint Charlie is the sign that says “YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR” in four languages—English, French, Russian, and German. On the other side of the sign, for those entering the American Sector, we are kindly reminded to “OBEY TRAFFIC RULES.”

The official Checkpoint Charlie Museum is nearby. I didn’t go, since I heard mixed reviews. I don’t have anything more to add about this famous landmark, other than that it was strange to be standing in that otherwise entirely ordinary road, and imagine tanks rolling in, diplomats being escorted by soldiers, and the fate of the world hanging on the de-escalation of tensions surrounding this border crossing. In politics, small flames can set off very large explosions. Seen with un-political eyes, Checkpoint Charlie is a shack on a road. Seen with historical eyes, it is one of the axes of world history.

From Checkpoint Charlie it is a five-minute walk to my next monument, the Topographie des Terrors. This is a fairly new exhibit—opened only in 2010—built on the ruins of the old Gestapo headquarters, where their prisoners were tortured and killed. As befitting its name, The Topography of Terrors is an open-air museum dedicated to the history of Nazi atrocities. This history is arranged as a timeline, with plentiful pictures and information panels giving examples and details of the National Socialist regime.

Topography of Terror

Most of this information will not be new to anyone with a basic knowledge of the Holocaust or the Nazi movement—although familiarity hardly dulls the sickening horror of it all. The museum is more valuable for its ability to convey the atmosphere of the time, especially with the numerous Nazi propaganda posters on display. Nothing sums up an ideology with the stark simplicity of a propaganda poster. We see a hardworking German Aryan worker struggling to work, while weighted down by the lazy inferior races; we see bald-faced incitements to hatred against Jews; we see rallies for the workers at home to fight as hard as the soldiers in the field; and then there are the usual posters warning citizens to black out their lights during air raids and to watch out for spies.

Propaganda

Scattered among the posters are profiles of the fallen. One profile which struck me was of a man with epilepsy, Otto Mathewes, who was put into a sanatorium by his family, sterilized by the Nazis, and ultimately sent to a death camp to be killed. I knew that the Nazis targeted those they deemed racially impure—Jews and Roma—as well as homosexuals; but I did not know that the Nazis would put to death somebody with epilepsy—a treatable disease, or at the very least one that could be managed. For me, as for many, the most perplexing thing about the Nazi movement is how an entire population could be goaded into cooperating with their murderous policies. Most populations, it seems, can be persuaded to go to war, which involves killing outsiders. Yet the Nazis didn’t only wage war, but killed citizens of their own country. Why wasn’t there widespread resistance? Hannah Arendt’s phrase about the “banality of evil” comes to mind; but I suppose this question is not one to be answered with a phrase.

Hitler Chart

Among the propaganda posters, I found a chart showing the different paths for Nazi youths to follow to become full-fledged Nazi adults—for women, from Jungmädel (young girls) to Mütter und Hausfrauen (mothers and housewives), for military boys from the Hitler youth to the military. Looking at that chart, I feel a mixture of disgust and amusement. Such a regimented society, with caste-like roles and ranks for everyone, is repressive in the extreme. And yet, for all its nefarious intent, this organization strikes me as hopelessly juvenile. Indeed it is even campy, as if the whole country is to be organized like the Boy Scouts. Considering this chart, it is easy to see why many Germans did not consider Hitler a serious threat before he rose to power. His mind was packed full of this stuff—juvenile, campy plans designed to appeal to a boyish desire for ritual, hierarchy, and order. The line between the notions of an oaf and the ideas of an autarch is disturbingly fine—perhaps ultimately just access to power.

The exhibition also includes a model for Welthauptstadt Germania, “World Capital Germania,” the proposed city to be constructed over Berlin after Germany won the war. This plan, drawn up by Albert Speer, is discussed by Robert Hughes in his documentary The Shock of the New as an example of the architecture of power. Everything about the design is meant to provoke awe. The scale is enormous; the proposed dome of the Volkshalle would easily dwarf St. Peter’s and the Pantheon. Again, we see here the big imaginations of little minds. It is the same mixture of a juvenile yearning for order and a boyish admiration of strength that we see in the chart.

Coincidentally, the Topography of Terror is located right next to the longest extant stretch of the outer Berlin Wall. It is little more than a wreck now, so full of holes you can see right through it. That ruin completes the picture of atrocities, giving the visitor a glimpse of what came after the Nazis were defeated.

Berlin Wall

It is a short walk from the Topography of Terror to the Holocaust Memorial, more properly called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, it opened in 2005, and is situated near the Brandenburger Tor. The memorial is strikingly abstract. There is no information to be found, no names of victims, no sculptures or symbols, nothing that can provide the visitor context. Instead, the visitor finds a field of concrete slabs, 711 of them, ranging in height from 8 inches to over 15 feet. These slabs are arranged in rows and columns, slightly askew, and the monoliths grow as the visitor enters into the monument.

Holocaust Memorial

I admit that my first impression was one of disappointment. There just isn’t much to look at—just identical grey blocks, stretching out like a miniature city. Is the meaningless abstraction of contemporary art really appropriate for commemorating the Holocaust? But I revised my opinion as soon as I walked into the memorial. The blocks slowly grow until they encompass you and limit your line of sight to four narrow passageways. I felt uncomfortable, even unnerved. It is easy to get separated from friends, and difficult to find them once lost. There is no telling who you will see if you turn a corner. Muffled voices come from all directions. I am not prone to this, but I felt a kind of crushing claustrophobia in the monument, a sense of being hopelessly lost and in danger, and I hurried to get out.

Holocaust Memorial Interior

As many have noted, the memorial lends itself to many interpretations. The concrete slabs are shaped like coffins, and the rows of blocks strike many as a graveyard. The gradual increase in the slabs’ height as you walk into the memorial, rising until all lines of vision are cut off, is symbolic of the gradual limiting of the Jews’ options as the Nazis stripped them of rights, property, liberty, and life. The mechanical regularity of the slabs suggests the inhuman efficiency of the Nazi killing machine. But more important than these interpretations is the feeling evoked by the monument, the uncomfortable, suffocating feeling of being trapped. It is a cold and comfortless place, although kids are often found playing hide-and-seek within. Indeed the monument invites use as a playground, and it is easy to imagine people skipping from block to block and dashing through the columns. And perhaps this, too, forms an essential part of the monument, showing us that children can turn even bleak concrete into innocent fun.

The monument does not impress everyone; it has been controversial from the beginning. Richard Brody wrote a piece in The New Yorker criticizing the memorial for being too vague and for not including the names of the victims. (As he notes, the names on display in an information center under the slabs, along with other documents about the atrocity. But this information is not well marked, and both Brody and myself missed it.) More recently there was a social media story about Shahak Shapira, who took pictures of tourists taking selfies in the memorial, and juxtaposed them with images of the holocaust—terming it the ‘yolocaust’. I admit that it doesn’t surprise me that people take selfies at the memorial. Nowadays, people will take a selfie with the murderer who just broke into their house, and spend their final moments counting likes.

For my part, I thought it was a moving and effective work of art, even though I was skeptical at first. While I can see why some criticize the lack of names or context, I think the silence of the memorial is what gives it such emotional power; it is a silence that invites us to contemplate the absence of all those men, women, and children, those who were taken and can never return.

Berlin’s other famous memorial is not within easy walking distance. The Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) is located to the north, next to another surviving section of the wall. It was opened to the public in 1998, within a decade of the reunification. It is much more “traditional” than the Holocaust Memorial, with explicit messages, historical recreations, and information about the victims. Nearby is the Chapel of Reconciliation, an oval-shaped church made of thin strips of wood—you can see through the walls from the inside—built over the foundations of an older church demolished to make way for the wall. A statue of a man and woman in a desperate embrace reminds us how many families were split by that barrier.

Berlin Wall Memorial

The main attraction of the memorial is a section of the wall reconstructed to look as it would have when it was dividing the city in two. This recreation is bounded by two high steel walls, preventing visitors at ground level from looking inside. The viewer needs to climb a tower across the street, right next to the memorial building, and look down from above. From there you can see that the Berlin Wall was really two walls, an exterior and an interior, both of the same drab gray appearance. It is steel-reinforced concrete, too tall to climb easily, too strong to ram with any normal car. Between the two walls is what was called the “death strip,” an empty area full of gravel raked smooth, with a small road running through the center so that army vehicles could quickly move to different sections. This strip was deadly because any potential escapees would be totally exposed there, easily visible to those in the guard tower nearby. There is no cover from searchlights or from firearms. Street lights kept it constantly illuminated. Caught there, you would be a sitting duck.

Although it was a beautiful sunny evening, and although it is surrounded by green parks and bushy trees, the wall section struck me as inhuman, dreary, and squalid. It is the picture of homicidal efficiency—a barrier designed with intelligence and foresight to accomplish immoral ends. The same question occurs to me here as occurred to me at the Topography of Terror: How could people—presumably normal, neighborly people—be persuaded to build something like this? The sheer absurdity of building a wall to keep people in rather than out, to stop an exodus of people fleeing from their own country, must have struck everyone involved. And yet the wall was built, construction crews dragged the concrete into place, soldiers manned the watchtowers, and government officials devoted time and energy to its maintenance and improvement.

Inside the memorial center are old letters, recorded interviews, and information panels about those whose lives were affected by the wall. There are stories of people fleeing, being caught in the attempt, and getting shot down by guards. One famous escape story is of Wolfgang Engels, who stole an armored personnel carrier and rammed it through the wall, getting shot in the process but making it out alive. East German Soldiers at the wall were instructed to shoot anyone attempting to cross, even women and children. Nevertheless, about 5,000 people successfully escaped; well over 100 were killed in the attempt. Some of the escapees dug tunnels, some even flew balloons—indeed, the last casualty of the wall, Winfried Freudenberg, died in 1989 when he fell from his homemade balloon. Guards on the Western side could not help anyone on the death strip, or they risked being fired on by the East German guards. This led, most famously, to the death of Peter Fechter, who was shot in the death strip and left to bleed to death, as hundreds looked on from both sides.

The last place I visited was the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, an old Soviet and then Stasi prison. This is situated far away from the other major sites, in the east of the city. But it is well worth the trip. The only way to visit the prison is on a guided tour. My tour guide, a young woman, was excellent—extremely knowledgeable and compelling. According to her, some of the guides are actually former inmates in the prison. In any case, I can say that it was one of the best guided tours of my life. My visit was both informative and moving, and I hope you get a chance to go.

As I said, the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen is a prison formerly used by the Soviets and the Stasi. Before that, it was used by the Nazis as a communal kitchen. When the Soviets conquered Berlin, the building was used hold prisoners—accused Nazi collaborators. The building was not designed for this. The Soviets put their prisoners in the food cellars in the basement—big subterranean rooms with no windows. Conditions for prisoners were atrocious. The cells were unheated and terribly cold in the winter. The Soviets did not distribute clothing to the prisoners, so if they were unlucky enough to be thrown in without a coat, they had no recourse but to freeze. The cells had no bathroom, only a single chamber pot—without even a lid, so the place constantly reeked—that was seldom emptied. Soldiers had no showers, and no medical attention. If memory serves, the guide said they were fed once a day, and poorly. Death from starvation, cold, and sickness were common. Beatings and other forms of torture were used to extract confessions. Conditions were so inhumane that many attempted suicide; but since there was nothing in the cell, no sharp objects or chords, even this was difficult.

Prison Hall

Conditions improved somewhat when, in 1951, the Stasi took over. Instead of using the old food cellars, they built an actual prison building. The cells were above ground, with windows, and had a toilet, a sink, and a mirror. The guards didn’t carry guns, for fear that the prisoners might steal one. In the hallway outside the cells, running along the wall, is a chord that, if tugged, sets off an alarm. Prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other, or even exchange glances, outside the cells. According to the guide, the Stasi used psychological forms of torture more often than beatings. Interrogators would try to gain the prisoner’s confidence, to use a mixture of threats and friendliness to get what they were after. Sometimes more stringent forms of torture was used, like sleep deprivation. In any case, prisoners had to sleep with their arms outside the blanket; and guards would come several times a night to shine a light inside the cell, checking that their arms were in view. The only outside recreation they were allowed was in what was called the ‘tiger cage,’ a small enclosure with high walls and a caged roof.

Incredibly, the prison was completely unknown to the public while it was in use, even though it is a large compound in the capital. This is partly why it remains standing in such pristine condition. Almost nobody knew about it; so after the fall of the Berlin Wall, angry demonstrators didn’t come pouring in the gates. Part of the tour included the unmarked van used to pick up prisoners without detection. According to the guide, after the wall fell, former prisoners sometimes bumped into their erstwhile interrogators. In one anecdote she recounted, the interrogator refused to apologize; but in another, the interrogator said he was sorry for what happened.

I have recounted the tour as best as I remember it; but this brief summary does not capture the feeling of standing in those dark cells, seeing the interrogation rooms—eerily office-like—and thinking of all the people who suffered and died here while their loved ones waited in total ignorance of their whereabouts. The whole environment was designed to be dehumanizing, to make life as uncomfortable and as fearful as possible for the inmates.


This completes my short experiences with the somber memorials of Berlin. There is not much more to be said. I left Berlin with a keen awareness of the terrors that took place within recent memory, and with a deep respect for the citizens’ commitment to remembering these terrors. These monuments are built to commemorate crimes, crimes that reveal the lowest depths of our nature. That these monuments were built—in the very heart of the country where these crimes took place—shows us the heights we can rise to.

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Life and Death in Berlin — Part 1, Life

Life and Death in Berlin — Part 1, Life

Here goes another travel post delayed by a year. Now, however, I don’t feel quite so bad, since I learned that the famous travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, wrote his account of his youthful travels over 40 years after the trip itself. So maybe I’m not such a nincompoop after all. (For part 2 of this post, about the ugly history of Berlin, click here.)


Germany in Mind

Germany: The very word looms over my whole conception of the world.

Like so many of my bewildered generation, when I was in high school I spent a lot of time watching television. The problem, then as now, was that nothing was on. In desperation my brother and I often turned to the History Channel. If we were unlucky, Modern Marvels would be on—a show about the history of automobile manufacturing, or how screws evolved from nails, or something similarly dry. (This was before the History Channel became the Conspiracy Theory Channel, and had no programs about ancient aliens.)

The good stuff were the World War II documentaries. Grainy footage of soldiers marching across barren landscapes, the whistling of bombs released from bombers, stupendous explosions and the bright streaks of tracer bullets fired from fighter planes—all these scenes of battle, so captivating to young boys, were mixed up with footage of one man: Hitler. Every documentary was sure to feature that stiff, stern, mustachioed man yelling shrilly, punctuating his pronouncements with jerky gestures.

It is an injustice to the German language that so many people are exposed to it through the oratory of that execrable man. Naturally, the language in that tyrant’s mouth is violent, aggressive, ugly, shrieking, garbled—as were his thoughts. But the abuse of one man ought not to cast aspersions on a whole language. Spoken well, German can be gentle, sweet, and tender.

I fell under its spell from my very first exposure. In the sixth grade we had a language survey, covering bits of Italian, Spanish, French, and German, to see which language we wanted to study. At the end of the term we were asked to rank our favorites. For me there was no question. It had to be German. The language was strangely akin to English, and yet so different in spirit: purer, stronger, more elemental. I put German as my first choice; and because I was required to list a second and third choice, I absently put down Italian and French. This decision came to haunt me later, for it was soon revealed that there wasn’t a German teacher. I took Italian as my main language—which exposed me to lots of excellent food, but which held no appeal to my immature mind.

These vague childhood impressions were soon supplemented by more definite knowledge. In a college literature class I was exposed to Thomas Mann, who soon became my first literary passion, a model of erudition and eloquence that simply dazzled me. Shortly after that, by a complete coincidence, somebody in my a capella group mentioned that he was teaching himself German using tapes; and when I showed an interest, he offered to lend them to me. I snatched at the opportunity; and from the first tape, the long-dormant passion for German was reawakened.

Once again I found myself enamored of the language—the magnificent German tongue, which combines rustic roughness with intensity of thought, earthiness with cerebral density, not to mention seriousness with silliness. (Click here to experience the silliness.) The next semester I enrolled in a German class, even though it had little to do with my major. For my twenty-first birthday I went to a German restaurant in New York City, Hallo Berlin, and ate sausages and sauerkraut and drank Weißbier, and felt absolutely stuffed and happy; and my fondness for the country has continued unabated ever since.

And all this still leaves out the dozens of the figures from Germany’s history—musicians, poets, philosophers, and scientists—who have puzzled my mind and saturated my spirits. From Bach to Beethoven, from Goethe to Nietzsche, from Kant to Heidegger, from Einstein to Weber, the Deutscher Geist has dominated my intellectual and my artistic interests. The horny grammar and spiky consonants of the German language, the labyrinthine fugues of Bach and the devious arguments of Kant, spiced with sour mustard and cooled with foamy beer—all this had combined, since I was in university, to form an impression of the Germans as somehow special. I wanted—no, I needed—to go see Germany for myself. And I finally did, however briefly, with my trip to Berlin.


First Impressions of Berlin

You might say that all this expectation could only lead to disappointment. This is half true. Nothing could possibly match the absurd image of Germany I had built up over the years: a city dominated by high-tech robots giving every citizen hours of leisure, a society of engineers who philosophize in their free time, every one of them relaxing in a beer hall downing Schnapps and singing Lieders in group harmony—it’s absurd, I know, but I really couldn’t imagine Germany being any other way.

The aspect that Berlin first presented to me was rather ordinary. I took a bus from the airport to the city center (Berlin is very well-connected) and I remember looking out the window and seeing: a city. That’s it—not a space-age colony, not a rustic paradise—a city, comparable to Madrid or Rome. But there was no doubt that I was in Germany. The people on the bus couldn’t be anything but German.

It is always a shock coming from Spain to Northern Europe. By and large, Spaniards are shorter, with slightly darker skin, and blacker hair. The Germans are the opposite in every respect: pale, tall, and blonde. (I’m speaking in generalities of course.) Even at a glance, there is no mistaking a bus-full of Spaniards for a bus-full of Germans.

There is also a striking difference in dress. Spanish people—despite their generally open attitude towards public displays of affection (Americans are often shocked by the kissing that goes on in metros and restaurants)—on the whole dress somewhat conservatively. Clothes tend not to be very revealing, either on men or women. (I have reason to believe, however, that this is slowly changing.) If you wear shorts and sandals before June, you will be stared at. What’s more, Spanish people tend to dress more formally than Americans; you can see women wearing elegant dresses on any day in the week—even among friends—and Spanish offices are seas of suits and ties.

German Male Nudity 1

Germany, from what I could see in Berlin, is quite different. Indeed I’d say the German attitude towards fashion is far closer to ours in the United States: tank-tops, belly shirts, short-shorts, flip-flops, and every other type of skimpy clothing under the sun is embraced. But there is one major respect in which the Germans differ from Americans: they are not puritans.

German nudity
Not a Puritan

You see, compared to Europeans, Americans are prudes when it comes to the body. Flip open a German magazine—not a pornographic one, but any old magazine—and you can see exposed breasts. Advertisements in Berlin feature, not only scantily clad women, but also the exposed male body—hairy, bulging, and thick (see the two examples above). This feature of their culture was revealed to me, in the most literal sense, when I was strolling through the Tiergarten (the central park of Berlin), and found myself suddenly surrounded by naked men lounging on the grass in broad daylight. Part of me was scandalized (think of the children!), but another part was very amused.

Now, I honestly have no idea why Spaniards dress more conservatively but kiss in public, why Germans dress skimpily and sun themselves naked in parks, and why Americans dress skimpily but avoid both kissing in public and public nudity. But I imagine the explanation has a lot to do with religious history.

The city of Berlin apparently has a reputation among Germans. I spoke to a couple of German students a few months before my trip, who told me that Berlin was the poorest region of the country. The city was dubbed “poor but sexy” by its own mayor. According to what I can find, Berlin is heavily in debt and is subsidized by the rest of the country, with the worst education in the country and an abnormally high crime rate. My Airbnb host explained that the city attracted a lot of artists and bohemian types because it’s bad economy made it a cheap place to live. The whole city gives off a hipstery vibe, with lots of street art, outdoor markets, and nifty stores; and like many aspiring artists, the city of Berlin is financially supported by its family.

Grafiti Hipster
Berlin Street Art

Aside from its grungy aspect, Berlin is notable for its layout. The city has no discernable center. All the major monuments seem scattered about at random. The city stretches out in every direction without any obvious plan or natural boundary. I believe this lack of apparent center or scheme is due to two major factors: that the city was pummeled into rubble during the Second World War, and that it was rebuilt while it was divided into different zones, each controlled by different countries. (Yet I have just read in Stefan Zweig’s autobiography that Berlin lacked a center even before the First World War, so I can’t say.) The longstanding division between East and West has left a permanent mark on the city.

I said above that my elevated expectations of Berlin could only lead to disappointment. But this was only half true. For everything Berlin lacked in space-age technology and opera-singing metaphysicians, the city made up for with unexpected charm. I felt immediately comfortable in Berlin, in a way that I rarely feel in foreign cities. Everyone I spoke to was friendly; the city felt safe and even cozy, like one giant neighborhood. Hipsters drank beer in the streets and friends bounced a balls in the park. There was a sense of intimacy, of familiarity, which I could not explain but which I nevertheless felt. (I have a friend who tells me he hated every minute of being in Berlin, so clearly this feeling is not universal.) Aside from this feeling of general contentment, I also found that Berlin is full of fascinating history; and this is what I’m here to tell you about.


A Note on Food, Immigration, & Transport

You may be interested to learn that, outside of Turkey itself, Berlin is the city with the highest population of Turks.

This, indeed, was the immigration ‘problem’ German people worried about before the Syrian Refugee Crisis: that there were so many immigrants coming from Turkey, and many of them were not integrating as fast as most people desired. They weren’t learning German and mixing in German society, but living in Turkish neighborhoods speaking Turkish. This was regarded as an alarming development.

Parenthetically, this is an interesting illustration of the different attitudes towards immigration in the United States and continental Europe. For all the xenophobia that has raged in the United States—and now more than in any decade of recent memory—Americans, at least in cities with high immigrant populations, are far more comfortable, on average, with immigrants keeping their language, dress, diet, and so on, than are Europeans. The controversy in France over the burkini, for example, simply could never happen in the United States. We have more than enough islamophobes, thank you very much, but lawmakers wouldn’t even contemplate passing legislation about acceptable forms of swimwear.

Note that this is not because Americans generally have a more positive opinion of Islam than French people do. To the contrary, I think the reverse is probably the case. But in America we do not have such a strong sense of “Culture”—traditional ways of dressing, eating, dating, speaking, and so on, that pervade every aspect of daily life—as exists in, say, France or Germany. Rather, in keeping with our traditional individualism, Americans conceive of choices in dress, diet, love, and speech as based on individual preference rather than having much to do with tradition. There are traditional sectors of American society, of course; but they are traditional by free choice. And no single tradition (except perhaps vague notions of “freedom” and “democracy”) would be accepted by any large fraction of the population.

Now, I should clarify that I am not denying that there is no such thing as American Culture; nor that the French and Germans are not individualistic; all I’m saying is that Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as living in accordance with any culture except the one we choose through our own free will. And if somebody wants to mess with that decision, they can go read the Constitution!

I am getting off track here. Well, the point is that Berlin has a lot of Turkish people. As a result, Turkish food has become wildly popular, and justly so. I once listened to two German students describe in raptures all their favorite kebab spots. The best kebab spot in any city is, apparently, a source of hot dispute among the locals.

If I can join in on this argument, I’d like to advocate for Mustafa’s Kebab. It is not even a restaurant, but a food stand selling different types of kebab. Trust me: go there and order one. All the ingredients are fresh: the crispy cucumbers and carrots, the refreshing feta cheese, the perfectly grilled meat—it is marvelous, simultaneously delicious and surprisingly wholesome, not to mention affordable, which is why there is always a long line. I ate there the first day and then went back the next.

Apart from this heavenly experience, the other famous dish in Berlin is the Currywurst. This is just sausage and fries with a creamy curry sauce. The combination of sausage and curry did not strike me as particularly promising, but I trust the Germans, and I had the meal twice. Both times I thought that, indeed, curry on sausage was odd; but I like curry, and I like sausage, and fries are always welcome. I enjoy it; but it is a greasy, heavy meal, not ideal for physical activity of any kind.

Speaking of avoiding physical activity, I should add a note about public transportation. Unlike in either New York or Madrid, the transport system in Berlin uses the honor code. You are trusted to buy a ticket and to verify it before every trip. But there is no barrier, gate, or turnstile preventing you from getting on. Bus drivers don’t check; the metro and the tram are hop-on, hop-off. It took me three trips on the transport system to figure out that, yes, I was expected to pay (I watched a few dutiful Germans verify their transport cards before boarding).

This prompted me to look up if it was common to avoid paying, since I had already taken three free trips by accident and nobody had noticed. This brought me to this fascinating article. Apparently there is a relatively small but dedicated band of Berliners who daringly ride the metro without a ticket. This is known in German as schwarzfahren (literally, “black going”—what a wonderful language!). But there are risks. Plainclothes officers, known as Kontrolleurs, ride metros and trams all day, randomly checking if people have a valid ticket. If you are caught without a ticket you can get fined for 40€ as a first-time offense. Granted, there is a chance of escaping the car once you see the agents begin checking, but this is far from assured. I took eleven or twelve trips while I was there and never witnessed any check. But for those intrepid souls looking to fight the man and seek perilous thrills by schwarzfahren, be warned.


Monuments of Life

I made one major mistake when visiting Berlin: I didn’t book a tour of the Reichstag building ahead of time. The Reichstag building (the word Reichstag, which means parliament, literally means “kingdom day”) is the current parliament building. It was originally constructed back in the 1890s, when Germany was an Empire, to house the Imperial Diet; it then burned down in mysterious circumstances in 1933, giving the ascendant Nazi party a convenient excuse to start jailing political enemies. After that, the building lay unrepaired and unused during the Nazi era and the Cold War; and it wasn’t until the reunification in 1990 that the building was finally refurbished and put back into use by the current parliament, the Bundestag (Bundestag literally means “federation day”).

Reichstag Building.jpg

Whatever the building’s history, I couldn’t visit it, since you need to book your tour in advance. (Follow this link.) I went up and asked if there were any free spots available, but there weren’t any until Tuesday, the day after I was going to leave. From the outside the building is impressive: a grand palatial edifice in neoclassical style. As I’ve mentioned in my post about Rome, Roman architecture has been adopted worldwide as the architecture of power; and nowhere is this on greater display than in Berlin. The front pediment of the Reichstag building features a Parthenon-esque frieze of Grecian gods surrounds the German coat of arms, an eagle derived from Roman military standards. Under all this is written Dem Deutschen Volk (literally, “The German People,” but the use of the dative “Dem” implies “To the German People”). Apparently, Kaiser Wilhelm II found the democratic ring of these words distasteful. Considering that he was the last Kaiser, I suppose the joke is on him.

The Reichstag building stands near the equally famous Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor). This is another example of Roman-inspired architecture, modeled after the triumphal arches in that ancient city. Its construction was ordered by the Prussian King Frederick William II, to celebrate the defeat of the Batavian Revolution; and like any worthwhile piece of political propaganda, it commemorates a victory that never happened: the revolution was only momentarily delayed, and eventually succeeded.

Brandenburger Tor

The gate originally replaced an older, fortified gate in the city walls. (At this point in history, the walls had become obsolete anyway.) Much later, during the Cold War, the Brandenburg Gate came to serve a far more nefarious purpose: to keep the citizens of East Germany in rather than to keep invaders out.

The Brandenburger Tor stands on the erstwhile border of East and West Berlin; formerly, the Berlin Wall encircled the gate in a sinister embrace. During this time, the dual symbolism of a gate, as a barrier or a portal, as a something can divide or connect, gave the monument a special meaning. Reagan gave his famous plea to “tear down this wall” standing before the Brandenburger Tor; and now, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the gate is an enduring symbol of European unity.

Atop the Brandenburg Gate is a quadriga, a statue of Victory being drawn in a chariot by four horses. This statue has its own political history. After Napoleon defeated Prussia in the Battle of Jena (which Hegel famously overheard while completing his opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit), the French marched into the city through the gate, and then Napoleon took the quadriga back with him to Paris. (Rather petty, I think.) The quadriga was returned to Berlin after Napoleon’s eventual defeat. Then, during the Second World War, the gate was smashed up in the fighting, and the original quadriga was almost entirely destroyed; only one horse’s head survived, now on display somewhere in a museum.

Proceeding through the Brandenburg Gate, you reach the Tiergarten (literally “animal garden,” since the park originated as a private hunting grounds for the king), which is the central park of Berlin. The park is huge: at 210 hectares, it is one of the biggest parks in Germany. It is also absolutely enchanting. The paths wind lazily through the park, under overhanging trees, across green fields, past perfectly reflective lakes and the occasional statue or monument, with bikers riding by and friends playing catch (and older German men sunning their naked bodies)—it’s all lovely (except for the nudists). Somehow the Tiergarten combines the unplanned beauty of a nature reserve with the comfort and charm of English gardens; the park is at once wild and tamed. Without a doubt, it is the finest park I have visited in Europe.

Tiergarten

(I do admit, however, that the sight of people practicing sports and exercising often puts me in a foul mood. I have never liked sports or exercise; and the thought that people would defile a beautiful park like this with activity aimed only at physical fitness or pleasure, fills me with despair. Parks should be for quiet contemplation and for reading—for improving the mind and achieving tranquility—not for bulking up the body and for inducing meaningless excitement! I know I’m being silly here, but it’s hard to contemplate the meaning of existence with the constant sound of people kicking a soccer ball and yelling at each other. This is not a criticism of the Tiergarten, but of humanity.)

In the center of the Tiergarten is yet another notable Roman-inspired construction: the Berlin Victory Column. Like all victory columns, this one takes its inspiration from Trajan’s Column in Rome. The Berlin Victory Column was commissioned during the 1860s to commemorate Prussia’s victory over Denmark; and when Prussia went on to defeat Austria and France, the commissioners decided to top the column with a shining bronze statue of Victory for good measure. The Berlin Victory Column is truly a tower; the combined height of the statue and the pillar is 67 meters, or 220 feet. (For comparison, the Statue of Liberty, base included, is 93 meters.) It was moved to its current location by the Nazis, in anticipation of their plan to turn Germany into Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania—more on this in my next post). You can climb the more than 200 stairs to the top if you pay a fee. I wasn’t tempted.

Victory Tower

Although this qualifies as a monument to death rather than life, I should mention here the Soviet War Memorial that sits in the Tiergarten. It is a monument to the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died during the Battle of Berlin, during the Second World War. As luck would have it, the monument was constructed in what later became West Germany; as a result, during the Cold War honor guards from East Germany came every day to stand watch; and civilians from East Germany were prevented by the Berlin Wall from visiting the monument that commemorates their “liberation.” History’s can be rather droll. The monument is yet another example of Roman-inspired architecture, taking the form of a gently curving Stoa. Two howitzer artillery pieces and two T-34 tanks flank the monument, and a striding statue of a soldier—unmistakably Soviet in his heroic pose—caps off the display. It is hard to know what to feel about all this. While I was there, a German man began yelling at a couple of teenagers and threatening to call the police; this only added to my confusion.

Soviet War Memorial

From this memorial it is a 25 minute walk to our next site: Museum Island. This is a complex of five state-owned museums on an island in the Spree river.

The most famous and most visited of these is the Pergamon Museum. This museum was opened in 1930 to display some of the large-scale archaeological discoveries recently made by German researchers. I have a habit of running into lengthy, ecstatic descriptions when I write about museums, as displayed in my post about the British Museum, so I will attempt to limit myself to a brief comment.

The Pergamon Museum is named after its most famous exhibit: the Pergamon Altar, a beautifully preserved temple from the Ancient Greek city of Pergamon. Unfortunately, the exhibit was closed in 2014 for remodeling, and won’t be open against until 2019 or 2020; so I did not get to see it.

Ishtar Lions
Ishtar Gate detail

I did, however, get to see the Ishtar Gate, which might be even more beautiful. This is a gate constructed in the walls of Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, in the sixth century BCE. Its function is as decorative as defensive. Made of bricks glazed with lapis lazuli, the gate must have shone like cobalt in the sun; and its azul surface is covered in exquisite bas-reliefs of dragons and bulls. As it stands, the gate in the museum is not entirely original: some bricks were created using the original technique to complete the structure. In any case, I think the Ishtar Gate is easily among the most beautiful works of art from the ancient world: I was stunned when I saw pictures of it in Art History class, and stunned when I saw it in Berlin.

Ishtar Gate
Ishtar Gate

Beside the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate, the museum has two more monumental exhibitions: the Market Gate of Miletus and the Mshatta Facade.

Pergamum Market
Market Gate of Miletus

The Market Gate of Miletus was built by the Romans in the second century and destroyed by an earthquake a few hundred years later. In 1900 the insatiably curious German archaeologists found the destroyed gate, excavated it, and transported the pieces to Berlin. Its reconstruction involved the use of many new materials, which was controversial; then World War II inflicted further damage on the old ruin, requiring further reconstruction. For something with such a violent past, so often rebuilt, the gate is convincingly ancient and absolutely impressive. It is a two-store facade with rows of columns, rather like the backdrop of the amphitheater I saw in Mérida, Spain. 

Mshatta
Mshatta Façade

The Mshatta façade is perhaps even more impressive. It is a section from a wall of an Ummayad Palace, excavated in present-day Jordan, built in the eighth century. The wall is exquisitely decorated with fine animal and vegetable motifs carved into the surface. This monument, like seemingly everything in this city, was also damaged in World War II. The Mshatta façade is the largest, though perhaps not the most beautiful, exhibition in the museum’s section on Islamic art. There were decorated Korans, luxurious rugs, sections of columns, roofs, and walls covered in wonderful geometrical arabesques. No culture in history, I suspect, has developed the art of ornamentation to such a pitch of perfection as in Muslim culture: every surface, every nook and cranny, every piece of furniture and written word, is executed with care and taste.

It is possible to buy a combined pass for all the museums on Museum Island—the Pergamon Museum, the Bode Museum, the Old National Gallery, the New Museum, and the Old Museum—but I had neither the time nor the money for that. After the Pergamon Museum, I could realistically only visit one more, and I chose the Old National Gallery. But this was a hard choice to make. The Neues Museum has the iconic bust of Nefertiti, still gorgeous and regal after three millennia. The Altes Museum looked even better, with an impressive and extensive collection of Greco-Roman statues—not to mention the lovely neoclassical building itself. But after the Pergamon Museum—and after seeing the British Museum a few weeks earlier—I’d had enough of the ancient world.

National Gallery
Alte Nationalgalerie

The building of the Alte Nationalgalerie yet another stately neoclassical construction; and the visitor, upon ascending the front steps, is greeted by equally stately neoclassical sculptures and busts of famous Germans. The pure white marble and technical finish of these sculptures immediately struck me as cold and academic, as does most art that imitates a dead culture.

Hegel
Hegel

The paintings inside—which mostly consist of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes from the 18th to the 19th centuries—ranged from the forgettable to the truly excellent. Of particular interest, for me, were the portraits of Hegel (stern old metaphysician), the brothers Grimm (as skeletal as their stories), and Alexander von Humboldt (a dashing dandy).

The finest paintings on display were those by Caspar David Friedrich, whose portraits of humanity dwarfed and mocked by nature—silhouetted figures under glowing suns, buffeted by tides and rain, or lonely men solemnly contemplating a vast expanse or the desiccated ruins of some dead culture—capture and express the same sentiment as Shelley does in “Ozymandias”: the overwhelming awareness of human finitude. Other than these works, however, I mostly enjoyed the few impressionist and post-impressionist works on offer.

Caspar David Friedrich
The Abbey in the Oakwood, by Caspar David Friedrich

The courtyard outside the Nationalgalerie is one of the most peaceful and pleasant spots I found in Berlin. The river flows nearby, with barges carrying tourists drifting past, and on the far bank are still more tourists basking in the sun. From here it is a very quick walk to Berlin Cathedral. This stands at the end of an equally picturesque plaza, full of Germans and foreigners lounging in the grass and kids playing with the central fountain.

At a glance you can tell that Berlin Cathedral is not particularly old. The central dome and the four smaller domes which surround it are all made of copper, I believe, and have the same pale green color as the Statue of Liberty. The statues of saints and angels surrounding the front portal are tinted this same algae-green. This creates an odd effect when combined with the fine neo-Renaissance building, like parts of an old ship welded onto a resplendent bank; but for all that, the cathedral is an impressive sight.

Originally built in the early 1900s, as a kind of Protestant version of St. Peter’s, it was damaged and partially destroyed, like everything, during the Second World War. Situated in East Germany, it was unsure whether the government—officially hostile to religion—would reconstruct the cathedral. Eventually they did, but the cathedral’s most famous and beautiful wing, the Denkmalkirche was destroyed, as a symbol of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Political pettiness has always been with is.

Berlin Cathedral Exterior

It is worth the fee to visit the Berlin Cathedral. The interior is finely decorated and cheerfully bright. Of particular interest to me—since I had just finished reading a book about the Reformation—were the sculptures of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon standing high up above the main altar. The visitor can, if she so wishes, climb all the way up to the dome of the cathedral to see Berlin. I enjoyed the climb; but I must say that the view—ugly apartment buildings and construction sites—did not make me feel inclined to wax poetic or to fall into raptures about the beauties of the city.

Berlin Cathedral View
Isn’t it glorious?

In any case, you can also visit the crypt in the basement, where several members of the Hohenzollern dynasty are buried. Compared with, say, the royal crypt in Spain’s El Escorial, this one struck me as simple and subdued. Some of the coffins are quite plain and unremarkable. A few are elaborately carved, gilded, and decorated. As in the El Escorial, there are quite a few coffins for young children and infants. Before the age of vaccines and modern medicine, even the most powerful of the world couldn’t keep their children safe. But this brings me to the second part of this post: death.