War, wall, peace

Trip Start Dec 30, 2006
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Trip End Jul 27, 2007


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Sunday, March 18, 2007

As everyone knows, Berlin is a city steeped, for better or worse, in history.

It's only been just over 16 years since re-unification of east and west Germany and the
amount of development that has occurred in Berlin is breathtaking.

The Berlin wall and separation of a city occurred within my generation and it's hard to believe the city survived so long when you see the divide it created. It has been only since re-unification that many structures and famous areas of Berlin have been able to be reconstructed or replaced since they where destroyed or damaged during the second world war.

Besides a couple stretches of the wall that still stand, most of it is now commemorated by stones outlining the path it took around Berlin.

However, what is truly incredible is seeing buildings and parks that had become no-mans land when the Berlin wall went up 28 years ago.  It may take a few generations for the people of both sides to be truly and fully re-unified but a lot has been done in a relatively short amount of time to make the city feel like a barrier no longer exists between the sides.

I liked Berlin, a lot. So far in Europe it has been, by far, the cheapest place I have visited...so long as you don't want a drink. For some reason you can get a currywurst or donar or loaded baguette for about 2 euro or less but get a drink with that and the drink will cost almost as much as your food. Even the hostel was cheap, at only 8 euro..and it wasn't a flea bag. Only one southern California wannabe gangster in the place. Not too bad.

I ended up doing a free walking tour of Berlin and we went to many historical sites during the four hours. One of the most fascinating parts of the tour, for me, was the visit to the old Royal Library, one of the first public libraries in the world, opened by Frederick the Great in 1661 and obviously historically significant because of that. It was also the site of the famous Nazi book burnings in May 1933. The courtyard outside the library has a great monument consisting of a glass pane looking down into a real room with empty book shelves large enough to hold the 20,000 books burned at that location. A quote on an adjoining plaque quotes one of the authors who had his books burned that day, Heinrich Heine...who died over 100 years before the Nazis took power in Germany. "Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." "They that start by burning books will end by burning men."

The walking tour finished on Museum Island which, surprisingly, is an island - with a lot of museums on it. Very literal, these Germans.  I popped into the GDR museum, dedicated to life of the average person in the German Democratic Republic...otherwise known as East Germany, which was neither Democratic nor a Republic. It was both fascinating and a little creepy at the same time.

Generally speaking any museum I have ever been to that shows a "way of life" is typically showing ancient lifestyles or at the most modern, life in the 20s or 30s. This museum, on the other hand, was showing life as it was in...1989. This felt a little creepy simply because it is so recent. Looking at a recreation of a bedroom or a living room that could have easily been a recreation of MY bedroom or MY living room. If you haven't already seen the movie "Good Bye Lenin" you should rent it. It's a great movie that captures life in East Berlin before and during re-unification that came out a few years ago.

I actually did go to see one movie while in Berlin - "The Good German" - it came out a few months ago and chronicles the time in Berlin right after WWII when Berlin was just being split up by the Allies. I found the movie very interesting, especially as it used real archive footage from the time. I was watching the movie at a brand new Sony theatre at Potsdamer Platz, once one of the busiest commercial areas in Europe, then bombed out during the war and after that one of the dividing lines between the Russian (east Berlin) and American (west Berlin) borders that eventually became the Berlin Wall. It wasn't until after the wall came down that this area I was watching this movie in could be re-developed from the wars destruction. The plaza was shown during the movie frequently as it was one of the main borders between the two sides and it was very surreal watching the movie and recognizing structures like the metro station and buildings around the plaza that still stand today (albeit now they have been greatly refurbished) and look almost the same...knowing that the images shown from the newsreel footage stayed that way for almost 45 years before those buildings where restored.

I can't imagine what it would have been like, growing up in that environment and then, all of a sudden, when I was 12 years old, having everything I know turn upside down when the wall fell and re-unification occurred. It's because of the fact that its history is so recent that I found Berlin fascinating. In fact, it was like living history on the streets - just watching people and talking to people. People grew up in the same city, are the same age and can have complete opposite lives...I can only imagine the great challenges faced with re-unification and can't imagine how long it will take to get generations of people with the type of shared experiences that will be necessary for true re-unification.
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