Berlin A History of Contrast and Change

Even to a casual visitor, a day’s walk makes it abundantly clear that Berlin is a city in constant transition. As art historian Karl Scheffler commented in 1910, “Berlin is a city forever condemned to becoming and never to being.” Rakshit Tirumala investigates

It is the equivalent of a frequent mover – more comfortable living out of a suitcase and never putting down roots strong enough to be defined. This perpetual state of transition has left indelible footprints that narrate the story of Berlin a history of contrast and change. Just as much is narrated by voids left where footprints should have been.

It is hard to visit Berlin without some preconceived notions on what one would like to see. It was the seat of the greatest war and the vilest acts of inhumanity in recent history. Post that, it had the unique status of being occupied by two very opposing world factions that tore the city in two. Visitors often like to see signs of these and Berlin does not shy away from showing them. The story of Berlin is a study in contrasts. The city is a mélange where contrasting ideas of old and new, rich and poor, capitalism and communism, conservative and liberal, and strength and meekness, are all personified in one place.

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The baroque excesses of the Prussian Empire are visible in the rich extravagance of the Charlottenburg Palace and the gigantic Berlin Cathedral. And once the Nazis took over Germany, Hitler’s idea of setting up an unrivalled thousand year empire is noticeable in the wide expansive streets and the goliath building that used to house the then Ministry of Aviation. Following the fall of the Third Reich however, Berlin, along with the rest of Germany, set out to make amends for its mistakes.

The displays of strength and extravagance were abandoned in favour of more minimalist constructions and symbols of apologies and global acceptance. Intending to symbolize transparency in government functioning, the misplaced looking modern glass dome topping the Reichstag is in stark contrast to the imposing and archaic stone structure of the building. The simple Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe allows visitors to immerse themselves in reflective thoughts without resorting to ornate displays in a sense of false appeasement. And the biggest rejection of past tyranny is seen in the near complete absence of any indication to Hitler’s final moments in the Fuhrerbunker.

In much of Berlin, the story is told through what is missing where once things stood – a concept embodied by an art-piece of empty bookshelves that stand at the site of the infamous book burnings in front of the Humboldt University. And one of its most contrasting stories is told by the brick trail running through the ground in many sections of the city along the line of one of their greatest symbols of oppression – the Berlin Wall.

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Brandenburg Gate stood for nearly four decades as a symbolical divide between the Berlin occupied by the Western powers and that occupied by the communist regime of the Soviet Union. The way Berlin would regroup itself after the war differed drastically in these two halves. The Charlottenburg Palace situated in West Berlin had been damaged heavily by the Allied bombings but was reconstructed as a piece of history. On the other hand, the royal palace and Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, which fell in East Berlin, were demolished because the Soviet Union despised them as displays of extravagance. The Berlin Cathedral was saved from destruction only by money poured in from the West.

The contrasting style of development under the capitalism-dominated West Berlin and the communism-enforced area of East Berlin is visible in the constructions in the two halves. The difference is most apparent on some of the roads which had been dissected by the Berlin Wall. One side of the road is peppered with comfortable homes of varying designs; monochrome and uniform buildings dominate the other side. The demolition of the Wall brought a degree of unification to the two halves of Berlin. The areas of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, which stood on either side of the Wall, show signs of slow transition out of the divisive period and have been converted into active hubs of the young with a vibrant nightlife and countless cafes, pubs and restaurants. Alexanderplatz, which houses the famous Fernsehturmh, the TV tower, is a mix of the buildings from the socialist era and the modern malls and fashion stores that have moved in since unification. The area is now one of the most “happening spots” with many outdoor eating and drinking areas surrounded by constant festivities.

Since the 1990s, after the unification, Berlin has become a hub of alternative and bohemian lifestyle. With a huge influx of foreigners and Mohawk-sporting younger crowds, Berlin is today known for its techno music blaring nightlife and has an established hipster status. The culture of today’s Berlin is one that would have been unimaginable for sixty years, prior to the Wall coming down. The city is chock full of street and urban art and the best selection of these can be observed on the only remaining piece of the Berlin Wall. Ironically painted on the eastern face, these paintings symbolically represent Berlin’s overthrow of its oppressors and their ideologies. The open-air gallery prominently features surrealist postmodern art and political statements – many of which specifically target ideas that would be against the very principles of its communist and Nazi rulers.

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A walk from west to east along the wide road Straβe des 17 Juni takes one through the greenery of the Tiergarten park, under the Brandenburg Gate and onto the Unter den Linden which then leads to the Berlin Cathedral and beside it, the Lustgarten park. It is hard to imagine that this same road, where in the 1930s and 1940s the Nazi military frequently paraded in a show of strength, formed the route for the Berlin “Love Parade” in 1990s. Nothing could be more dissimilar than these two – the conservative discipline and harshness of the former countered by the liberal drunken escapades of the latter.

A stroll through the abandoned sites of the city will show you Nazi symbols overlapped with communist sickles and hammers. Whether you like fresh fruit juice or huge pints of beer, you’ll find both, often in the same place. Grab a currywurst off the street or sit in a fancy restaurant. Berlin has something for everyone.

Berlin is a city that shows its wounds. Many of the renovated buildings intentionally display sections of damage from the bullets and bombs, and contrast it with the polished stone of reconstruction. The city and the people have not forgotten its past.  In fact, Berlin takes any affronts on its chin, apologizes for its mistakes, embraces its past and moves on with its life. In 2001, Jack Lang, France’s erstwhile culture minister reaffirmed Scheffler’s sentiments from a century before with the phrase “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!” It is a sentiment that is timeless and one that will be uttered again a century from now.

Rakshit Tirumala is a travel journalist covering both Europe and Asia and has been been travelling throughout Europe for two years and writing about his experiences

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