Saturday, August 6, 2016

Berlin | Germany Part 1

In June, I flew out to Berlin to visit my sibling, who had been studying abroad for the spring quarter. Over about two weeks, I took a counter-clockwise turn around the country, made a quick stop in Austria, and looped back over to Heidelberg and flew out of Frankfurt. I don't know if it was the company or the place, but the Berlin leg of my trip was the best time I have ever had traveling.

In a multitude of ways, Berlin is a complex, deeply moving city, and set the tone for how I wanted to interact with and learn the history of each place I visited. I entered with a piecemeal understanding of German history and an exceedingly America-centric worldview. I left with a slightly more developed version of both, and a better understanding of the context of the events and people that occurred there.

It seems that Berlin embodies the complexity and forward movement of modern Europe. It is one keystone city of the European Union, and a crucial place in the past, present, and future of Germany and the continent. Because my sibling EAL lived with a retired history professor this past spring, most of what I learned of Berlin, and most of what I focused on during the rest of my trip, was history, and the socio-political contexts of great events. There must be many other blog posts about modern Germany, about food and art and culture and etc...but this is not one of them.

I hope you take away from this series a desire to visit Germany. I know I will return in the future.

Dahlem-Dorf U-bahn station

EAL met me at the smaller Schönefeld International Airport and we went almost directly to their homestay, a historical house in Dahlem, a neighborhood in the Steglitz-Zehlendorf borough in southwestern Berlin. It was in the American sector of post-war Berlin and is home to the Free University of Berlin, linden trees as far as the eye can see, and the cutest little U-bahn station ever. That U-bahn station was deliberately constructed to look like a traditional northern German farm house and fit the aesthetic of the neighborhood. Also, that strawberry-shaped shack (Erdbeerhof) sells strawberries -- they are fairly common.

Because Dahlem-Dorf was not strategically important, it was spared from much of the bombing and other damage during WWII. Then, before, and today, it is one of the more affluent and quiet places in Berlin. Again, because I am an armchair history buff, I mean to use these entries to compile all that I have learned about the places I visited. I never took AP European History, had a very America-centric education, and relied on EAL a great deal (host dad and a "field trip" class they took).

Views from Schloss Charlottenburg 

From Dahlem-Dorf, we took the U-bahn over to Charlottenburg Palace in the Charlottenburg neighborhood. A note: in Berlin, we spent a lot of time on the U-bahn and S-bahn, which are much better than anything we have in California.

I admit that I was kind of exhausted from my flight and spent most of my energy chatting with EAL and catching up. Thus, the only info I really retained from Schloss Charlottenburg was that it was a palace built in the 1700s for Prussian royalty. It's a sprawling, beautifully wooded palace with lovely gardens and grounds that were free to walk around in. On a sunny day, it would be a great escape.

Here is a good example of the orderly geometric gardens popular in the 18th century onwards. Man subjugates nature, it says. The dense woods in the rest of the palace may suggest otherwise, and now, commoners roam free around them.

Left: Berlin Victory Column
Right: Memorial to the Murdered Members of the Reichstag

After dinner at a Chinese restaurant, we headed towards the Tiergarten in the city center (Mitte). Back in the day, the Tiergarten was the private hunting grounds of Prussian royals (electors of Brandenburg, technically) and began its conversion to a public park in the 18th century. This process was begun in 1740 by King Friedrich II of Prussia (Frederick II, aka Alte Fritz, aka Old Fritz), one of the most prominent figures in German history. He and Otto von Bismarck are basically the only Prussians I remembered from high school history class.

The Tiergarten was the center of Berlin in the Third Reich and was severely damaged during WWII and the aftermath. Germany and Berlin itself were divided into British, French, American, and Soviet sectors after the war. Because Berlin fell deeply in the Soviet sector and roads/rail from West Berlin to West Germany (FRG/BRD v. East Germany, GDR/DDR) and were cut off from supplies, West Berliners relied heavily on airlifts to survive. Coal shortages were supplemented by chopping down trees from the Tiergarten -- today's garden, as later pictures will show, is nicely wooded.

We came upon the Berlin Victory Column inaugurated in 1873 to celebrate the Prussian victories in the wars of German unification against Denmark, Austria-Hungary, and France. Though it originally stood in Königsplatz, Hitler ordered it moved to its current location at the center of a huge street circle. The monument is surrounded by a bronze relief commemorating the aforementioned wars, and bears bullet damage from the war.

Because this was Germany during the European Championships, there was a huge fair at one end of the Tiergarten with throngs of people watching the Germany v. Ukraine game projected onto the Brandenburg Gate. We ended up walking near the Reichstag, where the memorial on the right is located. From the plaque and eavesdropping on a Spanish walking tour, the 96 cast iron plates memorialized the members of parliament that died unnaturally between 1933 and 1945 at the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Brandenburger Tor at night

A very German sight: soccer and an accompanying party on and around this famous city landmark. Brandenburger Tor was part of ye olde city wall during Berlin's days as the capital of Prussia, was badly damaged in WWII, and was restored afterwards. It was just inside of East Berlin, and the site of Reagan's famous 1987 speech in front of the soon-to-be torn down Berlin Wall.

Garden at Freie Universität Berlin in Dahlem

These first posts aren't really in chronological order. These photos of Dahlem were taken before our day trip to Wannsee and Potsdam, which I'll describe in the next entry. Still, very pretty, especially in light rain.

Waiting for the bus

There are a ton of linden trees in Berlin. We spent some time walking on the street called Unter der Linden in Mitte; despite the lack of photos, I assure you there were plenty of linden trees.

Brandenburger Tor in the day = very crowded

The fences and screen from the soccer extravaganza were still there when I returned to Mitte. EAL had some things to do in Dahlem so I had some time to explore on my own before our tour was to start.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memory of the atrocities of the Third Reich is deep and powerful in Germany; through monuments and museums and school, Germans are confronted with the tragedy and violence of their history. Remembrance feeds education, and this memorial, one of many in Mitte, is a monument of mourning and responsibility. There are countless ways a visitor can personally process these kinds of places. The concrete stelae at the edge of the monument begin low and grow towards the middle. The floor rises and falls and the whole place feels like a confusing dreamscape. It's disorienting and confusing, and people come and go.

I think it's important to visit Holocaust memorials while in Germany. What I think is lost a bit in American education of the Holocaust is how and why it happened, how and why animosity against Jews and other persecuted grew and became a great travesty against human rights. There's a great deal to talk about in later posts, but the rhetoric used back in the rise of the Third Reich is not so different from the rhetoric used against specific ethnic groups and religions by a whole parade of prominent right-wing "populist" politicians.

Anyhow, the information center was not to open for awhile, and I had more things I wanted to see. I headed out for the Tierpark.

Left: Goethe Monument in the Berlin Tierpark
Right: Lions in the Tierpark

The Tierpark in the day under light rain was a very relaxing place, but confusing because some of the fencing was still up and because I did not have a map. I ran into some monuments and statues, including the one above of Goethe, a particular favorite, and more memorial sites to groups murdered and persecuted by the Nazis.

Left: a memorial to the victims of the Pulse Orlando shooting by the Brandenburger Tor
Center: Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism
Right: stone sculptures in the Tierpark

This was the morning after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, hence the roadside memorial and the flowers by the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism. I suppose that day was the first of a very difficult month of violence against civilians both at home and abroad. It's hard to articulate my feelings about these tragedies; at the time, I was thinking a great deal about Donald Trump's hateful bigotry and how it connected to what I saw and learned thus far in Germany. It's been a long summer.

Reichstag building; "Dem Deutsche Volke," To the German people

Following that, EAL and I met up at the Reichstag building. We had booked spots in the English lecture in the plenary chamber, followed by a visit up the glass dome. The lecture described the history of the building, its construction, and how German federal government work today.

The building opened in 1894 and housed the parliament of the German Empire until 1918, when the Weimar Republic was proclaimed from its very balcony. It served the parliament until 1933 when a fire of uncertain origin severely damaged the interior. The Reichstag fire served as pretext for the Nazi party to take control of parliament and expel communists and others from the government. During the Third Reich, the Reichstag building was not used for parliament, but remained a frequent target of air raids, and the very symbol of Nazi Germany for the Red Army.

Two photos of the plenary chamber of the Reichstag building. Angela Merkel sits in the front row of the section with the German flag, behind and right of the podium.

The war in the European theater needed to end with Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies. Following the invasion of Normandy and liberation of France, the Third Reich's prospects of any other option were exceedingly unlikely. Along with great rifts in the command of the Nazi Party, the assassination attempt on Hitler, mass surrenders of German military to American and British forces on the western front, the Red Army was surging from the east, intent on taking Berlin. The savagery of the Red Army on German civilians mirrored the treatment of Soviet civilians by German military; at that time, the Allied Forces were already seeing the impending tensions between east and west over who would dominate the post-war world order. But this is about the Reichstag building.

As a supposed symbol of fascism and evil, the Red Army focused much of its effort during the Battle in Berlin towards capturing the Reichstag building. Among the German forces were the Volkssturm militia, which consisted of poorly armed and trained boys, old men, and women. At this point, an Allied victory, and a Soviet victory in Berlin, was inevitable.

In spite of the bombings and bullet marks, the exterior of the Reichstag building remains magnificent and impressive. Soviet graffiti is preserved inside, but all ornaments and embellishments hearkening back to the Third Reich's mythological Germany were removed post-war. Only after the reunification of Germany in 1990, and the reestablishment of Berlin as its capital, was the Reichstag used again for the Bundestag. In 1999, the renovated Reichstag building was unveiled, with its completely new interior and high-tech dome, and is a symbol of a unified, future-facing Germany.

Inside and outside the Reichstag dome

The lecture explained the parliament, the Bundestag, in great detail. I won't describe it here because that would be pretty dry, but it impressed/surprised this American with how flexible representation and leadership was.

More to my interest was the dome. The glass lets in abundant natural light even on gloomy days; a large sun shield circles around the dome to dim that light, while a mirrored cone reflects it down into the plenary chamber. Vents allow a constant flux of air without letting in the weather, and serves as AC in the heat. All this together helps make the Reichstag building energy efficient and sustainable.

Two staircases wind up the glass dome up to a viewing platform at the top. The 360 deg views of Berlin from all places in that dome are spectacular, and the audio guide is available in many languages.

Admission into the dome and the lecture are free, but requires prior registration. Out of all the places we visited in Germany, I'd say the Reichstag building was one of the most important and informative.

Left: a store all about the Ampelmann
Right: Ampelmännchen showing stop and walk

For something a bit more light-hearted: the Ampelmann is an icon of East Berlin, a little dude wearing a hat who directs pedestrians to cross roads safely and lawfully. Jaywalking basically does not exist in Germany. There are shops selling Ampelmann-branded souvenirs, for some reason.

Chocolate versions of the Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag building

We got caught in the rain, and EAL wanted to enjoy the Fassbender & Rausch cafe before leaving Berlin. The Rausch Schokoladenhaus shop, cafe, and restaurant was a sight to behold. I've had better drinking chocolate in California, but the chocolate models of these landmarks were pretty cool.

Konzerthaus Berlin

After we finished our chocolates and waited out the rain, we walked about Gendarmenmarkt and admired the impressive buildings in the square.

Left: the French Cathedral
Right: the Berlin Cathedral

Just across the square from Humboldt University is a small, easily-missed memorial to the Nazi book burnings. We spent the rest of the day at the various museums on Museum Island, which I suspect I'll dedicate an entire post on in the future.

Berlin Cathedral
Looking out over Ostbanhof

After all our exploration of West Berlin, we headed east. There is a very stark difference in architecture and general atmosphere, and I've certainly heard it said that the east is still catching up and developing. Think downtown San Francisco v. some parts of Oakland and you'll get the feeling of that transition.

Around Ostbanhof

East Side Gallery

Not a whole lot seen of East Berlin, but this public art was very cool.

The Berlin Wall

Great examples of Soviet-era architecture around Ostbanhof and Alexanderplatz, which I don't have any photos of. By that time, I was exhausted and took a nap on basically every train we boarded.

Deportation Memorial

For my final burst of energy that evening, EAL took me to the Grunewald forest in the southwestern portion of Berlin. The first stop was the Gleis 17 memorial near the Grunewald S-Bahn from which Jewish Berliners were deported off towards ghettos and concentration camps. All it consists of is a stretch of track and grating with the names and dates of deportations, and yet, consider the meaning of this place. This was operated by Deutsche Reichsbahn, the state railway and predecessor of Deutsche Bahn, and was a huge agent of state-sponsored terror against civilians. I don't know what else I can really say about it.

Grunewald forest

We then turned towards the forest and its trails; though fairly flat and friendly-looking, signs warned of wild boars. Our goal was to reach Teufelsberg, the "Devil's mountain," crowned by an abandoned and run down Cold War NSA listening station. EAL told me it sat on a mountain of rubble and was kind of spooky and cool to visit and just like that, I forgot my fatigue and wanted to see it immediately. This never ended up happening because though we glimpsed it, we quickly lost sight of it the deeper we went into the woods. Also, though the sky is light in these photos, it was approaching 9:30 PM, and the sun sets quickly over there.

The middle photo shows a Kleingarten club, where locals can rent space to tend a garden and keep a hut/shed/house. There are many of these in Germany, and this one seemed to have had an issue with the boars lately.


Too late to visit Teufelsberg. It does look ominous here.

All things Ritter Sport in Berlin Hauptbanhof

So concludes my report on the city of Berlin. Chronologically, we went to Hamburg next, where EAL is working this summer, but my next post will be on our day trip to nearby Wannsee and Potsdam. Here is the Hauptbanhof, the behemoth central station that completely floored me with its scale and its organization. During my travels with EAL, we carried about Ritter Sport, a beloved German chocolate in many flavors and colored wrapping. It is a very German chocolate, with its slogan: Quadratische. Praktisch. Gut.

Square. Practical. Good. It's the chocolate I bought during every finals week in college, tough to find in the USA, and bountiful and cheap in Deustchland. Lots of Ritter Sport advertisements in Germany, of course. It's a national treasure.

Left: a Berlin bear in the Hauptbanhof
Right: currywurst

Other treasures of Berlin: lots of painted bear statues, and currywurst. It's pretty good as far as junk food goes, and I unfortunately did not get to eat a Berliner until my last day in Germany (in Frankfurt, no less).

Auf wiedersehen!


  1. Looks like you covered a lot of Berlin! Grunewald forest I didn't go to on my one visit there, it does sound interesting though. I really enjoyed Charlottenburg Palace (especially the interior) and the Reichstag building (though we went at night).

    1. I went and read your Germany posts from 2014 -- Germany in the winter looks so beautiful!

      I really wish we could have gone up Teufelsberg and/or seen more of East Berlin, but we were going nonstop every day we were there. I saw a few more palaces on the trip, but I was basically catatonic when we visited Schloss Charlottenburg and wouldn't have wanted to pay to go inside.

      And, of course, the Reichstag building was a highlight of the trip. The lecturer was not subtle about his disdain for the American presidential campaign clusterfuck.

  2. Being in Germany during the Euros! My dream. Did you stay in Heidelberg? It's a really pretty place! Of course I'm quite biased since I visit it often (my boyfriend lives nearby) but they've really got some beautiful castles and forts.

    1. I did visit Heidelberg and it was one of my favorite places on my trip! We only had time to see Schloss Heidelberg, but enjoyed hiking around Koenigstuhl, Philosophenweg, and the university. There was another fort we saw (can't recall the name), but there certainly was not enough time to see everything!

  3. I'm here in Berlin right now, so I was really happy to read this post! My dad is here for a conference so the whole family decided to make a trip of it. The area we're staying is mostly department stores though, so we haven't seen very much of Berlin at all. I admit that I haven't done very much research before arriving! -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey's

    1. So exciting! If you have your student ID on you, there are discounted tickets on Museum Insel (I particularly liked the Neues Museum and the Pergamon Museum).

      I'm working on my post for Potsdam and Wannsee. They're easily accessible by train, and Sanssouci can fill all your beautiful architecture needs (and I'm sure the interiors look beautiful as well).