Thursday, September 15, 2011

Summer 2011: Berlin, Germany

July 17-19, 2011 -- Berlin was the third city I visited this summer after London and Brussels. It was also the most interesting. Perhaps no city in the world has been defined by events of the 20th Century than Berlin. The city has survived Nazism and Communism to become the liberal, tolerant city it is today. Berlin is the capital of a unified Germany that is a model democracy. The city that has suffered so much has triumphed over its tragic past.

I stayed at the Grand Hostel, which is consistently rated as one of the top hostels in Germany and the world. The historic building, constructed in 1874, is located in the Berlin borough of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain overlooking the Spree River.

I highly recommend taking the New Berlin Free Tour, which leaves every day near the Brandenburg Gate for a 3.5 hour walking tour. The guide will ask for a tip at the end if you liked the tour, and most people give him around five euros. It is an excellent introduction to the amazing history of Berlin -- from its days as the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia; to the capital of the Third Reich; to when the city was divided by the Berlin Wall; to its development into a world-class city.

Seeing the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag Building, Gendarmenmark, remnants of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and other historic sites were amazing. But it was the brief twelve year period from 1933-1945 when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party ruled Berlin that was most intriguing to me.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a moving memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Walking the 4.7 acres (19,000 square meters) through the 2,711 concrete slabs brings about different emotions to different people. For me, I felt how orderly, vast and inhuman the Nazi extermination system was.

But as much as Germans have gone out of their way to honor and remember the victims of Nazi tyranny, they have also chosen not to remember the perpetrators. Case in point is Hitler's bunker, which is located underneath a car park a few blocks from the Holocaust Memorial because German authorities don't want it to become a shrine for neo-Nazis. There was not even a plaque to mark the site until the 2006 World Cup was in Germany. After 66 years, the feelings are still too raw in Germany to even attempt an archaeological excavation of the underground site where the Fuhrer married Eva Braun before they both committed suicide as Russian soldiers closed in.

Another few blocks brings you to the only Nazi-era building still standing after the Battle of Berlin and the Allied bombing campaign in 1945 -- the Ministry of Aviation Building, where Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was in charge of development and production of aircraft, primarily for the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe).

The government building was a vivid reminder of the cold, calculated centralized bureaucracy behind the mass murder of millions. This building was a typical government building in Berlin during the Nazi era. Thousands of bureaucrats making life and death decisions every day. The most disturbing thing about it is that the building wouldn't be out of place in Washington, D.C., Paris, Beijing or any other world capital.

Bebelplatz is the site of the infamous Nazi book burning ceremony, which took place on the evening of May 20, 1933. The Nazis set fire to 20,000 books by many authors including Heinrich Heine, whose tragically prophetic quote from 1820 is engraved at the site of the book burnings: "Where they burn books, they ultimately burn people."

A memorial by Micha Ullman consisting of a glass plate set into the cobbles, giving a view of empty bookcases, commemorates the book burning.

There are stories of ordinary Germans who did extraordinary things during that dark period in human history. One such figure was a local police officer named Otto Bellgardt, who on the night of Kristallnacht in 1938, when Nazi mobs were destroying Jewish businesses and institutions across the city, saved the historic New Synagogue on Oranienburger Straße by drawing his pistol and telling the mob it was a protected historical landmark and he would uphold the law in protecting the place. The crowd dispersed and the synagogue was saved.

Click here for more observations of Berlin on Green Center Blog.

Here are more photos from Berlin. Click here to see the set on Flickr.