Berlin

Trip Start Feb 15, 2008
1
48
60
Trip End May 31, 2008


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Flag of Germany  , Berlin,
Sunday, May 4, 2008

That morning we headed for the German capital of Berlin. Germany is the largest country in Europe and being hard workers, they have the world's third largest economy. The country is probably most famous for causing both of the World Wars and therefore celebrating national holidays here is considered bad taste. They are also famous for beer drinking; beer is cheap here and the glasses it comes in are huge. It's also where the Protestant movement broke away from the Roman Catholic Church under Martin Luther in the mid 1500's.

On our way to Berlin we made a short stop at the beautiful town of Dresden which lies in the valley of the River Elbe. In the 15th century this town flourished when the Kings of Saxony decided to live there and the creation of some fabulous architecture followed. However one night toward the end of WWII the Americans carpet bombed Dresden almost completely destroying the city and killing 35,000 people; a move which was later considered unnecessary. At the end of the war the city fell into the Soviet controlled Eastern Block and remained so for just over 40 years. Since this time the historic buildings have been reconstructed and I found it difficult to believe that they had ever been in ruins.

Berlin will always be remembered as a city once divided. In 1945 it was the Soviet Allies who reached Berlin first and therefore the capital was situated in the new communist East Germany. However the western allies would not accept that the capital was to be solely controlled by the Soviets so negotiations were made to have the city divided into four parts with the three parts controlled by the western allies known as West Berlin and the remaining part controlled by the Soviets known as East Berlin. With Berlin lying completely within East Germany, West Berlin became something of a democratic island and residents were given heavy tax exemptions to compensate the inconveniences of living there.

Those living in East Germany were free to cross into West Berlin and change their passport for a West German passport then leave Berlin by train or plane. Therefore as the economic situation of the East continued to decline and the standard of living in the west continued to improve more East Germans took advantage of this opportunity to leave. Between 1945 and 1961 many East Germans fled the country in search of a better life. To stop the exodus of their population the East Germans erected a 156 Km barbed wire fence around Berlin's three western sectors.

This fence was erected early on the morning of August the 13th 1961 and was later upgraded to a concrete wall or actually two walls with the strip between known as 'no man's land'. Anyone caught in ‘no man's land’ was shot. A number of people actually succeeded at crossing over (or under) the wall though at least 133 were shot but this figure could have actually been as high as 200. On the memorable evening of August the 9 1989, people were again able to cross this boarder freely. In the weeks which followed, the wall which divided this city for so long was removed and Germany was reunited on October the 3rd 1990. A few remnants of the wall including a couple of watchtowers have been left standing as a reminder.

The following day I took a walking tour of some important sites which had particular significance in WWII. A number of buildings constructed by Hitler still remain and it appears that these were purposely constructed to look ugly. Fortunately Hitler was not able to reconstruct Berlin as the capital of his Germania as he had intended to. This reconstruction was to feature a hideous domed complex with a roof reaching to over 200 metres high where 180,000 people would be able to sit and listen to a ranting, raving dictator. In fact the roof of this dome would have been so high that clouds of perspiration and expired air would have formed in the ceiling and returned to the occupants as rain.

Most of the significant buildings in Berlin were either lost to bombing during the Second World War or demolished in the years which followed to make way for new housing or commercial developments. The sites of interest in Berlin which I explored later that day by bicycle included the Fernsehturm which is a TV tower, though it is better known as the needle and at 368 metres it is the second highest building in the European Union.

We also visited the monument to the Murdered Jews of WWII which was designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold. It's been a little controversial though I think it achieves the point that it sets out to convey. The site covers 19,000 square metres and features 2,711 concrete blocks of which no two are identical. At the edges the obstacles which demonstrate the oppression suffered by the Jew are not too great, though as one enters deeper into the monument the blocks become daunting and tower over you. It's actually quite demeaning and does genuinely give a sensation of being controlled or trapped.

I also visited the Brandenburg Gate which has become an iconic landmark of Berlin and Germany, the Reichstag building which is the traditional seat of the German Parliament and was partially destroyed during WWII though now features a glass dome roof that can be climbed for free, the Berliner Dom which is a Protestant cathedral which was heavily damaged during WWII though has been restored and the Siegessäule (Victory Column) which was built to commemorate Prussia's victories and can be climbed for great views of the park and city.

That evening our group took a pub crawl visiting a number of bars and clubs in the city though of most interest was this dingy, smoky original East Berlin pub with graffiti covered walls and Soviet inspired artwork. The following day we made our way to the final stop of the tour, Amsterdam.
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