Berlin isn’t a very pretty city. Most of its buildings are of the glass-and-metal post-war style, put up quickly to replace ones that were destroyed in the war. Its center consists mostly of big, charmless monuments, museums, and government and office buildings. But it makes up for its lack of beauty with an abundance of history, resulting from its status as the capital of the Third Reich and as a red-hot collision point between the two sides of the Cold War.
On the first of my six full days in Berlin, I visited the Holocaust Memorial, an acre or so of cement blocks, some towering over your head, some no higher than your knee. It reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., in that it seemed to express something about the event in an impressionistic way. Underneath, there’s a free museum telling the story of a half-dozen people who perished in the Holocaust.
I hate to say it, but a large chunk, maybe most, of my sightseeing in Berlin was Holocaust-related. It’s simply the most fascinating thing about Germany’s history for me. It’s good that Germany has taken responsibility for the atrocities it committed against the Jewish people and supports tourists’ curiosity about it. In addition to the Holocaust Memorial, they’ve built a large, modern Jewish Museum, which tells the history of the Jewish people in Germany going all the way back to the diaspora. Parts of the museum are impressionistic in the same way the Holocaust Memorial is. One room has thousands of anguished-looking metal faces on the floor which make jarring sounds when you walk over them, representing victims of violence around the world.
The main impression I got from the museum is how sad it is that the relationship between the Germans and the German-Jews, which showed hope of improving in the 19th and early 20th centuries, came to such a horrible end, and nothing can be done to fix it because the German-Jews don’t really exist anymore.
Later in the week I took a train to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the suburbs. Really in the suburbs – the camp borders the backyards of suburban houses. Whether the houses were there during the time of Nazi rule, I don’t know. Like the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sachsenhausen seems to be heavily subsidized by the German government, making admission free.
Sachsenhausen was one of the first concentration camps, built in 1936. It originally housed political prisoners, but in the last years of the war it mostly held Jews and Soviet prisoners of war. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get from being inside a place designed to destroy the human spirit. Even while there, it’s hard to conceive that 30,000 people were murdered at the site, and many more lives were ruined.
A Jewish man staying at my hostel in Athens believed that Germans are sneaky, malicious people by nature, but the ones I’ve spent time with have been nice. It’s hard to believe that what is today a benevolent, reasonable society could have committed such acts within the lifetimes of people still living. I’ve tried to get inside the minds of the perpetrators of the crimes and justify the way they acted by their age (the average age of guards at Sachsenhausen was 20), by their getting brainwashed by propaganda and fear, but I can’t do it. They must have been really messed up people. I suppose that the majority of Germans living under the Nazis, even the majority of Nazi soldiers, knew that horrible things were being done to the Jews, and wouldn’t have done those things themselves, but didn’t protest out of fear of what would happen to them or their family. The people who committed the crimes were sociopaths, who exist in every society, but usually don’t reach positions of power.
Berlin suffered for its crimes by being split in two soon after the war. Berliners are still sensitive about this; I was reprimanded by the owner of my hostel for saying that something was in East Berlin. You can tell when you cross into former East Berlin because the post-war buildings look even shabbier.
I went to two excellent museums that covered the Cold War era in Germany – the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, and the DDR Museum. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum tells the story of the construction of the Berlin Wall (or the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”, as the East German government called it), and the thousands of attempts by East Germans to cross it before it was torn down in 1989. Some of the attempts were wonderfully successful, using air balloons and clever hiding places in cars and suitcases, etc. Some were not, such as in the case of 18-year-old Peter Fechter, who was shot in his attempt to cross and took fifty minutes to bleed to death while East German and West German guards, police officers, and American soldiers refused to step into the no-man’s-land to help him.
The DDR Museum offers insight into the daily life of citizens of the German Democratic Republic, which you don’t hear much about when you learn about the Cold War in high school. There were displays covering clothing styles (surpringly similar to those of the capitalist world at the same time, although using cheaper fabrics), vacations (nude beaches were popular), and music (radio stations were required to play mostly music from Communist countries, but Western rock was still supreme). The museum displayed a Trabant, East Germany’s poorly running response to the Volkswagen Beetle.
I also visited Berlin’s famous Pergamon Museum, home of the Ishtar Gate, the Miletus Market Gate, and the wonderful Pergamon Altar, with a wrap-around sculpture depicting a battle between the Greek Gods and giants. When the museum was built in the 1910s-20s, these ancient monuments were reconstructed on site from shattered ruins and some fabricated parts – something no museum would do today. However harmful the reconstructions were to the purity of the ruins, they let you see how magnificent the buildings originally were.
I had a great experience at my hostel, John’s Cozy Little Backpacker Hostel. The hostel was like its name: a little weird and cluttered, but intimate and with a lot of character. It was on the outskirts of Berlin in a Turkish immigrant neighborhood, which meant there were lots of internet cafes and doner kebap restaurants around. The bathroom was dirty, and I could hear more of what was happening in there from my bed than I would have liked, but it had a great kitchen, which trumps all other considerations. It was also cheap, costing only eleven euros a night. Berlin is strangely cheap; I assumed Germany would be one of the most expensive countries in Europe, since it’s one of the most developed.
Berlin’s signature dish, Currywurst, costs less than two euros. It’s a sliced bratwurst covered in a spicy sauce that may or may not be related to curry, usually served with fries on top.
I formed a good group of friends with the other people in my room: a German couple, a Spanish teenager, an English guy from Manchester, and a Malaysian guy who just graduated from a college in Florida. About halfway through the week, we started going to breakfast together every day. One night we went to a club, but, as usual, the time spent getting there (two train transfers) and the price (five euros just to get in) wasn’t worth it for me.