This article was a challenge to write as there are so many ways to talk about Berlin. There are so many stories and angles from which to choose. Berlin was a place I had always wanted to travel. I wish I could have been there in 1989 or earlier. I wanted to see East Germany and East Berlin the way it is not today. I really wanted to see the Palast der Republik and the Großgaststätte Ahornblatt before their untimely demise. I even wanted to see the Wall as it was—I can only extrapolate what its presence was like. Berlin in the 20th Century had gone through radical change. Here is a video presentation that I completed about Berlin’s many changes.
From once being a rival to Paris to a city that was and is gritty even today. Berlin has never quite recovered from the same population prior to WWII and while the Berlin Wall was cleared the city is still the not the same city it once was a century before.
Palast der Republik constructed in 1973; completed 1976; only in use for 14 years. Architects: Heinz Graffunder and Karl-Ernst Swora; The Palast was where the East German Parliament – Volkskammer was housed in addition to this building there was two large auditoriums, a threatre, 13 restaurants, a bowling alley and post office.
Großgaststätte Ahornblatt (Great Maple Leaf) restaurant was in the Mitte in Berlin and completed in 1973 and is demolished in 2000. Architects: Gerhard Lehmann and Rüdiger Plaeth
In college, I took an Eastern European political class, which I got an “A+” not because I studied harder than other classes but I was fascinated with the subject matter. I am ultimately am student of history and I want to know why are things the way they are today…. And how did this happen?
Reciting JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” has been etched into 20th Century history . The fall of the Berlin wall was an historic event that I remember clearly—I was not alive when JFK was alive or when the Wall was built but it is intriguing to me still today. What most people do not realise is that President John F. Kennedy said about the Berlin Wall – “A wall is better than a war” believing that this diverted the Cold War from getting further out of control. This is a very different contrast from which Reagan said “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall.”
Looking at photographs of The Wall it tells some very interesting stories and highlights this peculiar historical experience. The Wall lives in as a historical anomaly but without the pictorial documentation something goes missing. The Wall’s fall was quick, haphazard; the rush to remove the wall came at the expense of tearing it down without documenting the site. It is a miracle that any remaining pieces of the wall are still here today.
The chief reason for it being built was to stem the big migration loss from east to west. East and West Berlin were a unified city for at least a couple of years after the end of WWII. But a series of incidences become what will be come known as the Cold War make the divisions even more pronounced. East Germany lost 20% (3.5 million people) of it’s population prior the Wall’s construction. From the Wall’s inception on 13-August-1961 it will see four building programs and the last was one known as Grenzmauer 75 (which began in 1975). The Grenzmauer 75 project is what is most often recalled in photographs. 45,000 separate sections of 3.6 meters high (11.8 feet high) x 1.2. meters (3.93 feet wide) wide and weighing about 2.6 metric tones or 5,700 pounds.
This portion of the Berlin Wall (on what was once the Luisenstadt Canal filled in 1932); picture depicts the contrast of the ‘death strip’ being patrolled by DDR soldiers and on the other side which faces West Berlin – interestingly the man walking his dog is most likely on East German soil as the Wall was built 5-10 meters from actual wall. (each portion of the wall did not contain the same features as example the “Czech Hedgehogs” are not installed here)
This sign reads “Attention! You are Now Leaving West Berlin” which meant that the bicyclist and man walking are walking technically in East Berlin. This is the only portion of the wall that did not have the added asbestos tube because East German troops would regularly walk on the flat top surface.
A rare view on the East Berlin side of a military trooper looking out at view points on this portion of the wall. In Back ground is the Brandenburg Gate and Charité which still in operation today
In this photo is a woman and little boy walking along the wall; and this photo gives the flavor of the wall creating unusual relationships; this was obviously a residential street and the border was cut along the street. This design is what creates the grittiness that Berlin becomes known for—where this woman and boy walk is technically in East Berlin; the East German government was not going to do anything other than maintain the wall—nothing to beautify its border. The other side of the street is undoubtedly gone (East Berlin). Often the border wall area is between 100 to 500 meters some building were left intact many others were torn down. This was the ‘new normal’ for nearly three decades.
This photograph shows the construction of Grenzmauer 75 Wall and the Church of Reconciliation. Which this photo was taken somewhere between 1978 and 1985 as we can see in photographic evidence and we know the DDR demolished the church in 1985. The church was demolished because of a line of site concern. Notice that the East German military men are on the western portion of wall but within the East German national border. The Chapel of Reconciliation was rebuilt on this site and completed in 2000.
I was very excited to see Berlin today and I have made a mistake to look at NY Times Travel videos which now I swear off (sorry New York Times) I still like your news reporting. I have visited many places talked about in NY Times videos and concluded I saw a very different city than the ones they betray in their videos. Berlin was no exception. I took Berlin on the terms of what I knew from my education and even my notions and I kept an openness of what Berlin is to make great discoveries. I did visit Vagabund Brauerei which is an owned and operated by American ex-pats. I was glad to visit but it was a trip to get there and if you need an IPA whilst in Berlin and have too much time on your hands then by all means go.
Berlin can best be described as a city that has a dizzyingly complexity and a history to match it. An infamous past that it will never escape—it seems the city wants to get beyond it but it doesn’t need t0.
How do I treat this subject matter—how do I get to observe and participate in this city? I knew that after nearly 3-dozen cities I would be exhausted…. I was but because I would be tired was no reason to go at full speed and love Berlin. I first thought that I could see much more of the old East and West Berlin and while you can’t see it directly the division of east and west are still omnipresent. Maybe it is the odd spacing between buildings—while some new building replaced more open space—look at Potsdamer Platz—plenty of space to work with that none would not be developed. For many a national or Berlin space-urban planner was to erase the past mainly anything East German and,of course, the Nazi era (Tempelhof would be the exception) but to retain the Empire look and feel.
But people in east Berlin have protested when the Palast der Republik was demolished as well as the Großgaststätte Ahornblatt and to no avail which former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder saying that it was a “ghastly building” and wanted it done away with (with such a voice of the Chancellor who cares what the people of Berlin especially long time residents in the Mitte had to say). One of the chief architects Heinz Graffunder proposed to make the Palast a exhibition space was proposed. The building had been used as a space for art exhibitions until it’s closure. The reason for the closure was all political. While the space had contained asbestos I am sure this is not the only building in this part of Berlin that had asbestos. The Palast had been constructed on the old Berliner Stadtschloss which had been on this site since 1443. World War II this structure had been heavily damaged and 5 years after the end of WWII it was demolished. The ideology of building the Prussian empire symbol just for posterity sake was not a palatable one for the reigning communist regime. This space lay empty for 24 years until 1974 when construction began on the Palast der Republik which was a late mid-century modern gem. Some of the fantastic and period lighting had been saved as seen in the picture below. This style can be seen today in many a modern lighting stores around world.
I think there would have been a challenge no matter where it would have resided in a political quicksand. The Alexanderplatz area has survived integration in spite of numerous attempts at absolute change for only change sake. Berlin’s resistance is to not necessarily looking at the past with discontent but with a need to recall and remember for the future. Hence the Plattenbau district of Berlin on Karl-Marx-Allee has been generally left in good shape. I never give absolutes but for now this amazing Mid-century modern district is safe for now.
Here is an interesting photograph (below) from The Atlantic showing construction work along a 4th generational wall—Grenzmauer 75 and the article noted “West German workers.” Either side of this wall was East Germany and there is no way the East Germans would have allowed anyone but their own side work on the wall. They had right away on both sides. It showed me that searching for the reality of the Wall is not that far away but elusive in terms of understanding the subject matter.
The Berlin Wall Tour
The Berlin Wall began a near immediate falling down in 1989 and never stopped. I gave a talk about my journey this year and spent sometime on my experience. I was asked “can you see some remnants of the wall.” Yes there are a few key places where you can see pieces of The Wall. But what you really will never see is any realistic piece of the frontier area of the wall system and control strip. For historical reasons, a small portion of the entire wall system should have been left in place. You can visit Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer to see inner and outer walls but the area is antiseptic of the machination of anti-vehicle ditches, hedgehog anti vehicle structures, Stalin’s Lawn, detection wire, dog runs and bunkers to name some of the Walls many features.
The obsession of tearing it down quickly came at the expensive or truly understanding what was being torn down for posterity sake. I cannot find a single source that can show each or even major sections of wall. If the Fall was happening today it would have been much more documented given wide availability of phones with cameras. Deutsche Welle created a video about recreating The Wall in animated format aptly named “Making of Walled In.”
Only 225 meters of the Wall still exist today which represents about .1 of a percent. This video “Walled In” attempts to show an animation of what The Wall and Death Strip really looked liked. Because the Wall was removed in haste no extensive details were documented and nothing today looks like it did in the original state even remaining sections of Wall. The video points out in a section that was reconstructed for this video of the Wall at Bernauerstraße, near the Church of Reconciliation the exact construction is not clear up and is up for debate. Also, the sources of photographs from the Wall come mainly from the western sources as on the eastern side few were taken. The Wall’s coming down wasn’t that long ago for us to not really have an accurate picture of what it was is a shame. From an historical perspective, it might have been important to document all aspects of the Wall as this was a unique and infamous part of history. This history was no doubt an epicenter of the communist past as well as emblematic of the Cold War. I am sure satellite images of this area exist perhaps and most likely still classified. Google Earth is missing this era.
Nonetheless there are a few things we can see to understand some of this past:
- Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauerstraße, 111-119
- Website: http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/de/ you can see very different aspects of the Wall
- The Wall and the Death Strip – Area A
- The Destruction of the City – Area B
- Building the Wall – Area C
- Everyday Life at the Wall – Area D
- Documentation Centre – a place to see exhibits and documentation about The Wall
- Chapel of Reconciliation – a very different architecture from the fallen Church of Reconciliation a fitting monument and place of contemplation.
- Website: http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/de/ you can see very different aspects of the Wall
- East Side Gallery bordering Mühlenstraße, – along the Spree on the eastern side of Berlin – this area has been under threat of this segment of Wall – as I saw with everything for now it is safe. It has fantastic art decorating the infamous Wall
- Potsdamer Platz – relatively close to the Brandenburg Gate – segments of the Wall are in the Platz –once a very desolate part of Berlin.
- Additional parts of the Wall can be seen on the Northern side of the Topography of Terror Museum on Niederkirchnerstraße 8 continue walking east and the street becomes Zimmerstraße which leads directly to Checkpoint Charlie and continue east for about 3 blocks to see pieces of the Wall outside of the Axel Springer building
Berlin and a Look Back at the DDR
No narrative could describe Berlin in the eyes I saw and experienced…. I knew Berlin was a city of tremendous upheaval and change in a short time….from an Empire to a republic, the Nazi era; two independent countries—one market oriented and the other Marxist and then a re-unified nation-state all in one century. I expected only a city of many dimensions. I cannot think of another city of it’s size that has been under that many changes in this short period.
Berlin today is both accidental and intentional. The Potsdam, London and Yalta conferences of the Allies could have shone a different configuration post-WWII. If Stalin had negotiated to have Berlin as a prize for the Soviet sector there would have been no West Berlin as it once existed and there would have been no Berlin wall… what would that be like if that didn’t happen?
This picture from my hotel room shows Alexanderstraße and the Haus of Lehrer and it’s mosaic (taller building first third area left) the Weltzeituhr (World Clock is the round monument built by the communists). I love the Plattenbau architecture in this shot along Karl-Marx-Allee on the left and on the right which is Alexanderstraße This is a great place to see the old DDR East Berlin or as people in the East would have said “Berlin.”
Instead Berlin was a divided city for forty years makes for a very different city today. In the early 20th century Berlin was once a rival to Paris. But Berlin is awash in being a creative capital today. Berlin is the poorest of the major German cities. It may not ‘look poor’ but it is dependent on being a national capital. The German government did invest heavily into Berlin being the once and future capital. What never happened was a return of German company headquarters but most well known companies are based elsewhere. Berlin is still a city where the population is not at it’s historic numbers during WWII.
Being a capital city is a blessing and a curse—in Berlin’s case this not an exception. German government has been casting the city in it’s desired image and has preferred to bull doze where possible the old East Berlin—ironically this part of Berlin is very iconic. There have been proposals to change the Alexanderplatz area—but those proposals have meet with opposition and having survived this long without intervention might be a sign that this part of Berlin is safe.
The lighter coloured building in the centre is the now closed Haus der Statistik. At this writing still safe from being torn down).
The Alexanderplatz was master planned by the East German government after WWII as most of Berlin was in rubble. Beyond the Brandenburg Gate (which was in East Germany) The Fernsehturm is the largest skyline feature in Berlin 368 metres/1207 feet tall was built as part of the master plan for this area of Berlin by the communists. The Fernsehturm was not just mean to be a large TV antennae but to be a solid symbol of the socialist DDR. Today this and the Brandenburg Gate are iconic symbols of the city.
The Stadt Hotel (now the Park Inn Berlin) was and is still the tallest building in Berlin. The building is 41 levels 149 metres/490 feet and has been re-skinned in 2005 from it’s Mid-century Modern architecture. I stayed here at this hotel that was once reserved for Comecon representatives (international communist trade organization: Council for Mutual Economic Assistance). While checking in, I was asked if I wanted to upgrade—I thought it would be just a room change out but perhaps not the view I wished for. I was hoping for a view of the Fernsehturm but instead I got an even better view of Karl-Marx-Allee – the grand boulevard of Plattenbau architecture and the location for all East German government military parades. I was completely in awe of this grand planning. I could also see the Frankfurter Gate and the Haus der Lehers (House of Teachers); I was looking at a great Mid-century Modern world of Hermann Henselmann et al. I am a huge fan of Mid-century Modern (M-cM) for many reasons. M-cM represents to me a leap forward to a new architectural sensibility—for me it is a future looking architecture—it is an idealized future. This Mid-century Modern expression is simple in construction but on closer inspection many fine details that showed there was a progressive architecture happening here. Also if you look at Bauhaus which was based in the former East Germany both from Berlin and Dessau .it is clear that this movement of M-cM comes comfortably from the Bauhaus thought and it is not often cited as such. The modernity of this movement if you look at native architecture at the time is a bold expression to both utility and grace in design. The Karl-Marx-Alle complex of buildings makes for an awesome sight today. If you love architecture you have to visit this area.
This is a fine example of Hermann Henselmann’s architecture this is the Hochhaus an der Weberwiese; this building was completed in 1952 and shows modernity, balance, proportion and a solid structure that still feels modern today. Thoughtfully modern and fine detail up close.
My room at the Park Inn is probably the smallest hotel room I have ever had anywhere including London and Venice. I suspect that while the exterior changed the interior floor plans has never changed. Certainly there were some cosmetic upgrades to the hotel and the hotel rooms. But I loved it nonetheless for the view. It made me wonder do people who get this view just glance outside and then close the curtains and not realise the significance of the view?
I love design and for me there is no mistaking this grand boulevard. I am not the only to say this – Philip Johnson says of the area “true city planning on a grand scale” and Aldo Rossi calling Karl-Marx-Allee “Europe’s last great street.” I recognize the buildings that were back drops of red and East German flags during May Day parades. I also saw a very large Mid-century building called the Haus der Statistik—this office building was know to be part of the Ministry of State Security (Stasi). I wanted to get closer and take pictures of this structure built between 1968 and 1970—it was dark and the quality of picture that I wanted was not optimum. This building has been under siege and it has been a target for the wrecking ball. The detail is a refined mid-century modern and feels earlier than the construction date of 1968.
I loved the very Mid-century Modern design of the Fehrensturm and the bottom level is nicely designed.
The original fountain from the master rebuild of Alexanderplatz
Below is a picture of what many photographs don’t show from Checkpoint Charlie—this line represents that which is East and West Germany—anything on left side of line is West Berlin and anything east of the line is East Berlin. This is an angle hardly ever seen. The Wall solidness was by design—a constant upgrading and never in it’s history did it ever stop evolving including the very end of the DDR. No other major European city had ever experienced this before or since.
This is a photo of me taken in what would have been East Berlin looking south on Friedrichstraße and the building on my left is the same building above depicted in the first photo
Checkpoint Charlie was one of two entry points from within that non-West German citizens could gain entry into East Germany from West Berlin. The other was Checkpoint Bravo and the other was Waltersdorfer Chausee if and only if flying out of East Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport. Checkpoint Charlie is mired in its historical significance and intrigue. When I was younger and didn’t have a good map of Berlin I had always thought Checkpoint Charlie had a true East and West relationship instead of it’s true northerly and southerly trajectory. Friedrichstraße is the street that is Checkpoint Charlie. When the Checkpoint was in operation it was very hard to look and see the entire street as there was a slight bend in the street and obscured the view north of here into East Germany. The street today is easy to see from south to north and vice versa.
I spent very little time here as there was only very touristy things to see. The replica of the checkpoint is filled with faux service men only posing with tourist for tips. The large photos of the last servicemen from the Soviet Union and the United States are authentic.
I felt there was nothing that was original that was left behind. Perhaps there was a bit of the Berlin wall here but I didn’t see anything—the closest bit of the wall to checkpoint Charlie is probably on the northside of the Axel Springer building which is about 650 meters to the east of Checkpoint Charlie or to the west at the Topography of Terror.
The real Checkpoint Charlie is no longer on site and instead a faux checkpoint is in it’s place. There are “fake” US military personnel to represent the military guards that were once present here. The area is a tourist haven and because of it’s infamous past there is a sense of commercialization—a McDonald’s is easily spotted in this picture.
These are not the original signs but the verbiage and fonts are exactly the same as they were when they were originally placed here when the checkpoint was in operation
This is a picture of a real US Army Seargant Jeff Harper he is noted as being the “last US Soldier at Checkpoint Charlie” I look for more of a backstory and cannot find it. I did verify that he is the US military and as of 2016 still serves in the US Army. I do not know anything about the picture and I did find a story online that said Harper was unaware of the picture until some told him. The identity of the Soviet soldier is unknown.
The Axel Springer building was completed in 1966 and curiously built on the southern end of the Berlin Wall
And this is how the Axel Springer building looks today; behind me is a curious sculpture of a man balancing himself on a wall and direct reference to the Wall. The red circle next to me highlights an actual piece of the Wall
Museum Island or Museuminsel is a great treasure of art with five great museums in a very small foot print. Bounded by the Unter den Linden and the Spree River are
- The Berliner Dom – an historic church in the Mitte changing hands several times. An impressive church and it is part of the EKD which is a Protestant church
- The Altes Museum – this museum beautiful restored faces the Lustgarden and contains antiquities. This museum was a backdrop for Nazi parades.
- Neues Museum – had been closed since 1939 and officially re-opened in 2009; the Bust of Nefertiti is housed here in what is known as the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung this has a beautiful room that so elegantly displays this ancient work of art. I had seen this beautiful object in my text books and in person it is stunningly beautiful. I wish I could have take a photograph but it is not allowed (the only object that I am aware that cannot be photographed)
- Alte Nationalgalerie – the museum contains mainly German paintings from several movement including Romantic, Neoclassical, Impressionist and Modernist art work
- The Bode Museum – the building is beautiful it was closed for repairs in 1997 and reopened in 2008 and is immaculate—outstanding collection of Byzantine and Gothic Art; an impressive collection and so masterly displayed be sure to visit the Byzantine room that houses various art works including a piece of mosaic from Ravenna.
- The Pergamon Museum – contains middle eastern and antiquities – the Ishtar Gate is stunning, the namesake Pergamon Altar and the Meissner fragment which contains pieces of Gilgamesh
And here are other highlights to visit on your stay in Berlin
Alte Jakobstraße 124-128, 10969 Berlin, Germany
Modern art museum Berlin showcasing art and architecture. I like the collection as well as an exhibit where you become part of the art.
Jewish Museum Berlin
Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969 Berlin, Germany
This Jewish museum has a striking architecture—a neoclassical building houses the entryway and next to that is a modern addition by Daniel Libeskind. The museum is quite large; a tunnel connects the two buildings. It is a striking architecture that is thoroughly modern that showcases the compete Jewish experience in Berlin. The top floor is well curated and the lower portion houses an evocative exhibition of the tragedy of The Holocaust. The architecture is moody, dark and confusing—this is of course by intent to give a sense of the loss and profound tragedy.
Be sure to consider the Berlin Card which cost 24 Euros and offers entry into 40 of Berlin’s museums. By European or any standard it is a bargain.
Please read this document as a living one. I was not worried about being exhaustive about my writing about Berlin but how I do cover an essential Berlin. Well there is no such thing. I do believe to a) make peace with yourself and 2) get something published is to be okay with writing a nice sized article and to also update and add over time.
Berlin is a city with an century that is dizzying, even exhausting to try to grasp but it is worth doing. The picture below is fascinating—it shows that Berlin even after a quarter of century of being reunited shows its past at night–which is the former East and West Berlin. East side a different lighting system and hence a viewable difference. This will stay like this for sometime—Berlin as noted early is not a wealthy one and cannot change everything.
If Berlin is not on your travel wish list I would recommend it highly at some point. You don’t have to be a lover of history to appreciate Berlin as there are so many aspects to see and experience.
Copyright© 2016 – James Melendez / James the Travel Guy – All Rights Reserved
I may also share this blog posting in my James the Wine Guy sites as well.