Immersing Myself in Berlin’s Living History

All you need to know about my visit to Berlin is that after 6 days, I deliberately missed my flight and booked another one for the following week. When I told a friend from home about my change of plans he said “well that’s an ‘I’ve fallen in love’ statement if ever there was one”. He was right. I freaking adore this city.

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Panorama at Gendarmenmarkt. Despite my description of the city below, there was some beautiful architecture to be found

For the first couple of days though I couldn’t figure the place out. I’ve been to numerous European capitals and they all kind of have the same thing in common. They tend to be quite grand and opulent with beautiful well-kept buildings and streets. The famous sights are clustered together in the old centre of the city. Streets are narrow and winding but it makes the place highly walkable and great to explore. There’s also usually evidence of hundreds if not thousands of years of history. But here I was in the capital city of the economic superpower that is modern day Germany and the best word to describe it was ugly. Grim. Grey. Concrete buildings from the 1960s. Construction sites and overgrown abandoned warehouses. And also pretty filthy. Broken glass, rubbish and grafitti everywhere. Even the water in the River Spree looked rank. To me it was definitely more reminiscent of somewhere like Bucharest rather than London or Madrid. Inexplicably though, there was something about it that drew me in. A youthful energy and hedonistic yet lazy way of life (which totally appeals to me right now). A closer look at the city revealed how the events of the past 80 years were so prominently displayed and revered that it seemed like Germany is afraid to forget them. And as I’m a huge history geek this made me very happy indeed! 😄

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The Reichstag - seat of the German parliament. To me it seemed quite intimidating! But of course only good things happen here now =)

The explanation for Berlin’s appearance is of course during WWII the Allies bombed the city flat. Then Germany was split in two, East and West, and Berlin into four… because Soviet Russia feared corruption of their communist values by the capitalist West, a wall was built to separate the two which divided the city for almost 30 years. What I can’t get over us how recently all of this happened; the wall came down in 1989 which is during my brothers’ lifetimes! Isn’t history supposed to have happened a long time ago? What exists today is an extremely intriguing mix of east meets west, former Soviet oppression leading to over-enthusiastic free expression from hipsters… it was so much fun getting under the skin of this city. The best way of understanding the place is, in my opinion, by visiting the museums. So this first post is about that.

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Photo of Churchill, President Truman and Stalin at the Potsdam Conference after WWII, where it was agreed to split Berlin into 4 sectors. I just thought it was weird to see these famous leaders all in one place!

Naturally one of the most important places I had to visit was Checkpoint Charlie. If you don’t know what that is, I’m kind of embarrassed, cus that means you don’t get why I named my blog that either. Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous border crossing between East (Soviet controlled) and West Berlin (the American sector). The location would witness key events in the Cold War and the splitting of and reunification of Berlin. There’s not a lot to see now as it was understandably destroyed when the wall came down, but a little cabin has been reconstructed, and next to it is the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, where I spent three very happy hours one evening. It has loads of exhibits on divided Berlin, and ways in which people smuggled themselves across the wall; tunnels, hollowed out surfboards, fake passports – as well as first person accounts of how the split affected their lives. It told of families who were separated for decades and the figures who in small ways tried to help them. It was an excellent museum and if you’re ever in Berlin you have to go!

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The reconstructed Checkpoint Charlie

Another good museum I checked out was the Topography of Terror, a cold and imposing block of concrete built on the former site of the Gestapo headquarters. It contained exhibitions detailing the Nazi regime’s rise to power and their increasing oppression and persecution of the German people. Obviously not the most cheerful of topics but definitely something that needs to be remembered! Outside there was a special exhibition on the invasion of Poland and the destruction of Warsaw. Again I find it incomprehensible that this happened just 70 years ago.

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The outdoor section at the Topography of Terror, with the Berlin wall crumbling above it

I’ve always wondered how it must feel for German people today to dwell upon the events that occurred. I think its incredible and admirable that they’ve built their capital city to be one huge monument to what happened. You can’t escape the history here. And that’s probably the thing I liked about it the most!

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The famed street art depicting the fraternal kiss between Brezhnev and Honecker. It followed the signing of an agreement between East Germany and the Soviet Union to trade military machinery and nuclear equipment.

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