Category: Germany.

Berlin–After the Wall

Peter L. Rothholz, November 15th 2010

Just twenty years after The Wall came down, Berlin, more than any other world capital, is a city of the twenty-first century. And yet, like Janus of Roman mythology, it simultaneously looks both into the future and into the past.

The dismantling of The Wall resulted in an enormous building boom in Berlin so that, just a few years ago, it still looked like an enormous building site whose skyline was punctuated by giant cranes. On our recent visit, most of the cranes were gone and dramatic new high rise office and residential towers, designed by some of the world’s most creative architects, took their place. And, at a time when passenger rail service is becoming virtually extinct in the USA, Berlin now boasts a spanking new, multi-level, futuristic Hauptbahnhof (central railway station), Europe’s largest rail hub, in what was once “no-man’s land.”

The Friedrichstrasse, once known principally as the border between East and West and the location of “Checkpoint Charlie,” is today the confluence of the “Golden Twenties” tradition and the architecture of the new Berlin, where you will find a chic shopping district featuring the Galleries Lafayette and many of the world’s best-known luxury brands.

When it comes to the arts, Berlin is once again in the forefront of avant garde painters and sculptors and provides a nurturing atmosphere for young artists, musicians, actors and film makers.

As Berlin celebrates its newfound freedom, prominence and prosperity, it also struggles to come to terms with its past. The city is, of course, inordinately proud of its great cultural heritage, the treasures of the ancient world which you can find on its incomparable Museum Isle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its internationally known boulevards, Unter den Linden in the former East and Kurfuerstendamm in the West; KaDeWe and other great department stores, world-class hotels and, of course, its new Reichstag (parliament) buildings.

Among the many museums, monuments and exhibitions dealing with Berlin’s recent history, several stand out as being especially noteworthy. The newest of these is an exhibition at the German Historical Museum entitled “Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime,” The exhibition “shows the interconnection between Hitler’s personal power and the hopes and interests of large sections of German society” and seeks to answer such questions as “how was Hitler’s rise possible?” and “why were so many Germans willing to support the Nazi dictatorship?” (The exhibition remains open through February 6, 2011).

“The Topography of Terror,” a permanent exhibition was recently opened on the site of the former headquarters of the SS (the Nazi security service) and Gestapo (Nazi secret police) on the Wilhelmstrasse, is devoted to documenting the history of Nazi terror and how it spread from Germany throughout German-occupied Europe. Additionally, there is architect Peter Eisenman’s moving “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” located in the immediate vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.

Berliners also look back, some quite nostalgically, to the period when the city was divided. Located in the historical heart of Berlin is the DDR Museum, which invites visitors to “a hands-on experience of everyday life in the former German Democratic Republic” and even includes the wiretapping equipment used by the Stasi (secret police).

And there is even a museum devoted to objects used in successful escapes from the East to West Berlin at the building alongside Checkpoint Charlie on the Friedrichstrasse.

You can tour Berlin on land or by boat but for a real fun adventure consider discovering the city as you drive a “beloved” Trabi, the inimitable East German “Volkswagen.” Sign up for a “Trabi Safari” and drive in a convoy of up to six colorful Trabis. You will get to know Berlin from a truly new perspective as you drive in this old-fashioned vehicle, only a few of which still remain in operation. You will “follow the leader,” who will be broadcasting a running commentary over the car’s radio.

And don’t worry: you will get a proper introduction to the secrets of the Trabi’s revolver-like gearshift before you take off.

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Category: Germany
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