Berlin – Sex, BMWs and Hitler on its sleeve.

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Berlin is a relatively new city, largely rebuilt after being heavily bombed during World War Two. It sits atop a swamp with a river that sometimes flows the wrong way. With a preoccupation with sex, fastidiously obeyed traffic rules and its historical heart on its sleeve, it is described as the most subversive city in the world.  Paris will always be Paris but Berlin has had to reinvent itself. It doesn’t have the stability of London, unemployment continues to be one of the city’s main struggles. Its poor and sexy, underbelly characteristics are the key to its intrigue and survival.

We flew into Tegel airport in Berlin. The airport itself was constructed from rubble in only seven days; a testimony to women’s impetus to get a job done and reflecting the German characteristics of dogged capability and tenacity.

Germans aren’t generally a patriotic bunch but I notice they all slavishly use German brands: BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Birkenstocks and Bosch—perhaps more as advocates of high quality than of national pride.

Mani hotel in Mitte, the cultural heart and old town of East Berlin, where we rest our heads, is the first indication of the city’s kinky fetishes. Vending machines in reception display, not chips, chocolate and soft drinks, but ‘sexy packs’ complete with handcuffs and other sex toys! At risk of making the place sound seedy it is actually beautifully elegant, styled in a minimalist yet glamorous way, which is why the fetishes are so surprising and funny. You wouldn’t want to share a room with someone whose body you don’t want to see from every angle though. Filled with unavoidable mirrors it’s a voyeur’s delight, complete only with chocolate body paint in the fridge! Then there is the garden of lust, lustgarten. We didn’t see any lustfulness there though.

2013-07-30 09.50.22The trams and the bland grey-beige army of communist buildings in Mitte strike me immediately. Three of the things that make up the ‘brand’ of Berlin come from communist East Berlin: the traffic man pedestrian symbol, ampelmann, the TV tower—an ugly building, apparently taller than the Eiffel Tower—and Brandenburg Gate. The non-descript communist buildings are juxtaposed with grand domed edifices, reminiscent of Latin romantic architecture—18th century Berlin was heavily French influenced—purposely constructed to appear old. Berlin cathedral, for example was actually built in early 1900s.

Frank Gehry building

Frank Gehry building

Construction continues at a vociferous rate, the city is still very much a work in progress, particularly around Unter den Linden, the main street in East Berlin. It strikes me as strange they are rebuilding a royal palace costing one billion euro—when they don’t have monarchy, so our Insider Tour walk guide, Barry the entertaining Irishman told us. When Berlin was rebuilt in the 1990s they didn’t want an excessive Disney result, like Dubai, so architecture is restricted and controlled. Even Frank Gehry had to tone down his design of DZ bank. In Pariser Platz the American and French embassies are so uninteresting. It’s called Pariser Platz to reinforce German domination of Paris—one of many nods to this one-upmanship. The Goddess of Victor on top of Brandenburg gate is another example of German chest-beating competition with France.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate, an iconic place of celebration (New Year’s Eve and sporting matches) and demonstration, was once trapped east of the Berlin Wall but is now a symbol of German reunification. Prussian emperors, Hitler and Napoleon marched through this neoclassical royal city gate. The Hotel Adlon, right by Brandenburg Gate, is where Michael Jackson dangled his baby son famously out of the window. Scraping the barrel a bit for a tourist attraction, I thought.

Konzerthaus Berlin

Konzerthaus Berlin

The names of the museums are amusingly unimaginative; Old Museum and New Museum. Karl Frederich Schinkel designed the Old Museum, influenced by Italian romantic architecture. In fact, it seems he’s designed half of Berlin. Konzerrhaus Berlin is an original building, and one of Schinkel’s best designs.

Pergamon Museum

Pergamon Museum

Tina and Phil at Pergamon Museum

Tina and Phil at Pergamon Museum

The Pergamon Museum is impressive. Containing monumental relics of one of the ancient wonders of the world: Pergamon, it exhibits colossal marble and stone palace ruins, temples, ceremonial sculptures, jewellery and art. The Ishtar gate of Babylon; featuring a whole street from Babylon, is the largest construction to have been excavated and displayed in a museum.

All these monuments provide insight into religion, trade, industry, engineering and science, architecture and art and literature creations from BC to the 8th Century AD. Disappointingly though, the Pergamon Museum features nothing made by Germans or belonging to Germany. All treasures are stolen—sorry, discovered and excavated by Germans from the cradle of civilisation: Ancient Rome, Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia.

Woman and son sculpture

Woman and son sculpture

Religion and dictatorship don’t usually get along but the Nazis were an exception (along with Franco). They christianised Berlin putting crosses on everything and excluding Jews. We visited what is now called The Central War Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny, designed by Frederick Schinkel. It features a sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz, depicting a woman and son, and the mother’s guilt of sending him off to war. The word written on the sculpture, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means struggling to come to terms with past, epitomizes both the sculpture and Berlin. It brings to mind George Santayana’s words; ‘those who forget the past are bound to repeat it.’ which is why the Germans are so admirably honest about the horrors of their Nazi history.

bibliotek plaque

bibliotek plaque

Another stark reminder of mass thinking and Nazism is at the old library at Babel Platz. This marks the burning of 20,000 books, considered non-Nazi (i.e. Jewish, communists, gays). Importantly, they burned all books by the Institute of Sexual Research. An exhibit lies under the ground called Bibliotech, depicting empty shelves symbolizing the burned books. There is a link between this event and the concentration camps at Auschwitz. ‘Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.’ Heinrich Heine

book burning

Burning books

Burning books

Research reveals only 3 out of 10 are proud to be German whereas the British are a much more patriotic 8 of 10. Bavarians and Berliners, however, are incredibly proud.

In Berlin there’s strong history of anti-Nazism and large numbers of immigrants. Berlin was religiously tolerant (ironic given the subsequent mass slaughter of Jews and other non-Nazis), and therefore a haven for religious refugees, particularly from France, fleeing the Sun King who threw all the French Protestants out.

Check Point Charlie before and today's circus

Check Point Charlie before and today’s circus

The Berlin Wall, otherwise known as the Iron Curtain, was erected by the Socialist Party regime in 1961, because of the Nazis, reinforcing the East West divide—both of Germany, and the rest of the world. Ironic that The Wall, as the biggest tourist draw card no longer exists. The centre stage of international East West confrontation culminated at Check Point Charlie, which used to be a ten lane border facility erected by East Germany, now a tourist circus, with McDonalds and fake soliders (strippers by night) earning a living posing for tourists photos.

Check Point Charlie circus

Check Point Charlie circus

West Berlin embraced Americanism because it represented freedom and had saved them. The trabant cars are a symbol of East German nostalgia. Volkswagen are now making them—the ironic of a capitalist brand making communist cars for hipsters is not lost!

Trabant communist car

Trabant communist car

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall

Around 75000 people tried to cross the wall, 5000 of whom succeeded, most were border watch guards or construction workers, who took their chance when the wall was first erected and not really finished. Around 200 people died trying to climb the wall. The East didn’t want to kill people at the Berlin Wall; it was bad press. They used more subtle ways of repressing people than the Nazis: threat of job loss and separation from family was enough deterrent. Escapees from the West was a different situation, they were welcomed with open arms by the East.

Jude

Silence falls as we look at sickening photos and read the horror stories of Nazi terrorism at the Topographies des Terror, the building that was the Nazi headquarters, command centre of the Holocaust. It reveals the banality of evil in that ordinary office workers stamped documents, administering the deaths of thousands of families—people dehumanized, referred to as cargo—in a day’s work here, before going home to their own children.

We visit Hitler’s bunker, where he commanded the Nazi regime from, and committed suicide with Eva Braun the day after they were married, which was coincidentally the same date as William and Kate. The bunker is located underneath a car park, unmarked. This site flies in the face of Berlin’s honest depiction of history, which for the large part sugar coats and disguises nothing. But Germans are afraid the emotive pull of Hitler could still influence people today, and become a neo-Nazi site if there is too much focus on him. So it’s appropriate that Hitler’s memorial is a car park covered in rabbit shit— Berlin has huge rabbit population due to the Berlin Wall.

Holocaust memorial

Holocaust memorial

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a block full of shame. It represents every group terrorized and killed by the Nazis—6 million dead people. It avoids the word Holocaust. There’s a moral difficulty in that the groups are called the same as the Nazis called them. Does it, therefore perpetuate the Nazi regime? It’s a divisive place. Lefties like the memorial’s acknowledgement. Right-wingers don’t believe they should highlight the genocide in their history when other nations don’t.

The memorial provides parents with a tool to explain to their children the difficult issue of what happened. The concrete tablets, like gravestones, feel eerie and somber, befitting the mass murder. Yet it’s aesthetically bland, without any meaningful interpretation of Holocaust victims. It’s best viewed from the rooftop bar opposite. It could have been more creative but like all memorials it will never please everyone, and really why should mass murder be depicted in a beautiful way? Yet interestingly, I get an inkling from Berlin and its history, just like in the film Downfall, of Hitler as a troubled, probably delusional person. Without evoking sympathy I perceive from him, and from his Nazi comrades, how people got swept up in Nazism through a huge collective error of judgement. If we put ourselves not just in the victims’ shoes of ‘that could have been me’ but in the shoes of the Nazis themselves, we may see a glimmer of their humanity underneath the horror of it all.

Ray Charles wall mural

On the last day we take a stroll down East Side Gallery, Freidrichshain. Part of the wall is decorated with colourful artistic murals, and partially ruined by graffiti. We can smell the swampy origins of the city wafting up through the drains as the harsh sun beat down on our heads, penetrating the concrete.

'the kiss' East Side Gallery

‘the kiss’ East Side Gallery

We are overjoyed at lunch at being given mini pretzels, which we’ve been searching for the whole trip, along with elusive beer steins. I guess they are the tourist stereotypes. I passed on most of the German food. Pig knuckle and fried potato with cabbage is not my thing, neither is curried sausage. Though I did enjoy a delicious herring and apple salad, copious beers, and great Asian food in hip and trendy Kreuzburg and Chen Che, a fabulous Vietnamese restaurant in Mitte.

As we hailed a cab to the airport, we saw an old emaciated-looking man, semi naked riding a bike—very Berlin, and a grim reminder of what we’d experienced. Our friend spontaneously said without thinking ‘he looks like he’s been in a concentration camp’, which was very Berlin too—saying the unspeakable with brutal heart on sleeve honesty. A ‘no sugar coating’ kind of city. Sensible and practical, yet full of surprising quirks, and a fascinating yet deeply disturbing history, reminding us of the depths of human capacity.2013-07-30 13.08.09 2013-07-30 13.07.36

Check Point tower

Check Point tower

the wall mural

hole in wall

TinaandPhilatAugustiner

tearing down the wall

PaulBeckPhilTina_Augustiner map of germany

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall

American plaque check point TinaandPhilBerlin

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