Since my first trip to France in 1986, and in particular visiting the Normandy beaches at that time, I have had a sense of the often overwhelming presence of history when visiting cities like Berlin, Paris or London. With the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings being commemorated this weekend, the events of WWII are even more present. Germany has a particular history with the tragic and horrific discrimination which led to mass murder and genocide. It is something that can’t be avoided when walking through Berlin, but there is a much deeper history here which also needs to be understood as part of the broader context of this ever-changing city.
I started my second day in Berlin with a trip to the East…exiting the U-Bahn at Alexanderplatz and into major construction. It has been many years since reunification, but the city is still re/building some infrastructure and the U-5 U-Bahn line is a major project that will do a better job of connecting a once-divided city.
The skyline here is dominated by the Fernsehturm (TV tower) and also the cranes that indicate new construction. However, I wanted to take a step into the past, and headed past the Berlin Rathaus (city hall)
and on to the Nikolaiviertel, which is an area that was badly damaged during WW II and rebuilt in the 1980s. The area is full of quaint shops and cafes
The quarter is dominated by the St. Nicholas Church (Nicholaikirche) and I decided to do the tour of the interior for the first time. As I listened to the audio tour, I couldn’t help but be saddened, because the tour revealed more about what had been lost than anything else. So many artifacts, were damaged and destroyed during the battle for Berlin, and although the restoration was admirable, it is a prime example of a historical legacy that can’t be replaced. I had a similar feeling visiting Dresden four years ago, where many of the historical buildings had only been replaced a few years earlier.
As I walked away from the area, I happened to pass by yet another protest. This one turned out to be a group of refugees who have been taking refuge in a school in Kreuzberg and are hoping to get their papers and avoid deportation – since this woman spoke in English I include the video here:
They are part of a group called Refugee Strike Berlin. I found it interesting and the blocking of a street in a tourist area in the middle of the day is clearly calling for attention. I intend to do more research into what is happening with this group. They also had speakers from the Roma community.
Next I walked towards the Berlin Cathedral, an imposing structure that will soon be joined by the Berlin Schoss (Castle) which is being built across the street – I had seen that this area was becoming a construction site and was interested to see the new development. My understanding is that there will be a new, large space for a German history museum.
There was some interesting art along the way, as I walked near Humboldt University and back toward the West
I made a stop to enjoy a chai tea and look in a book shop – managed to leave with only one new book, but got lots of ideas of books I want to order when I get home, particularly on German history. The next stop was Checkpoint Charlie, another reminder of the city’s history of division:
I was getting tired, but saw the sign that I wasn’t far from the Topography of Terror – an outdoor exhibition in an area where many on the Nazi administration had been housed, as well as a documentation center. The focus of much of the exhibit was the impact of groups that were initially discriminated against and ultimately targeted for extermination, including Jews, Roma (gypsies), and homosexuals. The history is frightening when you realize that normal people were pulled into the evil that the Nazis perpetuated, that went well beyond the war.
Behind the exhibits is one of the last existing parts of the Berlin wall — the place is haunting in its simplicity and impact… I expect I will write more later as I reflect on this history…the situation of the refugees I described above leaves me wondering how Germans reconcile their past with their present…