Berlin is Germanyâs capital and largest city, situated in the northeastern end of the country. Berlinâs history goes back as far as the 13th century, but its most interesting history (IMHO) all took place within the last century. As both capital of the Third Reich and of East Germany, the city has been expanded, destroyed, separated, and reunified. One might think such a tumultuous past would be a burden on the present day city, but that couldnât be further from the truth. The city is host to a wide variety of colorful neighborhoods and vibrant cultural events. Known especially for its nightlife, Berlin is also host to some tremendous museums, cafes, and art.
After a few hours on the bus, I entered Berlin and checked in to my hostel. It just so happened that there was a movement-based (something like Ido Portalâs style) gym only a few storefronts down from my hostel. I took the opportunity to join for a drop-in class, which absolutely demolished me. I will certainly have to put in some work to revitalize my fitness once Iâve slowed down my travels. After dinner I went to a highly rated Vietnamese restaurant (it was ok), which was quite crowded. I was seated with two Mexican students whom I did not know, but quickly became friends with. We enjoyed chatting during our dinner, and they helped me with some Spanish vocabulary.
The next morning I went out for a walking tour with a new friend from my room, Zarya. We met up with our guide near the Brandenburg Gate, which once lay at the separation of west and east Berlin. Our guide provided interesting anecdotes about the surrounding buildings, including the Reichstag. Our next major stop was the memorial to the Jews killed in the Holocaust, which is an art piece consisting of many cement blocks of varying heights positioned in a large grid. Some stops afterwards included a large building built by the Nazis that is today a government ministry building. The building is quite ridged in itâs architecture, and looks quite unfriendly. We then took a quick walk past the tourist trap known as Checkpoint Charlie. Though the name is from a real place (where one could cross between West and East Berlin), everything else about it is fake. We then moved to our Starbucks for a bathroom break.
After the break we went for a walk past many of Berlinâs oldest buildings, though theyâve all been destroyed and reconstructed multiple times. This included a beautiful concert hall, some lovely churches, and a glamorous opera house. We also stopped for a look down into an art piece (itâs hard to see, but its a room filled with empty bookcases) built on the spot of one of the Naziâs largest book burnings. The tour finished with a trip to a war memorial, but Zarya and I were a bit oversaturated with history and chose to go to a coffeeshop. The coffeeshop was beautiful and was situated in a courtyard off of the main street.
In the evening, we went to a lovely vegan restaurant. Berlin has so many! It truly is quite hip. Anyone who would feel at home in Brooklyn would find a place in Berlin that would be a perfect fit.
The next day, I set my sights on a big breakfast and some of the more intriguing parts of the previous dayâs tour. I first made a stop at memorial from the end of the tour, which featured a moving statue of a mother holding her fallen son. I hung around waiting for the perfect moment to a take a picture that was free of other tourists. I then took the scenic route towards the Topography of Terror museum, walking by some cool street art and a part of the Berlin Wall which lies next to the museum.
The museum was based around the apparatus of terror within the Nazi party, beginning with the SA and then moving into the SS and Gestapo (nationalized secret police).
Like most museums relating to the Nazis, it began with an outline of the Naziâs rise to power. This was explained mostly as the slow growth of far-right elements within German society, which found fertile ground in the squalor left in the wake of World War I. I made a note that I wanted to understand this further, and planned to visit the German History museum later in my stay. This rise was finalized when the Nazis fully took over the Reichstag, both through popular support and the Nazi SAâs hunting of political opponents. Opponents who fled or were captured where marked in favor of the Nazi takeover.
From there, the Nazisâ power only continued to increase. With total control over the state, the party set about strengthening the apparatus of power. Elements of this process included various social programs and propaganda campaigns (it is worth nothing that, in the early years, the Nazis created various populist programs that garnered significant public support, even while they were accompanied by significant hate speech and the marginalization of Jews and other minority groups). However, this process was most significantly facilitated by the rise of the SS and Gestapo, both under the command of Heinrich Himmler. It was these elements which would exercise terror both on the minority groups (Jews, Roma, Slavs, LGBTQ people, the handicapped, and more) and on the German people themselves (notably on those who opposed the Nazis politically). The SS and Gestapo formed a complete system that kept the people down and dealt with the elements deemed problematic, from initial selection and removal from the state, all the way up to transportation, forced labor, and often execution.
The museum then provided greater detail on the background and implementation of the oppression of various groups within the Reich. While there were far too many stories to go into detail here, it is worth mentioning that in every element of the Naziâs handling of so-called foreign or enemy persons, brutality and dehumanization were intrinsic. These included in the quite well-known murder of millions of Jews and other minority groups, but also in the mistreatment of millions of Russian troops, many of which were put into forced labor and subject to horrific living conditions much like those of the Jews.
With the end of the war, this apparatus of terror unravelled (though not without quite vicious last moves before its death, including tremendous numbers of victims killed by the SS before the evacuated the camps that were along the rapidly approaching front lines toward Berlin). While some significant members of the SS (the SS was declared to be criminal by an international military tribunal once their treatment of civilians and enemy POWs was revealed) were tried, convicted, and some even executed, the vast majority of Nazis simply moved back into everyday life. Many even moved back into the post-war versions of the institutions that they participated in under the Nazis. This included judges and police, which I found particularly upsetting.
Overall, I was left wondering, âhow did a Nazi state become modern Germany, which is quite open and tolerant?â I left this question for the German History museum, which I would visit later.
After the museum, I went for a burger and beer at a trendy local spot. It was delicious, but I did not yet know what would become of it!
The next morning, I awoke to significant nausea. I ended up laying in bed all day (though I did finish an entire Harry Potter book). I had picked up some sort of stomach bug. The previous dinner was unfortunately given away, as well as the dinner Iâd enjoy that night. Not a fun way to spend the day! The highlight was getting out of bed to go eat hummus and video chat with my friend David from home. It was great to reconnect, though I did have to cut the call short to relinquish my dinner.
The next morning, I found myself to be mostly recovered and took the opportunity go see some things around town. I began with the Berlin Wall Memorial, which is a museum sitting next to one of the only (slightly) preserved sections of what was known as the âdeath stripâ (will explain later in the post). While the museum was closed, I took the opportunity to walk around and see the remaining sections of wall. Like much of the wall, it is adorned with graffiti and has taken a beating. Understandably, the Germans werenât particularly fond of the wall and took many a pic-axe to it once the reunification festivities began.
From there I went down to the Subway to head towards the German History museum. I was surprised to find that the subway station contained a small exhibit on how the subway worked during the separation of Berlin. It just so happened that there were subway lines from West Berlin that moved through East Berlin (thus moving across the wall, but underground). Also, the part of the German government that ran the trains was situated in East Berlin, and thus became an East German government business. Many stations that were open before the separation were closed, but eventually re-opened in the 90s (including the one I was in). The exhibit also included information on various people who had escaped into the West via the train tunnels, and the security measures the East German government put in place afterwards to prevent future escapes.
After my train ride, I stopped at a cafe to use the wifi and talk to my friend Lewis, who I stayed with shortly before I began my trip. He gave me some valuable advice on traveling to Italy, which Iâm looking forward to doing in October.
I then moved on to the German History Museum. This museum tells the story of Germany from the early middle ages up to the present day through the use of artifacts and the stories that accompany them. If one follows the entire museum, it is supposed to take seven hours, so I decided to focus on the areas I was most curious about: pre WWI, the space between WWI and WWII, and the movement from a defeated Nazi state into modern day Germany.
In the decades before WWI, Germany saw a rapid industrialization much like what had happened in Britain in the decades before that. This, coupled with the unification of multiple German states (the largest and most powerful being Prussia) into a single German Empire (what may now be called the Second Reich), gave the German King quite a bit of confidence in the abilities of his nation as a global force. The German leadership came to believe that they could strike out against their neighbors decisively and quickly, gaining an increase in territory that they believed would provide a significant benefit. Thus, when Serbian rebels assassinated the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Germans were happy to fight.
As we now know, this did not come to pass. None of the countries involved understood the new level of carnage that was possible through the advances in military technology that came in the years before the war. After years of war, the Germans eventually capitulated and were made to pay dearly. Large amounts of German territory were given to the surrounding states, and the Germans were made to pay the debts of all the nations involved in the war (not to mention taking the blame for starting the war). The German economy was thus totally broke, even in the roaring 20s that saw tremendous economic times in the worldâs other developed countries. These hard times led to tremendous resentment amongst the German populace, who had fought and died just like the nations around them, but were now living far worse lives than they had before the war. Far right elements within the nation thus began to group together, riding upon scapegoats like Jews and the French colonial soldiers (who were black) that were stationed in Germany during a short occupation of Western German lands by the French in the early twenties. Note the early use of the Swastika in a nationalist rally from the early 20s in the photos below. Before Hitler was involved in the Nazi party, he was involved with one of these more general, pro-German nationalism parties.
As the 20s rolled on, these parties began to create more coherent political ideology, which manifested in political pamphlets and books. Hitler, while in prison for a failed rebellion that many saw as a patriotic act (he received many letters from fans while in prison), wrote his infamous Mein Kampf during this time. These parties became great proponents of militarism, which had been seen as a great attribute of German society before WWI. This is seen in the infamous brown outfits of the SA, the precursor to the German SS.
Also highlighted was the turbulent relationships of the various political parties within the republic. Rather than Nazism coming about without opposition, the other parties simply could not form a coherent, working coalition party. This vacuum provided a path for the Nazis to take power, promising order and direction. The Nazis also painted these parties as corrupt and tied to Jewish interests. The takeover was finalized when the Nazi terror apparatus began capturing members of the opposing political groups.
Once in power, the Nazis set out to build positive sentiment around their party as a legitimate government with Hitler as the paternal symbol. This took the form of work and vacation programs for adults and his picture being placed in homes and schools (see a miniature picture of him inside of a girlâs doll house). The idea of the Nazi party in union with an idealized German people was pushed through various programs that were meant to be symbolic of German culture and unity, such as the villages built in a uniform style.
The exhibit then moved into the beginnings of the development of the German war machine, in particular the deployment of German forces and weaponry in the Spanish Civil War. This war was sold in Germany as a fight against Bolshevism abroad, but in fact was a trial run for much of Germanyâs new military technology. The bombing of Guernica in Spainâs Basque region stands out in particular from this conflict due to the vicious bombing of civilians that took place and the famous Picasso painting that stands as a testament to the slaughter.
I then skipped most of the war section, having learned about it in other museums. I went straight to the postwar section, hoping to attain better understanding of how a defeated state developed into a modern, quite tolerant German state. Overall, it seemed that the German populace was mostly interested in rebuilding their country and economy after the war. While they were likely unhappy with the Nazis as a result of how Germany had been destroyed, there was not yet the reckoning one might expect to come from events as horrific as those of the holocaust. This actually came about in the early 1980s, in part due to the airing in Germany of an American program called Holocaust (aired 1979), watched by 20 million Germans (over 25% of the countryâs total population). This deeply affected many young Germans and brought about a shift in the national dialogue around the war. Since then, the German people have put in tremendous effort to understand and explore the holocaust, educating themselves and their youth.
After the museum I went to a cafe for a bit of a break and some reading. I then went to the well-recommended Jewish museum, but found that the main exhibit was closed for renovations. I changed plans and went to a small museum on the living conditions of East Germany during the Soviet years.
This museum was quite fun, painting a (seemingly) fair and balanced picture of life under the East German government. This included sections on the products available to East Berliners, which were of reasonable quality but often lacking in luxury. While the communist system was excellent at maintaining baseline living standards for its populace (for example, there was a period in East Germany that bread was so cheap some farmers were feeding it to pigs), the lack of capitalist competition made for slow development in technology and non-necessity consumer goods. The government eventually implemented a store for luxury goods (such as the shark find soup youâll see below), but it was often too expensive for most to indulge. Other highlights included the model of car that most popular (it had plastic parts to make it cheaper) but that often required a long wait (sometimes as long as 10 or 15 years) to attain, and the Soviet competitor to the Sony walkman, which was uglier, didnât work as well, and was quite expensive.
The museum went into detail on the various elements of East German society that we often associate with Russia and the Soviet Union. These include an intense focus on sport (including state-sanctioned steroid use for professionals competing on a world stage), intense militarism (the military was always at the ready in case the time was right to invade West Berlin), and an essentially fake parliament that followed the direction of the leadership of a single party.
An especially interesting section covered the manufacture of Western products in East Germany. The lower cost of labor in East Germany was an incentive for American businesses (including, apparently, Pepsi cola) to produce products in East Germany, though they were almost exclusively sold abroad. This process brought in foreign currency (which the East Berlin desperately needed to allow purchasing goods from abroad) and significant funds of the government, though this wealth was never shared with the populace.
In the end, the East German economy faltered to keep up with the rise of technology. Such rapid innovation is a perfect fit for the capitalistic mentality, and could not be matched in the Eastern bloc. For example, in 1988, East Germany announced they were ready to produce a 1 MB microchip that would come out two years later than the international competition and cost 100 times more to produce. It was never put into production.
After the museum I went out for a walk and some dinner. Iâve been re-reading Harry Potter and havenât been able to put them down!
The next day, I teamed up with some new friends at the hostel and rented some bikes. We went out for a ride through town, enjoying the beautiful weather and suffering through the cobblestone streets (the bike seats were not of the quality one would hope for given how bumpy the streets were).
We parked our bikes and paid a visit to the Berlin Wall Memorial museum. This museum was quite thorough, beginning with the closing of the border between East and West Berlin. Previously, there were governmental differences between the zones, but people could move freely between the two. Thus, many people commuted to work, see family, and maintain relationships. With the close of the border, each of these was suddenly cut off.
While there was information on the greater historical context of the wall, the exhibit mostly focused on the stories on individuals who lived in East Germany and either sought to escape or worked as collaborators. Incredible stories included those who ran through the fence (at the beginning it was just a barbed wire fence, which was later fortified with multiple layers), a man who swam through a lake to get to the other side, and many who dug tunnels.
From there we went to get some lunch. Berlin is host to many hip areas, with vegetarian and vegan food becoming especially popular. We went to one such place, but found the high fiber content to come with all too little flavor. Afterwards we visited some hip shops nearby and began biking to the central museum section of Berlin.
Having only a little over an hour to visit museums, we settled on the Neues (new) museum. This was a cross between a natural history museum and an antiquities-style museum, featuring a combination of story and artifact. There were some apparently famous pieces, including a large metallic hat and a bust of Nefertiti that we werenât allowed to take photos of. One part I found particularly interesting were glass beads that had been melted during American fire bombing in Berlin and had fused together to look a bit like coral.
After the museum we went for a trip down to the East Side Gallery, a part of the Berlin Wall that is covered with various pieces of art.
After the wall, went to a beer garden to relax. Berlin is host to many a hip place, and this area did not disappoint. We then biked back north to return our bikes and go for a last beer at a beautiful beer garden. Youâll see me taking a large, photo-ready swig of my beer in one photo and then burping up the excess gas in the next.
The next morning I checked out of my hostel and went to a lovely cafe for brunch and coffee. I also bought a loaf of bread! It was good, but I think mine is quite good as well. Berlin was a lovely city, and Iâd definitely visit again.
On to Prague!