Berlin’s History – This City Doesn’t Hide Its Scars
Berlin is youthful, intoxicating and tolerant. Until recently it was a very cheap place to live, known as the city that’s “poor but sexy.” Indeed. But it is also a serious city, and Berlin’s history is haunted by ghosts of its immediate history that demand to be heard. The Germans, in their methodical fashion, are making sure each ghost gets its turn on stage.
Berlin’s Most Obvious History is Less Than 80 Years Old
In most European capitals, the past is centuries old. Berlin still has some of its older history, but because of WWII, Berlin is different. More than any other major capital, Berlin was largely destroyed. The Germans fought to the bitter end and much of the city ended up in rubble.
When you visit, you’ll see Berlin’s recent history writ large. There are two related stories: the Nazi era from the mid-1930’s to 1945, and the divided city years from the early 1960’s until 1989.
Berlin Says, “This is Who We Were, This is How We Behaved…”
Rather than minimize the unsavoury parts of their past as other countries often do, Germany pushes its history into your face like a warning, as if to say, no matter who we think we are, this is in fact who we were, this is how we behaved, this is what we did to each other… we cannot allow this to happen again!
Stolpersteine Will Trip Up Your Conscience
Walking through the city, you’ll soon come across small square brass plaques in or near the sidewalks. These are Stolpersteine, “stumbling stones”. Each is a memorial to a holocaust victim, bearing a simple, direct and brutal message. For example, “Here lived Eli Schneller, born 1885, deported 1943, murdered at Auschwitz.” Or, “Here lived Alice Rosenberg, born 1911, deported 1942, murdered at Auschwitz.”
Stolpersteine is a symbolic art project by the German artist Gunter Demnig. He started them on his own in 1996. At first there was opposition, since he did this without any permission, which meant they were illegal. Remember, Germany is a very orderly society and playing by the rules is ingrained.
From Opposition to Support
Some also opposed the harsh language, but Demnig insisted that words like “murdered” were important and critical to the message.
And then, somewhat unexpectedly, many Germans rose to his defence. Cities, with Berlin leading the way, embraced the project, recognizing it as a powerful and personal way to dignify people whose lives were stolen. Following Demnig’s vision, each memorial is placed in front of the last known address for that person. If that no longer exists, then the place of work is chosen.
How Many Stolpersteine Will You Stop to Read?
Walking through residential sections of Berlin, Stolpersteine are impossible to ignore. And that’s the point. You see a group of them and stop to read the inscriptions. In many cases, you can figure out by the names and birthdates that this was a whole family. It is a sobering experience.
As of May 2016 over 50,000 Stolpersteine have been placed across Europe. The project is ongoing.
The Wall That Divided a City and Country
And of course, you can’t say Berlin without thinking of the Berlin Wall. For many of us, this is living history. The reminders are all there, sometimes subtle, often overt with large outdoor museums. From 1961 until 1989, the Berlin Wall circled all of West Berlin within East Germany.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, during the last days of November 1989, the guards who would normally shoot anyone trying to go from east to west opened some of the gates and let East Berliners through to the west. Why?
The Wall is Open? When? Now! Really? Yes!
One day towards the end of November, 1989, an East German government official was on the radio saying that at some point, East Germans would be allowed to travel to the west. As if the message had been passed along through the telephone game, this got interpreted as taking effect right now. People approached the guards with the news, and after even further confusion, the guards opened the gates. That was the beginning of the end of the wall.
Do You Dare to Go to the West?
News spread fast. A friend of mine, Frank, who grew up in East Berlin didn’t know what to make of it. Many of Frank’s neighbors went over to the west that first day, just to look around. But he didn’t. What if they closed the wall again and didn’t let him back to rejoin his family? What if the guards started shooting again? Frank and his family waited, glued to their television for two days. On the third day, when it became apparent the wall would be permanently open, and was in fact being torn down, they went over to the west to see for themselves.
During that first week there was mass confusion, not only about East and West Berlin, but East and West Germany. Within a year, it was all settled. Germany would be one country, and Berlin would once again be its capital city.
And Frank? He and his family still live in their old neighborhood, which for them is home.
Checkpoint Charlie and Bernauer Strasse
The best two places to experience the Berlin Wall are at the Berlin Wall Memorial and Checkpoint Charlie. While the gatehouse and sandbags at Checkpoint Charlie make for a fun photo op, the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse will put you in a reflective mood.
There are other sections of the wall left standing in Berlin, but here at the memorial park, they are in pristine condition, with a couple of guard towers still up. The park, which goes on for about 1.4 kilometers, was the previously mined “death strip”, a no-man’s-land.
Here at Bernauer Strasse is where people originally jumped out of windows on the east to be caught in firemen’s nets on the west. This is where they dug their escape tunnels.
If you’re interested in this part of Berlin’s history, you could spend hours here, reading the displays and trying to imagine what life was like during those years. With Frank’s knowledge and guidance, I spent most of an afternoon here.
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Related Berlin Historical Points of Interest:
Located at the former headquarters of the Gestapo and SS, this is the major Berlin museum of the Nazi years.
What was it like to live in East Berlin? This is the full immersion experience.
East Germany’s Ministry for State Security (Stasi) had everyone spying on each other. This was their headquarters. Now it’s a museum. Did they have a record on you or your family?
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