The Elbe tour itself is officially over but we signed up for a trip extension in Berlin. Our original group of travelers has been whittled from 110 to the 35 who signed on for the extension. So here we are on Monday morning, up and at ‘em and ready for a tour of Berlin.
First, a few quick facts on Berlin. It is a city of 3.4 million people but it doesn’t feel like it given all the green space – open areas, parks, and small forests. Plus it is about 350 square miles in size – nine times larger than Paris. It was settled in the 13th century and has served as the capital of the region a number of times. It was capital of the Kingdom of Prussia (1701 – 1918); the German Empire (1871-1918); the Weimar Republic (1919 – 33); the Third Reich (1933-45); and, since 1990, the capital of the reunited Germany.
Enough of that, on with the show. Let’s get one thing out of the way first. It seemed everywhere we went in Berlin, we saw figures/sculptures of a bear. Kind of looks like Yogi Bear. What’s up with that? Well, it is the symbol of Berlin. The bear is derived from the fact that the coat of arms of Berlin’s founder was a bear. Though that bear looks much more ferocious. The bears we saw looked more like they were saying “Hi guys, ready for some beer and brats!”
Okay, one more factoid – rather more historically important than the bear. Remember some time earlier in our journal we said that, after WW II, Germany was divided into four zones – each controlled respectively by the Americans, British, French, and Russians. Well, Berlin was firmly located in the Russian zone. But, the other three did not want Stalin and the Soviets to have complete control over Berlin. Berlin was seen as just too important to cede totally to the Soviets. Stalin had reluctantly agreed to the splitting of Berlin. But, Stalin being Stalin, he wanted the whole enchilada, period.
In 1947, Stalin set up checkpoints at the perimeter of the Russian zone in Berlin (e.g. East Berlin). Anyone wanting to enter or leave the Russian zone for any length of time had to apply for a permit. This in itself was a drawn out process – just as the Russians wanted it to be. Our guide’s family lived in Berlin at the time. He said that even If you finally got a permit, it was good for only one specific checkpoint. If you mistakenly pulled up at the wrong checkpoint, more than likely your permit would be voided and you would have to start over again.
But even that wasn’t enough for Stalin. In 1948 he shut down all access – road, rail, and water into and out of West Berlin. Not only could people not get out, but no supplies could get in. And, on top of that, West Berlin had not only its own residents to provide for, but also many, many refugees who had streamed in. This was a straight up power play by Stalin. Question for the Americans, British, and French was how to respond. One of the ideas discussed was for the three allies to gear up again and take East Berlin back by force. This carried with it the strong possibility of a whole ‘nuther war – just what nobody needed. So this idea, thankfully, was nixed.
But what to do, what to do!? Well, General George Marshall had a eureka moment and the answer became known as the Berlin Airlift. For fifteen months (June 1948-September 1949) the Western Allies airlifted supplies to two million people in West Berlin. And it wasn’t only food. It was everything to enable survival – like clothes, coal for heating, furniture; you name it, the Allies brought it. All told, about 300,000 flights were made and in September 1949 the Russians backed down.
One other very important thing the airlift did was this – before the airlift the Americans, British, and French were seen by the Germans as occupiers. After the airlift, the German perception had changed 180º. Now the Western Allies were seen as guarantors of freedom. Hey Stalin, you gotta look out for the Law of Unintended Consequences – ya’ know.
Okay, okay, this time for sure. Here we go with some highlights of our Berlin tour. First up, the Reichstag (German Parliament building). When Hitler came to power in 1933, he wanted absolute power. The only organized opposition group was, of all people, the Communists. So, how did Hitler go about it? Well, he decided to secretly have the Reichstag burned and blame the Communists. Guess what – it worked. The Communists and all other opposition groups were summarily tossed out of Parliament and Hitler had what he wanted – total control.
The Reichstag was not repaired and was little used from 1933-95. Ironically, the damaged Reichstag was where 1500 Nazi troops made their last (and unsuccessful) stand in Berlin against the Allies. Finally, in 1995, the Reichstag was rebuilt. And that reconstruction, in the eyes of many Germans, symbolized the end of a very dark chapter in German history.
Next, the Brandenburg Gate. Pretty impressive, pretty cool. And, being a German structure, it is rather massive and sturdy. It was our buddy Frederick II (remember Ol’ Fritz) who commissioned its design and construction in the 18th century. Standing almost 100 feet high and 200 feet long with twelve columns, the Brandenburg Gate is the last remaining of the fourteen gate of Berlin’s old city wall.
Ol’ Fritz’s concept was that the Brandenburg Gate would be an arch of peace. This can really be seen when you look on the top of the Gate. There you see the crowning glory – the Quadriga. That is the Goddess of Peace who is riding in a four-horse chariot. It is really impressive, especially when you see the Quadriga and the entire Brandenburg Gate illuminated at night.
Not surprisingly, the Nazis turned this symbol of peace on its head. They portrayed the Quadriga as a symbol of triumph and aggression. And, ironically, under the Soviets, the Brandenburg Gate was incorporated into the Berlin Wall. Thus, it became a symbol of division and tension, not peace. But you can’t keep a good guy, uh gal, down. The Brandenburg Gate was refurbished (at a cost of $6M) and in 2002, on the twelfth anniversary of reunification, it was reopened. A symbol of peace once again. Today there is a “Room of Silence” by the Gate, dedicated to the original peaceful message of the Gate.
As we stood under the Brandenburg Gate and looked up, gazing at the Quadriga, about all we could say was “Golll-ee .” Kind of like “The Beverly Hillbillies do Berlin.”
Just want to take a minute and mention the Tiergarten. It is across, more or less, from the Brandenburg Gate and is a good example of Berlin’s emphasis on open spaces. The Tirgarten is a 400 acre park chock full of trees gardens, jogging and cycling paths, picnic space and……, if you are so inclined, nude sunbathing.
Alright, let’s move on. Less than ten minutes from the Brandenburg Gate is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Completed in 2005, the memorial is the first formal German Government-sponsored Holocaust memorial. You really have to see this. The memorial does not have any of the ovens that were used, the gas showers, cramped bunks and all that. Rather, it consists of 2711 stone pillars that looked to us as resembling large gravestones. The pillars are of various sizes but most, I would say, are eye-level and higher.
The architect, Peter Eisenman, did not make any kind of pronouncement as to how the memorial should be interpreted. The idea is for each person to wander through the pillars and spend time thinking about this time in our history in her/his own way. Eisenman has said that he got the concept for the memorial by reaching back into his childhood – to the heartland of America. He was inspired by remembering his feelings as a kid wandering in the huge and tall corn fields. It invoked in him a sense of being all alone and a sense of panic that there was no way out.
Underground beneath the pillars is an exhibition area that seeks to humanize the victims by tracing the stories of individual families.
Here’s an ironic twist for ya’. While the memorial was being constructed, workers uncovered the bunker of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief. The decision was made to just leave it buried. And, Hitler’s bunker is only 200 yards away. That is really eerie.
Back on our coach, we took off for a stop at Humboldt University. Okay, a university, so what? Well for one thing, 2010 is its 200th anniversary. By the time the Nazis came to power over 120 years later, Humboldt was one of the prestigious universities in Europe. It has turned out over two dozen Nobel Prize winners. Marx and Lenin studied here. Also Einstein taught at Humboldt until the Nazis started cracking down hard and he beat feet to the U.S. and took a position at Princeton.
On the square in front of the main administration building, there is a large sheet of glass in the stone ground. You look down through it and you see a room containing only empty bookshelves. What’s up with that? Well, it symbolizes an “event” that took place on May 10th 1933. This was the infamous Nazi book burning. The Nazis came into the Humboldt library, removed and burned 20,000 books whose authors were deemed “degenerates” and opponents of the Third Reich.
As you look down today through the glass into the symbolic room with empty bookshelves, you also see a plaque. The plaque contains a quote from a work by the German poet Heinrich Heine in 1820: “That was only a prelude. Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people.”
A little over 100 years later, sadly, those words turned out to be very prophetic.
Okay, let’s wrap up the highlights of our tour of Berlin with, what else, the Berlin Wall. A lot of us grew up with the Berlin Wall and much, much has been chronicled about it. So, we’ll only bore you with a few facts. But regardless, the Wall is a must see if for no other reason than what it symbolized. Of course there isn’t much left of it these days. But think back to your history classes. As we said earlier, at the end of WW II (The Big One as Archie Bunker used to say) Germany was divided into four sectors controlled by the Americans, British, French, and Soviets. Berlin was in the Soviet sector. Against Stalin’s “grand plan”, Berlin was also divided into four sectors. The American, British, and French sectors became West Berlin and the Soviet sector, East Berlin. I know, I know, I’m repeating myself.
So, why did the Soviets build the Berlin Wall? (Excuse me, the Soviets referred to it as the “Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart”. Now there’s a mouthful.)They simply built it because East Berlin was serving as an exit point for people in all of East Germany and in Eastern Europe. Among other things, this was a brain drain. So, up the Wall went.
What many of us forget is that the Wall was 100 miles long. It went much further than inside Berlin itself. It was 13 feet high and had 300 sentry points. Actually much of it was two walls. The area between them was a 16’ deep tank ditch, 30 -160 feet wide, known as the “death strip”. It would seem almost impossible to get over the East Wall, through the tank ditch (Much of it filled with water) and up and over to West Berlin. Yet over its 28 year existence, 5000 people made it (about 600 of them were East German guards. Imagine that.)
In 1989, all that came to an end. The West part of the Wall came down pretty quickly. The East was slower, but almost all of it came down too. However, not quite all and what remains you gotta go see. And that’s what is known as the East Side Gallery. It is artwork painted on the Wall itself. After reunification, Berlin officials invited artists to paint on this remaining part of the Wall. What you have is about a mile of murals by artists from all over the world. Each mural is different, depicting a particular artist’s interpretation of suffering, loss, and freedom. But the idea is not for these murals to be permanent. Rather, every so often the Wall is whitewashed and other artists are invited to paint a new set of murals. The ones we saw were really quite moving.
One last thing about the Wall. As we made our way around Berlin, in certain spots we would see these continuous bronze lines etched in the streets. They went on and on. Our guide clued us in. These lines show where the Berlin Wall once stood. You never want to forget.
In the evening, a group of eight of us headed off to dinner at a place called Lowenbrau’s – and yes it’s owned by the same people who make the beer. As usual, good solid German food, which all of us enjoyed. Well, that is except for Joye. Seems they forgot her order and the waiter didn’t seem to care about it too much. We have not encountered this attitude very often in our travels. But it just serves as a reminder that most people we meet in foreign countries are wonderful. But every country has some SOB’s sprinkled in as well. I guess it’s nice to know we don’t have a monopoly on them in the States.
And Joye responded as Joye would. She employed he mother’s method for dealing with lousy service (For years her mother owned a restaurant in Pampa, Texas.). Joye cancelled her order and left a 1 cent “tip”. As Joye says, this is to let them know that she didn’t forget to leave a tip. The 1 cent was her conscious response to poor service.
But not to worry, Joye did get something to eat. Back at the hotel we went to the bar where she got some pretty good potato soup and brats. And it gave me the opportunity to have a couple of more dark German beers. So, all was not lost.