Let me first just say that I have wanted to go to Berlin for a really, really long time. Being a History student I could hardly fail to recognise the unparalleled historical value this city holds and for years I have been longing to stand underneath the Brandenburg Gate, see the Berlin Wall, and walk along the streets that once were home to one of the most tyrannous and awful regimes in history.
Berlin is a product of its complex and often devastating history. It was the capital city of Adolf Hitler’s tyrannical empire and site of his government. It was bombed to ruins during the Second World War and when peace finally came the inhabitants of the city soon found themselves on the front line of an entirely different conflict. It is hard to believe that the Berlin Wall only came down 26 years ago. Speaking to my father before I went to Berlin he told me of how he had once crossed Checkpoint Charlie and had returned a few years later to collect his own piece of the Berlin Wall.
One sometimes assumes that history is in the far-distant past, the stories of people long-dead. Berlin is the epitome of a city whose history is ever-present and has defined and shaped its very existence. Obviously the same could be said of all cities, but nowhere I have visited has felt so peculiar and unique because of its past.
My first impression of the city when I arrived was that the streets were incredibly wide and the city was sprawling. In comparison to London it felt so open. Due to the historical divide between East and West there is still an ongoing effort to reconstruct the city after the catastrophic bombings in World War II, as well as attempts by Germans to rebuild a past that had been destroyed by National Socialism and new efforts to ensure that the dark years of 1933-1945 are not swept under the rug.
Berlin still feels like a city that is trying to come to terms with itself and its history. Yet this is refreshing and makes a visit for a history lover especially enthralling. There is literally tons to see and do, unfortunately making it impossible to take everything in in just 3 days – especially when you are in a group of seven who struggle to get out of the house before 12pm.
With a lot of nagging and herding of sheep I was able to catch most of the main sights, actually passing by the Brandenburg Gate on four occasions – by far the best being at night time when the historic landmark is lit up.
Whilst my studies in History have much more frequently passed by the well-visited stops of Weimar and Nazi Germany, I was most interested to get to grips with divided Berlin. It is hard to fathom that the wall only came down 26 years ago. We visited the Berlin Wall Memorial and Checkpoint Charlie, taking the typical tourist photo below the signs and artsy shots of the graffiti on the wall. It is easy to act like a tourist, not really thinking about the significance of the places you are passing. It wasn’t until our last day that it really hit me. We were walking to an S-bahn station when I noticed we crossed over a marking on the pavement. Stopping to investigate I discovered that it marked where the wall used to be just a few decades before. We had crossed without thinking. Our ability to walk across that line was unhindered. We barely even noticed what had once been a great divide between people. It was small moments like this that were truly humbling.
Indeed it is very difficult to feel like a typical tourist in Berlin. I returned home from holidays to New York and Rome with hundreds of photos of me and my friends or family posing in front of landmarks, laughing, enjoying being tourists. In Berlin, many of the places we visited were much more serious. It feels inappropriate to take photos of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Soviet Memorial. When much of your trip consists of learning about genocide one feels less like a tourist, and more like a mourner.
That being said, Berlin is not all depressing and for anyone with a keen interest in history, very rewarding. I would most definitely recommend visiting historical sites and exhibitions such as the Topography of Terror, built on the site of the offices of the Gestapo and Secret State Police in the days of National Socialism and documenting the history of these institutions. There is a lot of reading which can be quite heavy-going and tiring but definitely worth the visit.
Aside from the historical sites there are plenty of activities which are bit more lighthearted. We tried one of the infamous bar crawls which, although hampered by some rowdy English football fans, took us to some great examples of Berlin’s famous nightlife. Also worth a visit during the day is the chocolatier, Fassbender and Rausch where I can honestly say we all enjoyed the most delicious hot chocolate. You’ll pay an arm and a leg but you won’t regret it.
Undoubtedly, I will need to return a few more times in order to ever visit everything I want to see in Berlin. We largely stayed in Mitte (the centre), only venturing much further for bars and to visit the East Side Gallery for the painting of the famous kiss between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker (the Soviet leader and East German president respectively). Unfortunately any photographic opportunity was spoiled by a metal fence protecting the art – but definitely worth the trip.
I left Berlin with a confused mixture of feelings. It is undeniably a very beautiful and unique city with a fascinating but often very distressing history. What I can say for certain is that I am already counting down the days until I can return, hopefully for some more divine hot chocolate, another bar crawl (or two) and plenty more history. Until then…
Thanks for reading.
Florence Odette xx