We all know much of the history, but it is so striking to see the icons of the hot and cold wars waged here in Berlin.
It is also meaningful to learn how those moments in history are related in the place where they happened.
We began the day at the “Palace of Tears,” the border crossing departure hall between East and West Berlin at Friedrichstrasse Station. It was so nicknamed because so many painful farewells took place here. Virtually no one was able to escape the security of this place, though many tried. It is mostly glass and filled with light, but the exhibits tell a story of despair and terror within these walls. We watched some young Germans taking the tour.
Our major focus today was the German Historical Museum, which contains images and artifacts from Roman times to reunification, and a dense collection it is. We saw the famous painting of Martin Luther. the oldest globe extant, a plague mask worn by doctors during the Black Death, a possible Durer portrait of Charlemagne, and many other notable items, including effigies of very pugnacious leaders.
We took a break between wars and battles to have our main meal of the day in the lovely cafe, which featured wurst for Don and (surprise!) Wiener Schnitzel for me. We even snuck in a salad. Very nice, then on with the carnage.
The twentieth-century history was most interesting to us, particularly the rise of Hitler and WWII. Explanatory films pulled no punches about the horrors of Nazism and the terror of the Third Reich, with very little defensiveness about the reasons it all seemed to make sense at the time. The war exhibits even seem to celebrate the entry of the US into the fighting, almost as though it were a relief to have someone help end the madness.
It was all a bit overwhelming and so very sad, seeing the film footage and photos of the devastation here in Berlin itself. When I was very young, my father was in the US Army and we were stationed in Germany for two years, some of the time in Berlin. We came in as part of the Berlin Airlift, that kept the people of West Berlin from starving as the Russians blockaded the city. The condition of the city was horrendous and Berliners had to begin to rebuild their city for the second time in the same century.
The partition of the city became final in 1961, when the Wall was erected. As of yesterday, it has officially been down longer than it was up, but oh, what scars it has left. We are staying in West Berlin, and blue above-ground pipes here are seen everywhere here carrying water from as-yet-unrepaired underground water systems damaged in the war. There are strangely empty parcels of land, and a bleakness, even on the sunny days. All the malls and new fashions still can’t seem to erase the past.
We came to the Brandenburg Gate later today. This 18th century triumphal arch has been an important symbol throughout its history, especially in the Cold War, when it was behind the Wall. Riotous celebrations were centered there on the night the wall came down. Today it is a restored and serene entrance to the Unter der Linden, and is a pedestrian plaza and gathering places for things like World Cup victories and New Year’s Eve festivities.
Nearby is the Reichstag, which has been transformed into an architectural symbol of a unified Germany, where governance is participatory and transparent, as evidenced by the glass dome which crowns it. At various times, the building has been severely burned (1933), taken by the Russians (1945) and wrapped by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1995, and then reconstructed to become the seat of German government once again (1999). The dome is the work of Norman Foster, and provides an incredible panorama of the city, in addition to filling the building with light.
Long may it enjoy its renewed life.