I recently had the pleasure of visiting Berlin for the first time. Prior to my arrival I had heard a lot about the city, and had many expectations. The real Berlin turned out to be very different from the one of my imagination, in more ways than one.
Berlin is a complex city. The first thing that struck me is how haunting it is, especially around the historical and touristic areas that I lingered around for too long. In retrospect it is not surprising; many terrible things happened there. But for a foreigner visiting for the first time, it can be overwhelming. Virtually every street corner has a memorial of some sort, commemorating (usually) one atrocity or another. And the memorials, to their designers’ credit, are done in a way that evokes a strong emotional response. They are not bland museums, but living reminders of the horrors that transpired there. One example is the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe, many of whom were exterminated during the Nazi reign.
It is a simple setting, accented with background music that gives it an extremely somber atmosphere. I couldn’t help but feel a tug on my conscience as I walked its perimeter. The place almost calls out: people died were massacred here.
Not far away is the frankly named Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is very different from the Roma memorial, but no less haunting. Its layout forms a grid of concrete monoliths of varying heights. Because of their enormous size, and the frequency with which one’s vision is obstructed by the monoliths, walking the grid creates a peekaboo sensation, especially when other people are present. It feels like one is walking among ghosts. Now you see them, now you don’t.
One bizarre side effect of having such grave yet open memorials is the lack of clear etiquette for visitation. During my visit to the Murdered Jews memorial, young kids were using it as a playground, which felt very disrespectful. Worse, in a nearby museum called The Topology of Terror (see a pattern here?), which pictorially chronicles the rise of Hitler and Nazism, a tourist (cluelessly) posed for a picture in front of a photo of Hitler while giving him the Nazi salute. (I say cluelessly because the tourist’s overall behavior suggested she had no clue who was in the picture or what her gesture meant.)
Berlin is not a light city to visit, not if one engages with its history. I suspect that most Berliners just block out the history, as I think it would get overwhelming after a while. But it is commendable how vigorously the city grapples with its past.
The second striking aspect of the city is its modernity. I naively expected to see a typical European capital. Instead, Berlin feels more like an American city, except with better modern architecture and edgier political art. These are typical examples.
In retrospect this is unsurprising, given how much of it was bombed during WWII. And while it has been some twenty odd years since the fall of the Berlin wall, the city remains very much a work in progress. It is a living and thriving metropolis, one that also appears to be in the midst of an economic and construction boom. Cranes litter the landscape, many major streets are dug up, and the area around Museum Island seemed like a massive construction site.
Whenever I find myself in a new city for the first time, I try to listen to the message that it is sending. Berlin’s outward youth seemed to boldly command that I look forward to the future. Not so much forget about the past, but simply to direct my gaze onward. This may seem to be in contradiction to what I said earlier about the (over?) prevalence of paeans to the past, but somehow it was not. I think that contemporary Berlin is so obviously different from its troubled history that one has little difficulty distinguishing between the two. In many ways, Berlin appears to be positioning itself as the future of Europe, as the place that the rest of the continent ought to follow. Signs like this one make this explicit.
Two museums merit specific mention. The first is the famous Pergamon Museum, which houses a ridiculously well-preserved altar of the city of Pergamon (originally in modern day Turkey). The sheer enormity of the site is impressive.
Not to be outdone, the Babylonians stake their claim to grandeur with the Ishtar Gate, which is in a room adjacent to the Pergamon Altar. A significant fraction of it is apparently a reconstruction, but the effect is very impressive nonetheless.
The second museum worth pointing out is The Story of Berlin, a self-guided tour through Berlin’s remarkable history stretching back from antiquity all the way to modern times, and which comes complete with a guided tour of a cold war era nuclear bunker.
It takes several hours to do it justice, but it provided me with a sense of closure and a great deal of context about Berlin’s place in the world. On the whole this is a remarkable city, one whose place in the 20th century is rivaled by few other cities. Just don’t expect to go in snapping happy pictures. Berlin is, like much of the history in which it played so central a role, a decidedly complex place.