In this journal:
- Hitler’s last stand;
- A communist’s Freudian slip changed history;
- statues with ding dongs bigger than their bodies.
Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!Ronald Reagan, June 12th 1987
The Bridge of Spies
After Netherlands, I flew directly to Copenhagen to reunite with my dear friend Anna in Malmo, Sweden, and celebrated New Year’s with her. She has been featured numerous times in my journal before, and we simply holed up in her house and binged TV shows as it rained cats and dogs outside. After a few days of weight gaining, I continued my jouney and began my 2020 with a flight to Berlin.
Welcome to the capital of the country which I have been to a dozen times, yet somehow still managed to have never visited before this trip. Berlin is the most interesting city in Germany without a doubt, then why haven’t I visited it when I have been to Cologne, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, Munich, Mainz, and many other places multiple times before?
Well, uh, I am not sure. I have friends and endeared people all around Germany, but somehow I managed to make exactly zero friend in Berlin during my early years of traveling. Additionally, the lack of great airports in a global city like Berlin did not help, either, since Bradenberg Airport has been a complete disaster. However, I have been working towards visiting the capital for a while now, so this year I finally found the opportunity to cover this glaring hole in my travels. As a result, are you ready to explore the most iconic German city? Be prepared for a ton of awesome photos, interesting history, and hidden secrets.
Yes? Great. Let’s dive into it!
The Most Glorious City of Them All
Berlin had a humble beginning. Unlike Cologne, the city did not have a Roman heritage, and it did not emerge as a human settlement until 12th century. However, thanks to its location at the crossroads of two important trade routes, Berlin quickly gained prominence, and rose to the status of Brandenburg capital in 300 years. By the time the Kingdom of Prussia became a thing in 1701, it was chosen to become the capital of the most powerful Germanic nation. In fact, the German Empire, Weimar Republic, and Third Reich, all chose Berlin as the capital, which means that this city is the only one to hold this title for any form of unified Germany. During the separation in Cold War, East Berlin was chosen as the capital of the communist East Germany, while the capital of West Germany was Bonn. Nowadays, everything has moved back here after the fall of Berlin Wall, and you can waltz right up to chancellor’s office if you want.
However, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I need to introduce you to all the important city landmarks that have condensced down the history of this place, up until the rise of Third Reich. The existence of Berlin sometimes is way too oversimplified by outsiders as the recent history holds a significant bias against the past, while Berlin has served as a hub for European continent long before a failed artist decided to pick up a moustache. While I may jump from one era to another in the following segment, just remember that Berlin had experienced consistent, rapid urban growth during the mid-Prussian Empire period, to the 1920s under Weimar Republic, all through the phase of the unified German Empire.
We begin with Bebelplatz, originally named the Plaza of the Opera. This is because it has the State Opera as the pink building to the left. The other notable buildings are the St. Ludwig’s Church with the green dome to the back, the first Catholic church founded in Prussia after reformation, and the Humboldt University to the right. However, this plaza is most famous for being the site of Nazi book burnings that took place in May 1933, as the student associations dragged hundreds of thousands of prohibited books into the square and lit them up, creating one of the first major sickly signs of the regime. It is now commemorated with an entire underground floor full of empty bookshelves, as a reminder of the sad week when sanity was turned into ashes along with knowledge.
And just down the famous Unter den Linden avenue, you will find the Schlossbrücke, a large bridge with elaborate statues of Athena and Nike, and it will bring you onto the heart and soul of the city, Museum Island. Here sits the most iconic church of the city, aptly named Barlin Cathedral. Originally built in 1895, this is a crucial sign of the short-lived but ever-so-nostalgic German Empire. In fact, people have such fond memories of it that they are still reminiscing about the glorious nation in the modern days, with the most modern way possible: memes.
Another important building serving during the empire times is the Reichstag. It was finished in 1894, and served as the location of the German Diet. No, this one does not involve unholy amount of frankfurters and sauerkraut, but the republican parliament at the time. It was the location of the assembly until the collapse of the empire in the fallout of WWI.
It is also the location of the monumental Reichstag Fire, a mysterious arson commited by unknown personnels in the building, which led to Nazis seizing power and arresting communists. It fell into disuse after the war, and was only renovated after the reunification in 1990. It now is back at its original position, serving as the place of the parliamentary meetings again, and one can pay a visit to the top of the building, which offers a killer view.
Moving further down the boulevard, I found myself in front of a gigantic Christmas Market. Even though Christmas was behind me at this point in time, but the market would still go strong until January 9th. This market is situated in the most central open area in the city, on a large park right in front of all the historically important buildings. For example, the church on the left side is the St. Marienkirche, probably the oldest church in Berlin, which dates from early 13th century. It was originally a Roman Catholic church, and then changed into Lutheran, and eventually became Protestant after the reformation. The market not only features the biggest temporary ferris wheel I have ever seen, but also a big ice-skating ring, full of frolicking children stumbling across the smooth surfaces. The joy of seeing such heartwarming scenes on this cold January night made the solitude much more bearable.
And how can I forget the most prominent city landmark while at it? Berliner Fernsehturm was supposedly a deomonstration of the communist power when it was finished in 1969, with its 368 meters of dominating stance still being the tallest structure in Germany today. It garnered trememdous status while under the Bloc control, and continued to rise in fame after reunification. Now, any representation of Berlin cannot possibly miss this hybrid of radio, TV, restaurant, and viewing platform. Just a few blocks from the tower, one can find the aptly-named Rotes Rathaus, the glowing red Berlin City Hall, whose name literally means Red City House. It was built in mid 1800s, taking after a high Renaissance style, and was completely destroyed in WWII. The reconstruction conducted after the war was meticulous and thorough, and the faithful replica continued serving as the city hall first for East Berlin, and later for the reunified Berlin.
And remember Vivi? Yes, a new friend made during L.A.S.T. on Shikoku just a few months ago, Vivi lives comfortably in this diverse city, and that is what prompted me to go during this trip. Luckily, she also had her boyfriend visiting from Denmark at the time, so we just hanged out in her apartment playing games, while I annoyed both of them with horrible puns and strange discoveries. Thanks for the treat, Vivi, and hopefully see ya soon next time~! Since she was a busy one, especially when her boyfriend was around, I had to go explore the city myself just base on her clues and recommendations. One of this local’s favorites is the flea market that takes place in Mauerpark every weekend, and it is indeed quite interesting. It is a long park along the remnants of a segment of Berlin Wall, and numerous stalls are set up along the axis with every single kind of hippie junk ranging from vinyls going for hundreds of euros a piece to “LIVE, LOVE, LAUGH” shirts, and of course, a lot of food from all around the world. It was incredibly popular during my visit, and most of the people I overheard were speaking English rather than German, curiously.
However, if one spends the time, there are some good bargains to be had. In recent years, environmentally conscious lifestyle has taken a huge surge in Germany, with nearly everyone I know trying to refrain from excessive purchases, but instead going for flea markets like these to get cheap and good clothing and decorations. I am very glad that has taken hold, at least in Europe, while in North America most folks still go online to look for the newest iPhone. We really can do better!
And it is hard to talk about Berlin without its outstanding invention and possibly its greatest contribution to me personally, currywurst. Invented by a local lady during the desperate times in 1949, it instantly became a hit with the workers striving to reconstruct Berlin from the ashes. Its flavor completely trumped the simply steamed predecessors, with a whip of ketchup and topped with curry powder, both obtained from the British soldiers who were in West Berlin at the time. The trend spilled over to East Berlin shortly, and now, you can find this classic all over the world, but especially so here in Berlin. From small street imbiss to large scale conferences, this is a must have for the locals who wish to have a hearty bite without breaking the bank. Now, more variations have arrived to cope with changing demands, beef or vegan sausages are used for dietary restrictions, and organic sausages and fries are served up in the above photo. What a time to be alive!
Yet the treasures of Germany are not just found on the streets, but inside the half-dozen world-class museums on Museum Island. Being a world power way before a failed artist found his passion for Antisemitism, Germany has amassed an unparalleled collection of artifacts found around the world in these museums, probably on par, if not over, the world-famous British Museum. However, I do have to apologize, because standing in a room for 12 hours a day is not exactly my strong suit, I was able to only visit 4 museums during my short time in the city. Let’s begin with Neue Museum, famous for its ancient Egyptian finds the German archeologists encountered during their trips to the deserts in 19th and 20th century.
The museum has a stunning room painted with heiroglyphs when it was first built in 1840s, simulating the tombs of a high-class pharoah. It was sadly badly damaged during WWII, as the top half of the museum was obliterated in a few blasts. It took a lengthy 60 years to be fully rebuilt, as the communist East Germany had way bigger fish to fry, and the reconstruction was only in full swing after the reunification, so the museum has only been open for about a decade. Luckily, most of the items have been well-kept, and thanks to that, one can check out probably one of the best collections of Egypt during the antiquities.
Besides the typical Egyptian stuffs, the museum also has some rather ancient collections from other cultures as well, mostly centered around the Middle East. The aboce is an Assyrian tablet documenting King Ashurnasirpal II and his divine power over the entire people of Assyrian lands. He is one of the most successful kings of the empire, having expanded the territory all the way to even Phoenicians. He is also the one who moved the capital to Nimrud, and it is diffcult to find any historian who cannot recognize his harsh treatment of rebellions and enemies. Below is a statue of Pharoah Amenemhat III praying to the gods. He is a king who ruled Egypt during the Twelfth Dynasty, and was on the throne from about 1860 to 1814 years before the advent of Christ. His years over Egypt is considered to be one of the most prosperous times of the Middle Kingdom, even though very few evidences exist to attest any war that he had fought.
This is Queen Tiye’s statuette, featuring a double-feathered crown. She is the grandmother of Tutankhamun, so she is of the 18th dynasty, nearly 500 years after the previous photo’s Amenemhat. This just shows how distant the years of Egyptian history go, as just a few dynasties’ time period goes longer than the entire existence of United States of America. People would love to break down the history of every presidency in US, while the entire modern history is all but a flash to the ancients. Egyptian dynasties are longer than the existence of Christianity, so that is a rather shocking thought. Another way to think is that when the great pyramid of Giza was being built, mammoths were still roaming the Earth. Below is the False Door of Senenmut, also an artifact of 18th dynasty, and was installed in a tomb as a pretend exit to the heavens.
This is the group statue of a high priest that serves at the Temple of Ptah, located in Memphis. Ptah is the Egyptian guadian god of the craftsmen, and was highly worshipped by people from many different industries. This statue features the priest, his wife, and sister, sitting above a throne looking sternly yet amicably towards the front, while their daughter holds her father’s leg to the bottom. What is even more intriguing are the lines of inscriptions carved at the back, dedicated to the life and accomplishments of this priest.
Yet nothing can beat the best era of the Egyptian golden age, the rein of Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti. These are the most affluent times of 18th Dynasty, and arguably of the 2000 years of ancient Egyptian rule. They are also the direct predecessors of the famous sarcophagus owner Tutancamun. The couple is known for revolutionizing the religious system of ancient Egypt, as they only worshipped one single god, Aten, namely, the sun disk. Its irradiating waves can be seen in the above shrine stela. Yet Nefertiti is made way more significant by the famous Bust of Nefertiti, a stucco-coated limestone statue, so real that one may mistake it for a living beaty. It is housed in the museum as well, being the most iconic symbol of the Museum Island, as well as Berlin city.
I do apologize for a poor photo quality, as it is prohibited to take a photo in the room of this treasure, so I had to zoom in from afar. This bust is not of controversy, however, as this near-perfect relic from 3300 years ago was only discovered by German archaeologists in 1912, and smuggled out of Egypt without showing to any official of the country. This has caused massive disputes between Germany and Egypt, as it urged the stolen masterpiece to be returned, as the crime took place only 100 years ago.
Well, how about something more local? This is the Berlin Golden Hat, a late Bronze Age artefact that used to don some important priest’s head about 3000 years ago. It is one of the four such hats that have ever been discovered, and its patterns represent the worship of the celestial. Top are the sun rays, followed by patterns of the moon and venus, and the bottom bumps represent the solar and lunar cycles. As a result, this hat serves as a calendar of sorts, as it precisely marks how each day should progress, for up to 57 months for direct counting. It also allows calculations of much longer cycles such as enneadecaeteris (19 year cycles) if one is willing to do a little bit of math.
Moving onto the next museum, let’s take a look at the Old National Gallery, which focuses on priceless paintings and sculptures prior to the 20th century. This museum is entirely filled with highly valuable works of art, and mostly, the painters are from the German speaking world. The following painting is the best work of Swiss symbolism painter Arnold Böcklin, called Isle of the Dead. It immediately puts the viewer into a silent trance with just one glance, as the island sits in the dead-still water while surrounded by stern, cold, featureless walls, only to be accompanied by large, straight, dark cypress trees, typically associated with mourning. A lone oarsman, dressed in pure white, rows something with a festoon on it, likely a coffin. This is probably inspired by the pure, still darkness in the artist’s heart when he had to walk by a small cemetery in which his daughter was buried.
How about something a bit brighter and quaint? This is Monet’s Summer, one of his earlier works and definitely one of my favorites. He uses simple strokes and abstract, almost flippant, shapes to depict a timeless countryside scene in the company of his wife Camille and son Jean. No indication of place, time, activity, yet somehow can resonate with my inner nostalgia to a time or place that I have never been. Just a summer afternoon, picnicking, wind brushing against the yellowing grass, and the heat slowly setting in, nothing else, nothing more. No wonder one critic once said “Monet is simply an eye, but, by god, what an eye.”
And then, in the neoclassical Old Museum, one can find the classic antiquity collection of the Berlin State Museums. This ranges from the Greeks to Romans, and boy have they managed to impress me! The below drinking cup is a masterpiece of Attic vase painting, and it depicts a scene in the Trojan War. Healer Achilles is binding for the suffering friend Patroclus. On the outer rim of the plate(not featured), all the gods have gathered on Mount Olympus, and Athena is introducing Heracles after his death.
This is a statue made for a priestess of Demeter and Kore, and is witnessed by not only some words carved at the bottom of the bust, but also with its rich attire and curly hair. As in all things surviving classic antiquity, it made it out of the Christianity era with a mark, as someone during the late Roman empire carved a cross in the back of the statue to avoid ambiguity of this religious artwork.
The museum also has a rotating temporary collection, and this was the season of big dicks and nude women in the room! During these times, while the superiority of small penis still was holding, it could not stop the artists from going off on their wild imaginations to depict barbarian men with shlongs longer than their bodies, or drawing hung Greek soldiers interacting with each other nude. Trust me, the above one is the tamest in the whole room!
Finally, we move on to the best of the best, the crown jewel of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Museum Island, Pergamon Museum. Housing the biggest and the most impressive items of the ancient Miletus, Babylon, Uruk, Assur, Priene and Egypt, the museum first wowed me with the above statue over 3 floors tall. This is the weather god Hadad, unearthed in Turkey, from 800 B.C. The Aramaic inscriptions in the bottom tell the story of the prayers to this mighty deity, which was supposed to hold a lightning bolt in one hand, and an axe in the other. On the other hand, the below tablet tells a story much less divine and more mundane, as it governs how the Assyrians should act, with the most interesting laws regarding treating women. Cuniforms have been translated, and stipulated such as the following:
“If a man forcefully lies with a free woman and the woman fights back, the man shall be put to death, and the woman is not guity.” (funnily, this rule that Assyrians already understood 3200 years ago are still not a thing in some middle eastern countries nowadays.)
“If a man divorces his wife by his will, he should give her something; if it is not by his will, the wife shall receive nothing.”
“If a widow comes to live with a man, all what she brought becomes the man’s; if a man goes in a woman’s house to live with her, all what he brought becomes the woman’s.”
“Besides what is laid out in the laws, a man can pluck out his wife’s hair, scourge his wife, or bruise her ears, with no penalty.” Ouch.
The museum also features a wing entirely dedicated to Islamic Art. There is a room completely replicated from a rich merchant’s adobe called Aleppo Room. Even though the city it had come from has completely been razed to ashes just a few years ago in the war, the room survived in constant-temperature glass shielding here in Germany, which was unfortunately difficult to photograph. There are also numerous other altars and prayer niches of the highest quality ever produced by the Islamic world, mostly from the past 5 centuries, significantly younger than the other collections in the building. Woah, who knows that if a country goes on a rampage to dig out other ancient people’s treasures would result in a stunning museum!?
The best item of the collection, however, was a gift from Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to Germany. Mshatta Facade belongs to an abandoned winter palace of the Umayyad empire, and likely was forfeited in 8th century. It was later left to ruin in the deserts south of Amman, and eventually excavated in 1840. This is one of the most intricate and fascinating pieces of early Islamic architectures, and demonstrated how skilled the techniques had become even in the early ages of the religion.
But there is no denying that the magnificent Ishtar Gate of the near-legendary city of Babylon has to be one of the greatest archeological finds in human history. Originally the 8th city gate that opens to a long procession way paved in the same style, this 5-floor tall gate is completely decorated in glazed-blue tiles and perfectly-crafted animal motifs. It has bulls, dragons, and lions featured one by another in the grand surfaces, and comes with an inscription written by the king Nebuchadnezzar in Akkadian cuniform 2650 years ago:
“… I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that Mankind might gaze on them in wonder…”
During excavation, the gate had already crumbled to a million pieces, literally, so it took hundreds of scholars decades of work to piece the world’s most confusing puzzle together. All the older, more worn tiles you can see above are the originals, while most others are replicas painted blue to represent its original form.
Another crucial large scale item is the Market Gate of Miletus. It was a trading city during the golden times of the Roman Empire, and the gate probably was standing at the grand entrance to the market around the time of Emperor Hadrian. The city now belongs to Turkey, and its ruins can still be visited.
The gate itself probably went down in an earthquake in 11th century, and it was dug up by Germans in 1907. Its 750-ton fragments were transported to Berlin, but even that insane tonnage did not represent a majority of the original gate. As a result, forceful reconstruction was performed, involving intrusive measures such as shoving steel rebars into the original colomns. Tons of new materials were also added, so you can see lighter parts in the above photo. The hall was also badly damaged in WWII, as half of the wing collapsed, exposing the gate to natural weather for 2 years. The extensive restoration was painful and tedius, so the gate did not reappear until 2008.
World War II
Oh boy, we know it is inevitable. It is Berlin, so it is practically the representation of the most tragic war in human history. I am not sure if I am qualified to deliver you the best of this piece of history, so I will keep this part short. We begin with Führerbunker, the place where it all ended.
This is the place above one of the most sturdy bunkers in the world, used to house Hitler and a skeleton crew floors beneath the surface, right behind the Third Reich Chancellory. It is here that Hitler married Eva Braun 40 hours before committing suicide. It was in this courtyard that their bodies burnt for hours until they were charred and unrecognizable. After the war, the Soviets razed the buildings and bombed the hideout as a means to erase all traces of Nazi history, but most of the hallways of this bunker remained. It is theorized that it still exists somewhere underneath this modern housing complex, and Hitler’s study is likely under this parking lot. It is mostly filled with cement as a last-ditch effort to close off the area from potential maniacs, and now just a small plaque stands in the middle of the lot telling the story of a truly evil man and his last days in the world.
Not too far sits the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Many Jews died from the war, not just limited to the horrific concentration camps and systematic purge. Many Jews died fighting for the allies, smuggling out their bretherens, protecting their own rights, and more. As a result, it is not just a Holocaust memorial, but to all those who fought so hard to protect their people and legacy. On this undulating field, 2711 slabs of concrete is laid on in a grid, with varying heights, but always the same distance among them. The feeling of extreme unease permeates from one corner to another, as one may suddenly feel trapped by the towering, featureless concrete in every nook and cranny of his or her soul. There is no escaping from this immense dread, and the only way to survive it is to perservere, exactly what those brave people did in face of the most tragic times.
I also paid a visit to the Jewish Museum, which commemorates those who lost their lives in the prosecutions. I followed the lives of 4 families as they slowly were forced to go from normal citizens, to wearing a badge when leaving the house, to losing jobs and shops, all the way to being sent to the concentration camps, and eventual death. It is so tragic to see how far unfounded hatred can go given the right conditions and stimulants, and how lucky I am to still be standing today. Some Jews managed to get to other parts of the world to escape doom, and I was happy to see my hometown Shanghai being one of those cities that welcomed thousands upon thousands of refugees. We are one people, and we shall stop the pointless squabbling of race, nationality, politics and money. We are better than this.
Berlin after the war was a mess, but we all know, another dark chapter was just beginning. This is Brandenburg Gate, a key witness to all histories that took place in the city. This old city gate’s Quadriga sitting at the top was taken back to Paris by Napoleon as a war trophy, but was returned to the gate upon his defeat by Prussian troops. The plaza is thus named as Paris Plaza, and the Quadriga was changed into one holding a Prussian eagle, facing down straight at the French plaza as a sign of domination. However, this gate was soon about to experience some of the most interesting years in recent times.
Immediately after the war, it was all a messy fuzz. People were busy trying to stabilize their lives after the biggest human conflict ever, and the almost illogical Potsdam Agreement divided the country into 4 sectors, with Soviet Union taking the biggest one while the Brits, Americans and French ones coalesced into the allied side. The same was done in Berlin, which is completely inside Soviet section of Germany. As a result, there was a full exclave of West Germany inside the communist East Germany (GDR). Yet, these were all just symbolic, as there were virtually no checks when one crossed into the other Germany, because both sides were both pretty devastated by the war, so life, albeit quite poor and hopeless, continued in peace.
However, things began to change rather quickly. The Soviet-ization of east Germany was swift and obvious, and many began to worry about the potential consequences of long-term communist dictatorship. Stalin’s 1953 harsh quashes on East German rebellions did not help either, and by that time, hundreds of thousands of East Germans had moved to the west, as it was not as much about the money, but more about ideologies. As a result, a vast majority of the immigrants to the west were young doctors, students, engineers, artists, and other skilled persons, creating a huge strain on East Germany’s future. In fact, before Berlin Wall went up in 1961, nearly 3.5 million East Germans escaped to the west, mostly via Berlin, amounting to 20% of the population. It was rather easy, just go to Berlin on a “vacation”, and then wander around, and exhale “oops!” as you “accidentally” waltzed into West Berlin, before heading straight to West Berlin’s West Germany offices to apply for a passport. You can take trains and metros in the city that goes unhindered between the different sectors, so it was actually economical too!
However, it all changed, literally overnight, on August 13th, 1961. By midnight, suddenly thousands of policemen showed up at the invisible border, and stopped everyone from coming through. The supposed “border” went through parks, cut through buildings, meandered past stations and homes, so policing it at night was difficult, but still managable. This was done only after a rail bypass system was built by the GDR, as all trains going in and out of Berlin had to pass through West Berlin before. Now with the bypass finished, they could officially seal off the west side without consequences. Hundreds of craftsmen were drafted to work overtime that night, and by the time the Berliners woke up, they saw a city divided by barbed wires and tall fences. Many people were trapped on the other side. Your grandma who you go visit every weekend is on the other side? Too bad. Girlfriend is western and you are an easterner? Break up. Job is literally a stone’s throw from the barrier that way? Tough luck. Trains grinded to a halt, and all roads were sealed.
Most locals were simply in disbelief, how that could have possibly taken place!? Many looked at it as if it was a panda in town, because the city is so connected that there was no way that this could sustain for long. Most interviewed at that point were simply standing by the wall out of curiosity and excitement. They thought it was a tactic employed by the Soviets, and the border would be torn down in mere days, if not hours. A mother sent her child over to her in-law’s for the night, but little did she know, it would be 30 years before she saw her own blood again.
In the initial days of the wall, breaking through the barriers were easy. It was a crudely constructed wall or fence with more than 100km of length, so loopholes were plentiful. However, people without huge immediate needs were not that eager to cross either, since they probably laughed at the notion that the wall would not come down until 1990. People would simply drive a car fast and smash through the walls, or toss their babies from those houses that sat right above the wall, just to be caught by volunteers on the other side holding a net. However, the defenses quickly got to ridiculous levels, as entire blocks of buildings were razed so that a “Death Strip” was built.
When people talk about the Berlin Wall, they imagine it as a large forbidding slab of concrete, but in fact it was more of a 200-meter wide area of barbed wires, nails, Czech hedgehogs, complete with a service road, military bunkers, searchlights, and watchtowers. Once the entire perimeter was established, successful defections dropped from hundreds of thousands to merely 20 a year. Yet some genius were not easily stopped. A guy used the bulletproof bulldozers these border police used for mowing grasses in the crevices of the death strip, and plowed right through; a scuba master dived across a river; a trapeze artist climbed electricity poles and lines; a train engineer intentionally rerouted a full-speed train with the entire family on board to crash through the barriers established on the original connecting rail lines, and brought 7 unsuspecting passengers with them to the west. However, the most daring is a guy who was invited to a meeting in the Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus, one of the very few Nazi buildings that survived the war. It was originally the Luftwaffe headquarters, and then turned into the Council of Ministers in GDR. Now, it serves its most nefarious purpose of its existence, even more so than the human-killing machines of Nazi air force, or the headquarters of the communist regime: the federal tax office.
Because of its governmental purposes, the building managed to escape the fate of being destroyed even though it was literally a tiny street across from the wall. Thus, the building had caught a certain man’s eye. He was invited into a meeting with the accounting department, and brought his wife and child into the building. He hanged an “under maintainence” sign outside a bathroom, and used a hammer, a string, and west Berlin’s help to zipline across, under the observation of Soviet officers! The only reason that he was not shot was because the soldiers thought it had to be a covert operation of STASI transporting their own spies. What.The.Fuck!
However, 98% of attempts ended in failures. Usually people were simply caught by the wires, stopped at gunpoint, but sometimes they were shot. The west side could do literally nothing but watch, as even just stepping over the boundary by 1 meter could mean war, so many were left to bleed dry on the tarmac. As the Soviets cleaned out more and more buildings by the wall, the opportunities like ziplining became less and less likely. Eventually, nearly nobody could escape, as even the most common way via self-dug tunnels was halted by professional acoustic and seismic surveilance. People had to continue living in poverty, as the west side was clearly starting to regain balance on the feet.
For example, the above church was unfortunately right at the edge of the border, and rendered it inaccessible to either side. Its imposing spires were mostly used as a natural observation post, but it was ordered to be destroyed in 1985. Now, a small chapel stands in its base, and the scary thing is, when the reconstruction took place in 1999, they still found a deactivated American bomb that dropped during WWII!
In those days, the economy of the GDR continued to slump behind the west, and was particularly vulnarable, just like every other nation in the Bloc. As you may have read in my Bulgaria journal, the car in the below photo is an absolute classic during the communist times. Trabant 601, called Trabbi here in East Germany, was the most popular vehicle in the nation, and was the only car that was somewhat tangible for locals, if one was willing to save up a few decades’ income. As a result, a small number of this horrible car is still in use now, and it has become a modern tourist favorite to experience the bygone era of suffering.
And of course, the two sides had an insane amount of spies implanted in each other’s organizations. It was so common that massive spy exchanges were conducted on a regular basis. Women, children, old folks were all participating in the trade, as the two sides were way too similar, because they came from the same cultural, linguistic and geographical background, blending in was just easy. The only thing supporting a spy’s stance was ideology, so it comes as no surprise that double-crossing and multi-layer espionage were common back in the days.
And here we have Checkpoint Charlie, the most prominent crossing on the wall. It was one of the few remaining points where one could enter the other side after the walls were closed, and it was the location of the first Cuban Missile Crisis, before it was even a thing. In October 1961, an American diplomat heading to East Berlin for a theatre play was forcefully stopped and searched, even though all parties agreed that no checks should be implemented for diplomats. One thing turned into next, and before the day ended, 10 tanks from both sides were facing each other here in Checkpoint Charlie. If just any one of them made even a wrong move, WWIII would have begun. Thankfully, the situation was deescalated before too long, thanks to a ton of frantic diplomatic calls.
After thirty years of intense face-off, the Bloc was starting to shake by 1989. Take a look of my Gdansk journal if you want to see the beginning of the end, but when the wave of protests reached Berlin, it hit GDR hard. Frantically trying to contain the masses gathering near the death strips, the ministers were coming up with policies on the fly, while negotiating with the west side. Yet, when November 9th rolled around, nobody would have expected that day would end with a different world. One particular guy, Günter Schabowski, who was just completely overwhelmed by all the chaos as he was a newly appointed spokesperson, accidentally said something he was not supposed to say. In a news conference regarding the potential policies regarding the wall, after dozing off a bit, he looked at his notes, which was scribbled with the intention of slowly opening up the wall and loosening the visa restrictions for East Berliners in the coming years, told the national TV when being asked when East Berliners could enter the west:”As far as I know, it becomes effective immediately.” It was a random filler line, but it changed the course of history. After realizing what he had said, this poorly-briefed official tried to backpaddle the statement, but it was too late. Screaming, shouting, cheering, bellowing, thousands started pouring towards the border crossings, and the soldiers could not hold the crowds. By midnight that day, both sides were partying on the wall.
It was over, and it ended as abruptly as it began.
The wall began to be dismantled in a month, and then the two Germany reunified a year later. Another year after that, Soviet Union was no more. The reunification of Germany is still going on, as the disparity between the two former Germanies were rather large. Economically, the west basically gobbled up the east, with GDP a magnitude larger. West Germany took over the politics, production, farming, industries, and practically everything, leaving East Germany with very few to work with, hence why most of the large cities and industrial centers of Germany still do not lie within the previously East German territories. However, one sign of the socialism regime still lingers on till this day. If you ever cross a street in Berlin, pay attention to the pedestrian lights. For any street in the territories that was previously East Berlin, you can find a rather interesting man with hats as the signage, while in western parts, you will only find boring normal looking lights. It is the only tradition kept by the East Berliners in modern times. This is also the easiest way to figure out which area you are in without consulting a map, as both sides of Berlin had been homogenized.
Ich bin ein Berliner
And this concludes my Berliner days. I hope you learned things that you have never known before, and discovered a Berlin different than what you had in mind. This is one of the most dynamic and historically interesting cities in the world. Prussian imperialism, Napoleonic battles, scientific revolution, Museum Island, Hitler’s last stand, the Cold War, and eventually the fall of worldwide communism, as well as the center of European Union in modern times, Berlin has been at the forefront of every single major action ever since its creation. In fact, it is hard to find another place that has stories this plentiful and eventful. Berlin is the event horizon of the world, where east and west, past and future, collide, sprakle, mingle, intertwine. And for a city that has just been reunified and reborn in most people’s lifetimes, this capital is still growing, merging and transforming, to a future where walls are not needed.
Everyone should come to this city, because once you have reached this event horizon, you will be sucked into this irresistable hole of intrigue, and never look back.
Only then, can you become like me, and proudly say:
Ich bin ein Berliner.John F. Kennedy, 1963, June 26th