Berlin


Berlin is the capital city and one of sixteen states of Germany. With a population of 3.4 million within its city limits, Berlin is the country’s largest city.  Located in northeastern Germany, it is the center of the Berlin-Brandenburg metropolitan area, comprising 5 million people from over 190 nations.  

Berlin was successively the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia (1701-1918), the German Empire (1871-1918), the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) and the Third Reich (1933-1945).  After World War II, the city was divided; East Berlin became the capital of East Germany while West Berlin became a Western enclave, surrounded by the Berlin Wall from 1961-1989. Following German reunification in 1990, the city regained its status as the capital of all Germany.

Walking around Berlin reminded me of Vienna and even Paris but with a more eclectic and modern feel.  All of the same shops we recognize from the U.S.A. are here but with a more sanitized, austere feel.  There are almost no traces of the pre-1990 communist Eastern German rule with the exception of markers on the ground showing where the Berlin Wall existed.  The only other clues are the street signs which are decidedly socialist in origin to the east of the Brandenburg Gate (e.g., Karl Marx Straße).

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

The Protestant Kaiser William Memorial Church (in German: Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche) is located in Berlin on the Kurfürstendamm in the centre of the Breitscheidplatz. The original church on the site was built in the 1890s. It was badly damaged in a bombing raid in 1943. The present building, which consists of a church with an attached foyer and a separate belfry with an attached chapel, was built between 1959 and 1963. The damaged spire of the old church has been retained and its ground floor has been made into a memorial hall.

Brandenburger Tor

The Brandenburg Gate (German: Brandenburger Tor) is a former city gate and one of the main symbols of Berlin and Germany. It is located west of the city center at the intersection of Unter den Linden and Ebertstraße, immediately west of the Pariser Platz. It is the only remaining gate of a series through which one formerly entered Berlin. One block to its north lies the Reichstag. The gate is the monumental entry to Unter den Linden, the renowned boulevard of linden trees which formerly led directly to the city palace of the Prussian monarchs. It was commissioned by King Frederick William II of Prussia as a sign of peace and built by Carl Gotthard Langhans from 1788 to 1791. Today, it is considered one of Europe’s most famous landmarks.

Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall (German: Berliner Mauer) was a physical barrier separating West Berlin from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (East Germany), including East Berlin. The longer ‘inner German border’ demarcated the border between East and West Germany. Both borders came to symbolize the Iron Curtain between Western and Eastern Europe. There were 2,000 walls that separated the Eastern side from the Western side.

The wall separated the two German states for 28 years and 1 day, from the day construction began on August 13, 1961 until it was dismantled beginning in late 1989, and was considered to be a longtime symbol of the Iron Curtain.  During this period, at least 136 people were confirmed killed trying to cross the Wall into West Berlin, according to official figures. However, a prominent victims’ group claims that more than 200 people were killed trying to flee from East to West Berlin. The East German government issued shooting orders to border guards dealing with defectors; such orders are not the same as shoot to kill orders which GDR officials denied ever issuing.

When the East German government announced on November 9, 1989, after several weeks of civil unrest, that all GDR citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin, crowds of East Germans climbed onto and crossed the wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, parts of the wall were chipped away by a euphoric public and by souvenir hunters; industrial equipment was later used to remove almost all of the rest of it.  The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, which was formally concluded on October 3, 1990.

Reichstag Building

The Reichstag building in Berlin was constructed to house the Reichstag, the first parliament of the German Empire. It was opened in 1894 and housed the Reichstag until 1933, when it was severely damaged in a fire supposedly set by a Dutch communist, Marinus van der Lubbe, who was later beheaded for the crime.  The Reichstag building again became the seat of the German parliament in 1999 after a reconstruction led by internationally renowned architect Norman Foster.

Today’s parliament of Germany is called the Bundestag. The Reichstag as a parliament dates back to the Holy Roman Empire and ceased to act as a true parliament in the years of the Nazi regime (1933–1945). In today’s usage, the German term Reichstag or Reichstagsgebäude (Reichstag building) refers to the building, while the term Bundestag refers to the institution.  

The Reichstag dome is the iconic large glass dome at the top of the building. The dome has a 360 degree view of the surrounding Berlin cityscape. The main hall of the parliament below can also be seen from the cupola, and natural light from above radiates down to the parliament floor. A large sun shield tracks the movement of the sun electronically and blocks direct sunlight which might blind those below. Construction work was finished in 1999 and the seat of parliament was transferred to the Reichstag in April of that year. The dome is open to anyone without prior registration, although the waiting queues can be very long, especially in summer.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial, is a memorial in Berlin to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold. It consists of a 19,000 square meter (4.7 acre) site covered with 2,711 concrete slabs or “stelae”, arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. The stelae are 2.38m (7.8′) long, 0.95m (3′ 1.5″) wide and vary in height from 0.2 m to 4.8m (8″ to 15’9″).

According to Eisenman’s project text, the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. A 2005 copy of the Foundation for the Memorial’s official English tourist pamphlet, however, states that the design represents a radical approach to the traditional concept of a memorial, partly because Eisenman did not use any symbolism. An attached underground “Place of Information” (German: Ort der Information) holds the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims, obtained from the Israeli museum Yad Vashem.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie was the name given by the Western Allies to a crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War, located at the junction of Friedrichstraße with Zimmerstraße and Mauerstraße (which coincidentally means ‘Wall Street’).  It is in the Friedrichstadt neighborhood, which was divided by the Berlin Wall. Many other sector crossing points existed in Berlin. Some of these were designated for residents of West Berlin and West German citizens. Checkpoint Charlie was designated as the single crossing point (by foot or by car) for foreigners and members of the Allied forces. (Members of the Allied forces were not allowed to use the other sector crossing point designated for use by foreigners, the Friedrichstraße railway station.)

The name Charlie came for the letter C in the NATO phonetic alphabet; similarly for other Allied checkpoints on the Autobahn to the West: Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt and Checkpoint Bravo at Dreilinden, southeast of Wannsee. The Soviets simply called it the Friedrichstraße Crossing Point (КПП Фридрихштрассе) . The East Germans officially referred to Checkpoint Charlie as the Grenzübergangsstelle (“Border Crossing Point”) Friedrich-/Zimmerstraße.

Checkpoint Charlie became a symbol of the Cold War, representing the separation of east and west, and — for some East Germans — a gateway to freedom. It is frequently featured in spy movies and books, such as those by John le Carré. The famous cafe and viewing point for Allied officials, Armed Forces and visitors alike, Cafe Adler (“Cafe Eagle”), is situated right on the checkpoint. It was an excellent viewing point to look into East Berlin, while having something to eat and drink.  Today it is a major tourist attraction with museums, “Snack Point Charlie” and a place where you can get passport stamps from all of the world superpowers at the time.  A reproduction of the 1960s-era wooden shed was placed at the site of the original.

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