Awesome Berlin: at times great, bad or sad. Now poor, but sexy!

I went to Berlin thinking I knew more about the city than I really did.


Of course, I found the normal daily life, with typical German people going to work in the morning. Germans are an orderly bunch who like to do the right thing. For example, the cheapest way to travel in Berlin is by public transportation, without buying a ticket. A day ticket costs 6.7 Euro, and they are almost never checked. The few times a year you would get caught would only result in a 40 Euro fine. Yet, studies indicate that only 6% of Berliners travel without a ticket. I can’t help but think that in most of Latin Europe, the ratio would be reversed!


I also found a lot of history. The old Brandenburg Gate was commissioned by Prussian King Frederick William II as a symbol of peace. Now probably the most famous building in Germany, it was an important place in all the conflicts of the 20th century, and essentially landed in a no man’s land between 1961 and 1989. The flag to the right, for some reason unknown to me, is that of my native province of Quebec!


There is a lot of World War II history in Berlin, most of which commemorates oppression and war crimes. This enormous monument composed of 2,711 stones of varying height is often erroneously referred to as the Holocaust Memorial. It is in fact the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Other victims of the Holocaust are remembered elsewhere. Walking though the memorial, one rapidly finds the crowds disappearing and the city sounds being eerily attenuated. There is no official interpretation, meaning, or explanation of any kind. A place to experience.


“Non-commemorative history” is a touchy subject in Germany. If you dug a deep hole in this unremarkable park, you would eventually fall into Hitler’s bunker. While not maintained and without an entrance, the place is probably structurally sound and turning it into a museum could be of interest to many. But the issue is to whom? Avoiding neo-nazi tourism remains a big concern, in Berlin as well as in other places, such as the Kehlsteinhaus (AKA the Eagle’s Nest) or Branau am Inn, the small Austrian town where Hitler was born.


And the old and recent history often meets, such as here in front of Humboldt University, where educational reformers and progressive Prussian Kings created a world class liberal institution in the late 19th century. It is also where the Nazis burned 20,000 books in 1933. Today a underground display of empty bookshelves marks the location, along with the inscription: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people”. Dozens of Humboldt University graduates became Nobel laureates, but all in the the early 20th century. After 1933, the institution was under strong control from totalitarian governments, until 1989. But now, it has become again a very prestigious university.


The explanation for the wall is rather simple: brain drain. In 1950, the Soviet Union established the Iron Curtain, to prevent people from escaping its empire. But Berlin constituted a loophole, at least for anyone in East Germany. It was possible to move freely between East and West Berlin, as this was not considered to be an international border. Ethnic Germans from anywhere in East Germany could thus go to the Western part of the city, visit the West German Embassy, and fly out of Berlin with their brand new German passport. About 2.7 millions did so before 1961.

Many people also moved the other way, in the hundreds of thousands. The problem was not only the uneven numbers, but the quality of the immigrants. Despite having the same horrible and ineffective economic system as the Soviet Union, catastrophic wartime destruction of the infrastructure and deliberate plans to limit heavy industry, somehow the German magic economic touch prevailed and East Germany rapidly became the richest communist country in the world. Everyone had a job, a place to stay, free education, medical care and pensions. But no political freedom. So, unemployed or ill-employed people in search of a guaranteed job, as well as some genuine ideological socialists, moved from West to East by the hundreds of thousands. In the other direction: intellectuals, lawyers and artists moved in search of political freedom, as well as engineers, scientists, professionals and highly skilled technicians in search of higher salaries, moved by the millions. This was absolutely not sustainable for East Germany.


The famous American “Checkpoint Charlie” was destroyed after the German reunification, but Berliners soon found thousands of tourists wanting to visit it. So they rebuilt a smaller version, complete with fake GIs you can take a picture with. Probably the most crass, touristic place in Berlin.


And the city also bears memory to more recent important historical events, such the “Michael Jackson balcony baby dangling incident”!


But Berlin is also a city of art. This kind, the Concert House.


And that kind, the Haus Schwarzenberg. This is also not unrelated to the city’s difficult political history. Few people wanted to move to East Germany during the Cold War, but few people also wanted to move to West Berlin, surrounded by East Germany. To alleviate this problem, the West German government gave grants to artists if they moved there and if you lived in West Berlin, you were exempt from military service. Along with other tax exemptions, this attracted all sorts of bohemians, hippies and other members of the “creative class”.


Since the old days, the bohemian neighbourhoods have moved, and this has significantly accelerated since reunification, when the action moved to the former East Berlin. The area in the picture is known as RAW, the acronym for an old railway industrial facility. Artist studios, cafes, bars and nigh clubs now fill the place. According to one of the owners, half will be redeveloped in a few years. This gentrification upsets the former users and on the roof of the building, you can read: “Germany dies, Köpi lives!” Köpi is a residential complex which has been occupied by squatters for decades.


Another squatter park, where an arts centre was supposed to be built. When certain residents found out big companies were behind the project, they protested. Big companies thought: well, if you don’t want our money, fine! And the project was abandoned, but the site remains occupied.


Political graffiti at RAW.


An unusual form of street art, “Yarn Bombing”, a.k.a. “Guerrilla Knitting”! Berlin is both rebellious and casual. I don’t think I saw anyone wearing a suit. A walking tour guide told the girls in the group that they didn’t have to wear make-up or high heels to get into Berlin’s world famous night clubs. But he also told the guys high heels and make-up would certainly help them get in!


Another unusual factor about Berlin is the fact that these retro photo booth machines are everywhere and actually get used. For only 2 Euros, you can take some silly shots after a night of overindulging. In part, they can exist at such a low price because renting the small space they occupy is very inexpensive. In fact, rents in Berlin are generally comparatively low, although they are increasing fast. This is due to the fact that during the Cold War, businesses were no more interested in living within the Iron Curtain as individuals were. Even a quarter of a century later, the effects of this remain, as few businesses have headquarters or offices in Berlin, compared to the economic powerhouses of Frankfurt, Hamburg or Cologne.

But this takes nothing away from the great city. As Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit said: “We are poor, but we are sexy”!


And my Berliner friend Zina certainly agreed with the statement, being even more enthusiastic about Berlin than I was. She had just moved back the very week I visited, after spending a year in China, where I met her in Beijing, on my way to North Korea.


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