Berlin: Holding onto the past
It’s very interesting to travel through Europe and observe not only the history on display in the respective cities, but also how the history is used, nurtured and/or hidden. This differs depending on the city and country and could be considered to be a reflection of the culture of its peoples.
Some cities really embrace their history to the point where the historic monuments and old town are still very much the same as they were centuries ago. They spend enormous amounts of money into keeping these antiquities in a safe condition, knowing full well that the investment will pay off through tourism and wanting their city to continue to appear (or rather, be) historic.
Avignon, Salamanca and, to an extent, even Paris fit this mould. They update the infrastructure underneath and behind the scenes so that its inhabitants can continue to live in the modern world, but their untouched walls and streets feel like they were centuries ago.
Some cities place less emphasis on their history, instead preferring to drive forth into a modern world, knocking down older buildings and replacing them with the new. Old streets are ripped up and relaid because reducing traffic congestion is more important than preservation of an old alleyway whose relevance passed over one hundred years ago.
Cities such as Valencia and London spring to mind for this category. Of course, they retain the most important historic artefacts to them, but they’re not afraid to leave the past behind and move on into the now.
There is a certain admiration to be held for both approaches and it’s also something that is very subjective, changing from person to person and culture to culture. It’s also something that can be considered at a case by case basis, dependent on what history is contained within the city.
No further evidence is required than this very blog, which has often produced contradicting views on the topic, often praising some cities for their willingness to modernise while also praising others for their evident richness in history.
None of these cities have been more devisive than Berlin, however.
Berlin was a much anticipated stop on this journey. While dreaming of Europe back home in Australia, a common question to ask visiting tourists was which European city was their favourite. At first the expectation was the standard popular cities – Paris, Rome or London. Yet, after a while, a recurring pattern developed where a large proportion instead answered Berlin, quoting its arts and nightlife scene and diversity.
This led to high expectations for Berlin. Expectations that, it has to be said, weren’t really met.
The history of Berlin is well known, much more intricately than the histories of other cities, primarily due to the recentness of it. Berlin is, in fact, a city much older than that and one that has a history extending much further into the past than the events of both World Wars, but it’s hard to know that when exploring the city.
Berlin’s recent history is inescapable.
At first it’s an eye-opening experience. To see the remains of the Berlin Wall or to see the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church are hard, physical pieces of evidence that allow one to somewhat appreciate exactly what has happened in this city. And these concrete exhibitions of the effects of war and violence are absolutely an effective way to get people to understand and realise those effects, there’s no hesitation of that.
Then it becomes oppressive. A history lesson that is forced upon an unsuspecting pupil at every corner they turn. Seemingly everything in this city had some significance during World War II and it all needs to be recognised in the public domain with plaques, memorials or exhibitions.
There are some sights that one will go to for the sole purpose of learning about its role during the war or to pay respects. There are no other reasons to attend these.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a great remembrance to those who lost their lives. From first viewing it can seem overly simple and unimaginative and perhaps not enough thought has gone into it to represent such an unjust act. But, whether intended or not, its unevenness and lack of structure gives an alien and uncomfortable feeling – a sense of something incorrect that makes one appreciate how incorrect and senseless the killings were.
There are (or, should be) other things to visit in Berlin that don’t exist just to portray history about the war. Yet even these have been retrofitted to become a wartime relic.
Visit the Olympiastadion and you’ll be faced outside with many signs depicting the 1936 Olympics and its relevance to Nazism. Yet there won’t be much information about all the subsequent history that has happened since.
Visit the Old Library and you’ll find the Memorial to May 10, 1933 Nazi Book Burning out the front to steal the limelight. Travel across the road from this to find the Neue Wache, a building that has stood since 1816 as a guardhouse but in its latest reincarnation serves as the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship”.
Any space that had some relation to the war in Berlin has been commemorated so, and any space that may have been free seems to now play host to a new monument to the victims of the war.
The approach is very in your face, and it becomes melancholic and depressing – both of which are the targeted responses.
But what of the other history? Berlin is a city much older than its World War history and it has many more stories to tell than those alone. While it’s true that the effects of the wars devastated a large amount of the city, there is still plenty to experience within Berlin. The good thing here is that these remaining monuments are also well advertised and well worth checking out.
The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Cathedral, Charlottenburg Palace and the Berlin Victory Column are all fine glimpses into pre-war Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate is the best of the lot but the Victory Column is also a very impressive sight to behold, not least for its setting in the middle of the Tiergarten park.
Tiergarten park is one of the best urban parks experienced so far in all of Europe and on a sunny day is the perfect spot to find some shade, catch up with some friends and enjoy a picnic. Large enough to lose yourself in, the park provides an often welcome escape from the stressful sounds of downtown life.
The much appraised arts and culture scene of Berlin is certainly apparent, and the great thing about it is that it exists irrespective of the day of the week. Whether it’s a sprawling, vibrant flea market on the edge of town or checking out a new hip vegan restaurant in the east end of the city, there’s always something to do in Berlin.
Art is visible almost everywhere, most notably portraying some kind of representation of reunification which, while pleasant to see, compounds onto the inescapable feeling one gets attempting to move on from the war era.
And while the arts and culture scene in Berlin is a very impressive one, it’s unreasonable to say that it outweighs that of other major European centres such as Paris or London (admittedly, those are two hard targets to meet).
Ultimately, Berlin was crushed by the weight of expectation. It didn’t turn out to be as good as all the travellers that had recommended it had portrayed it to be. But it’s also weighed down by it’s history.
Berlin is as open about its history as any other city that has been travelled to so far. But it’s a different kind of openness. Berlin’s history is a dark one and they display it not out of pride like most other cities do, but instead out of remembrance.
This is a noble act by a country willing to take responsibility and ensure that the same mistakes won’t happen again. Remembrance is one of the best possible ways to achieve this, but being in a city like Berlin makes one question how much remembrance is enough and how much remembrance is too much?
Is there such a thing as too much?
Berlin is undoubtedly moving into the future, as the rest of the world is. But it’s holding onto its past much more tightly than any other city. What if that hinders its progress to something better? These buildings that are providing significance and serving as a memory to the horrors of war are preventing new buildings from being built that could inspire future generations to greatness and progress.
The constant reminder of bloodshed and injustice can hardly been viewed as inspiring for the youth that live there today and want to believe in themselves to become something great and push the world forward.
Other countries and cities have moved on from their wars and horrors without the need for memorials at every corner. Granted, Germany’s war history is much more recent, but in two hundred years’ time, will all of the monuments in Berlin still be there? Will there be even more? And if not, when is it okay to take them down?
Many people fought and died for peace in the world, including the city of Berlin, and many people fought to take down the wall and yet today part of the wall still stands. And that’s for remembrance sake, but there’s also a feeling that Berlin will never truly be unified and ready to move on as long as there’s a piece of the wall still standing.
None of the horrors that occurred during the wars should simply be forgotten and pushed aside. But there’s a difference between forgetting and moving on. Other cities have managed to survive massive wars and managed to both not forget and to move on. When will Berlin?
One can easily argue that Berlin has moved on. It’s a thriving hub of arts, culture and high tech industry, and that alone is an incredible achievement and a credit both to the city and its inhabitants.
But it could be even better.
Berlin didn’t end up being the great city that had been anticipated. It’s a very, very good city, but it’s not great. It’s not in the elite level that only a few cities in the world can claim to be. But there’s enough there to suggest that it could be, and one has to wonder, if its insistence to hold onto its history is the only thing holding it back from this.
One Response to “Berlin: Holding onto the past”
You’re right about Berlin holding onto its past. You might like an article I wrote on this subject https://bonjourberlin.com/2015/03/11/gdr-is-none-of-your-business-its-berliners/
But keep in mind that Berlin’s magic has a certain subtility that needs more time to discover. As with any place, a tourist’s perspective is always different than a local’s. Thanks for an interesting and complex post though😊