This text refers to my visit to Berlin in August 2014 and it was written at the time, originally published on 25 August 2014, but edited in September 2022.Berlin is a city under construction. It was almost entirely destroyed during the World War II (WWII) and then occupied by the victorious armies, which officially only left Berlin in 1994 during the reunification process of Germany. You can feel a healing process in the air and see the scars left from that dark period in history. So, going to Berlin is an inevitable historical visit. Information and reminders about what happened in Berlin during that period are everywhere and abundant. It seems that keeping the memory much alive is part of the healing process.
WORLD WAR II
The nazi party took the power during the 1930s and it didn’t took long to set the most brutal and inhuman military dictatorship. Their aim: to take over the world by force. And so the WWII began. Gestapo was their police force and the ones responsible for the killings and the concentration camps. Nowadays, their headquarters was teared down and in its place a new modern building was built to house the Topographies des Terrors (Topographies of Terror), a museum about the rise and fall of the nazi party. It’s really horrifying. On the other hand, the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand (The German Resistance Memorial Centre – check their website ) shows the resistance of the German people against the nazis. You finish your visit with a new perspective of the events. This museum is housed in the building where Operation Valkyrie took place (a failed assassination attempt on Hitler that would put a coup in motion) and where the movie about it was filmed. Check the Wikipedia information about it .
WWII ended with the Battle of Berlin. The Battle lasted for 10 days and around 70,000 persons were killed. In 1945 the Soviets build a Memorial in Tiergarten Park as a tribute to the Soviet soldiers killed in this battle. Later, they built a bigger one (which is also a cemetery) in Treptow Park. 50 million people died during the WWII and 25 million were Soviet, so these memorials mean a lot to them as do similar others in other parts of East Europe. However, there are hundreds of cemeteries and memorials related with WWII around Berlin: Italian, Polish, German, …
When the war was over the victorious armies (American, British, French and Soviet) divided Berlin and Germany into sections. Shortly after, the Cold War began, opposing USA (and their allies) to URSS (and their allies). Berlin was located in East Germany, so the western Berlin sections belonging to USA, UK and France were inside East Germany. The Wall was one strategy to kick them out of East Germany – they basically built it around western Berlin in order to isolate them. It officially came down in 1989 but there are still parts of it throughout the city for memory purposes. Due to its importance in shaping the city, an official Memorial is being planned in one of the most controversial and deadly parts of the Wall: Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (The Berlin Wall Memorial Center). The “doors” between eastern and western Berlin were called Checkpoints and were marked as A (Alpha), B (Bravo) and C (Charlie). Checkpoint Charlie, the former USA Checkpoint, has become a huge tourist attraction. Typical things from DDR – Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) –, like cars and traffic lights, have also become tourist attractions. You can rent a car to drive through the city and the traffic lights have their own shop called AMPELMANN (The Traffic Light Man). One of Berlin’s landmarks is the Fernsehturm (TV Tower), built in 1965 and 368 metres high – you can see it almost everywhere. The Karl-Marx Allee (former Stalin Allee) was built to show all the greatness of the Soviet Union.
Before the nazis took the power, Berlin was the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia. Due to the WWII, most of the buildings of this time were destroyed but some of them are being rebuilt. Such is the case of some palaces in Unter den Linden (Under the Lindens), an avenue so called because one of Prussia’s Kings ordered hundreds of linden trees to be planted there. Other examples of that time are the Gendarmenmarkt square and the Schloss Charlottenburg, a summer palace of the King located in the fancy Charlottenburg neighbourhood.
During the Cold War, East Berlin government rebuilt the Nikolaikirche and its surroundings, at the centre of Berlin when it was founded, around 1230. It was originally a church, but became a cultural forum when it was rebuilt and now it’s a museum.
In the 19th century, Berlin was the capital of the Germany Empire. The Reichstag was its Parliament building, which was destroyed during WWII. During the German reunification process, it was rebuilt to house the new German Parliament and it is nowadays called Bundestag (because now is a federation, not an empire). You can book a guided visit for free . They kept the façade as it was but inside it is a very modern building. Curiosity: they also kept some original walls where you can read things written by Soviet soldiers after the Battle for Berlin.
Next to the Bundestag there are modern buildings also related to the German Parliament and the Government. In fact, there are lots of modern buildings throughout the city, like the ones in Potsdamer Platz.
OUTDOOR LIFE AND MUSEUMS
The famous Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) is not far from the Bundestag and it is where the Unter den Linden avenue ends. Passing the gate, we go in the Tiergarten (The Animal Garden), which is almost a real forest – it seems like you suddenly leave the city and arrive at the countryside. Berliners love to go to these parks to take a walk, to cycle, to read or be with the family and friends and to play with the children. It’s really pleasant. Speaking of cycling, outdoor lovers will be happy to know that Berlin is one of the best cities to ride the bicycle: it’s flat, has cycle paths and bicycle rentals everywhere and it seems that everyone uses the bicycle to move around. In other words: bicycles rule!
Berlin is also a good place for a cultural visit. There are amazing museums much worth a visit. Five of the most important museums even have an island of their own: it’s called Museumsinsel (Museum Island). Some museums are related to archaeology and ancient history (Pergamonmuseum , Neues Museum , Altes Museum ) and two about art: paintings and sculptures (Bodemuseum , Alte Nationalgalerie ). Paintings from the Renaissance period are in the Gemäldegalerie , where you can find works from world famous painters.
FOOD AND OTHER THINGS TO DO
The most Berliner typical food is the currywurst (sausage with curry sauce and French fries) – they even have a museum about it (no kidding). Besides sausages of different kinds and from different regions (which is traditional in Germany), you have hearty soups (goulash soup, solyanka soup, and potato soup), dishes with pork (like eisbein – boiled pork hock) and a typical type of pizza. In Berlin they love potatoes – they are in every dish and cooked in oh so many different ways. About deserts: apfelstrüdel is the one you have to try – warm apfelstrüdel with ice-cream. Oh, and ice-cream is the favourite snack in Berlin – you can get it everywhere.
There are lots of other interesting museums to visit and historical places to know. Nightlife is also one of the best in Europe and there are operas, theatres, musical festivals, street markets, art galleries and street art…
Here is a motion time-lapse of Berlin .
Novel to read when in Berlin:
“The Spy Who Came In from the Cold” by John le Carré
The story starts and ends at the Berlin Wall and, in between, all actions happen elsewhere, although they are related to events in Berlin. During the Cold War, Alec Leamas, the Coordinator of British Intelligence in Berlin, returns to London after all members of his spy network are dead at the hands of Hans-Dieter Mundt, the head of the East German Abteilung. After meeting with Control at British Intelligence headquarters, Leamas’ life turns around and soon he enters in a spy game where the end is not what he is expecting. The reader follows Leamas on his journey, where everything has a hidden meaning and everyone is playing a role. Well, almost everyone.
This is the third and best-known novel of John le Carré. David John Moore Cornwell (his real name) worked for British Intelligence during the 1950’s and 1960’s and his spy books are based on his experience, on real people he met, and on real stories he witnessed. For example, his book “Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy” was inspired by a double agent that revealed to KGB the names of many British spies, including David Cornwall himself. He was then forced to leave MI6 and, due to the great success of “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold” we could pursuit a career as a full-time writer.