Two sides of the same city: Berlin
Berlin might be one of the most intriguing capital cities in the world. Stunning transformations sweep through every aspect of the former communist state that it once was. Many of these changes can be witnessed, firsthand, on a daytrip to one of its many colorful neighborhoods on either side of the physical or metaphorical side of the Berlin Wall.
The city of Berlin was formed in the 12th century when two rival towns, Berlin and Cölln, were unified. According to PROLOG-Berlin, if you take a stroll down Unter den Linden in the city center, you can get a good idea of what the city looked like when the first lavish buildings were constructed in the early 16th century. Baroque and Neo-Classical buildings and restored palaces, now being used as public buildings, straddle the lime tree lined boulevard. Both towns, originally separated by the Spree River, form the core of the Berlin today.
Berlin was named the capital city of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701. Later, it was selected as the capital of the Secdond Reich from 1871-1918 by the first German Emperor, Wilhelm I. After Germany’s defeat in World War I, Berlin was again chosen as the seat of the Weimar Republic from 1919-1933. And in 1945, Hitler chose Berlin as the headquarters of the Third Reich until the city surrendered to the Allied Forces on May 8, 1945.
Berlin was divided into East and West, and control was equally divided among the former Soviet Union and the Allied Forces (United States, United Kingdom and France), respectively. Berlin and more than a third of its buildings now lay in ruins, destroyed by Allied bombs. And while the Berlin Wall would later be a brick and mortar divide between the city, economic and political power would act as a pretty efficient delineation between the Communist East and Capitalist West. However, many of the most interesting structures and the historic core were located in the sector allocated to the Soviets. While the bombed out area held by the Allies was rebuilt and modernized, East Berlin was left pretty much as it stood on the day the city surrendered, receiving little or no modernization until recently.
The Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) emerged as the two governing forces in Berlin. But don’t let the former’s name confuse you. The GDR was anything but democratic. It was heavily controlled by the secret police and the dictators that resided in the Soviet Union.
More than half of the population left Berlin. Germany was broke due to the war reparations it had to pay. An influx of German speaking refugees from Eastern Europe, with nowhere else to go, flooded the city. The Soviets, after first living in relative harmony with the West, decided to limit, and then prevent movement between free and Soviet controlled sectors. On August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall became a concrete obstacle to families and employment for those living on either side of the wall.
The western occupied sectors received an influx of capital and the rebuilding began almost immediately. Fortunately for future visitors to Berlin, East Berlin retained many of its pre-war architecture. Some Prussian remnants still exists, but more are slowly being replaced by more aesthetically interesting construction.
A mass exodus ensued when GDR citizens began fleeing the poverty-stricken conditions they were forced to endure. On the night of November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened and Berliners were able to travel freely from East to West. Reunification followed in 1990, and Berlin was once again chosen as the capital city for a unified nation.
Berlin is one of the biggest cities in the world. With a little planning, you can see as little or as much of it as you want to see. Some of the most iconic monuments include the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall and Reichstag.
Brandenburg Gate, completed in 1791, is probably one of the most recognizable monuments in all of Berlin. Neo-Classical in design, it is an exceptional replica of the gate that stands guard over the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens. Bas reliefs depict Greek mythological scenes. The Quadriga, mounted on top, has a history that gives Berliners great pride. This chariot is driven by the Greek Goddess of Peace and powered by four powerful stallions. The Berlin Quadriga is based on the design of the only surviving Roman Quadriga which resides in Venice. Both sculptures share a common history. They were stolen by Napoleon, taken to Paris and later returned to their rightful owners.
Look for remnants of the Berlin Wall, originally constructed to keep East Berliners from “escaping” to the West. A one-mile stretch of wall, called the East Side Gallery, has original art created on the east face of its surface. The wall, once topped with barbed wire and manned by armed guards, was a direct response to the organized uprisings for fair wages and treatment and the mass exodus through the Polish and Hungarian borders. The wall, along with the Stasi (secret police) was a highly effective way to monitor and suppress activities found contrary to the State.
Many people were wounded or killed attempting to cross over, through and under the wall before it was dismantled on November 9, 1989. In the beginning, thousands on both sides began chipping away with sledge hammers and chisels to open a hole big enough to pull the first East Berliner through. Later, the government demolished the majority of the wall, leaving a few small stretches to serve as a constant reminder against tyranny.
The Reichstag, located in the former Eastern sector of Berlin houses the country’s Parliament. The building has a troubled past not unlike the nation it represents. Construction was completed on the New-Renaissance style building in 1894.
It is commonly believed that Hitler and the Nazi Party gained power due to a fire that destroyed the main hall. The Communist Party was blamed for the incident and Hitler, who was in charge, milked the fervor that ensued to gain power over the nation. Many historians now believe that his party was actually responsible for the fire.
A new glass dome was added in 1999, anhd today, with prior registration, you can walk up the spiral ramp for an amazing 360º view of the metropolitan landscape outside, or the politicians diligently working below. The natural light shines on the main hall of the building. The symbolism is clear: the German government is transparent to all.
Get an Overview
Berlin Original Walks offers six regular tours and a few private tours of the main sites around the city. All tours are conducted in English by an experienced guide and include a free map.Find out why the Nazis burnt so many book sin Bebelplatz. See where Marlene Dietrich was “discovered” before she became a Hollywood movie star. Increase your knowledge while you tour the school where Albert Einstein taught before he was forced to leave Berlin.
New Berlin Tours also offers several English language tours of the city—for free!! Each tour lasts 3.5 hours and meets at either the Brandenburg Gate or the Zoologischer Garten and concludes on Museum Island. Tour the city in a vintage double-decker bus. Berlin City Tour offers 2-day, HopOn, HopOff tours to more than 20 popular sites. Choose from 3 different tours, including a cruise on the Spree River. Tour commentary is delivered via headphones in nine languages. Purchase your tickets online and receive a 1 euro discount for each adult ticket. Time table and map information can be found on their website.
Purchase a Welcome Card at ticket, tourist and some hotels for discounted public transportation as well as discounted pricing to many stores and popular attractions. Visit www.visitberlin.de for more information.
For a lasting memory
Visit the Bebelplatz, where on May 11, 1933; while many people sat down to dinner, more than 20,000 books were burned under the watchful eyes of Joseph Goebbels. The Minister of Propaganda, under direct orders of Hitler burned popular Western classics written by Jack London, H.G. Wells and Emile Zola. Look down into an empty room, covered by plate glass and filled with white bookshelves… empty bookshelves… symbolizing the many works of art lost that night and in subsequent book burnings throughout Nazi Germany.
The Neue Wache or New Guardhouse was built in 1918 was originally designated as a memorial to victims of the anti-Napoleonic wars (1813-1815) in which the French were finally expelled from Germany, Italy and Spain. However, since 1993, the monument has served to commemorate the lives lost due to tyranny and war—everywhere. The newly designated memorial has a touching pieta (statue of a mother cuddling her dead son) under an open vestibule exposed to time and the elements. The remains of an unknown soldier and a resistance fighter sit side-by-side. Soil from battle fields and concentration camps are also housed as reticent reminders of a turbulent and violent past.
On a lighter note
The Hollywood Media Hotel is a quirky Hollywood themed hotel in the heart of Berlin on the famous Kurfurstendamm. Each room is individually decorated. Enjoy a walk through the Golden age of film, get close to your favorite film legends and act out some of your favorite scenes surrounded by film memorabilia. The movie posters bring back memories of magic moments spent in dark theatres—which you can experience every night in the hotel’s very own 99-seat theatre. Pop in and enjoy a drink or two in the Callas Bar or one of two restaurants.
Kaufhaus des Westens is the largest department store on the continent! It was originally owned and operated by Adolf Jandorf. However, Nazi race laws prevented him from retaining ownership. The store was destroyed during the war and renovated for its 100th anniversary in 2007. Known simply as KaDeWe, it has seven floors of merchandise that include several beauty salons, luxury boutiques, mens, womens and childrens apparel, electronics and two floors of food from every corner of the world.
For green space, and a little quiet, head to the Grunewald. This dense area southwest of the city center is a popular place to hike, bike or take your little tikes to run wild and free. Pack a picnic lunch and spend the day roaming through the beautiful woods oblivious to the major city nearby. Or weather permitting; take a dip in one of two fresh water lakes.
Berlin is a city of contrast. New resides next to old, peace has replaced war and time has broken down the walls of hate and fear. The people are justified in their pride and it, more than anything else offers a thought-provoking looking into a world-class city once divided.