City with a haunting past

City with a haunting past

Berlin Blues

City with a haunting past

“Which part did this area belong to — east or west?” I ask a youngster at the taxi rank outside Berlin’s main railway station. He looks puzzled. “This is Berlin, the capital city of Germany,” he replies with a confused look on his face.

This instantly sent the message across that young Berliners don’t pay attention to the nation’s turbulent past, though it is of great interest to tourists who are keen to get a taste of the land that Hitler had ruled, Stalin had muscled, and a stone wall had separated brothers and sisters.

In my mind, I always classified the city’s history into five significant periods, from the glorious time of the Prussian kings in the 17th century to Weimar era post World War I; followed by  when the city was divided into two; and the present state after the historic reunification in 1989.

The city is no different than any other 21st century European metropolis, with large office blocks, contemporary residential complexes, glitzy shopping arenas, luxury hotels, cafés, bars, restaurants, art galleries and opera houses, all linked by an efficient public transport system.

Beautiful parks, gardens and architecturally astute buildings flank its stream of wide boulevards and avenues, packed with speeding Volkswagens, Mercedes and BMWs. However, under its modern umbrella, the city still preserves many imprints of the past, and my mission was to explore them.

Considered one of Europe’s younger cities, written reference of Berlin was found first around 1237. However, prominence came in much later, under the Prussians in the 17th century, when several architectural marvels were added to the cityscape — Charlottenburg Palace, Berliner Dom, Reichstag, and the Brandenburg Gate — that became jewels in the crown.

You can feel the beats of the city’s history while standing in front of the impressive Brandenburg Gate, an unmistakable symbol of Berlin. Standing majestically at the end of Unter den Linden, one of Berlin’s most prestigious thoroughfares, this Neo-classical gateway was built in the 18th century as a symbol of peace, but hardly witnessed any until 1989.

Not long after its construction, Berlin, for a little while, came under the French, and as per Emperor Napoleon’s order, the magnificent figurine of Quadriga that crowned the structure was dismantled and sent to Paris. What a shame! However, it was returned eight years later, and after repositioning, it now winningly points towards the distant French Embassy. While withstanding sun, rain and bombing as well, this 200-year-old sandstone monument has borne witness to many of Berlin’s important events, from celebrations to killings.

The fall of the Berlin Wall happened practically as suddenly as its rise. Every visitor to Berlin wants to see the remains of the wall, which exists in pieces here and there, however as per guide book recommendations, the best location is the one mile stretch at Muhlenstrasse, now displaying artwork from 118 artists from 21 countries.

Another section of interest is the “Check Point Charlie”, the earlier border crossing point for diplomats and foreigners. The present road near it still bears protrusions of the removed wall.

I notice many people walking few steps on one side, followed by few on the other, perhaps symbolising freedom, as crossing over without permission prior to 1989 would have called for bullets from the watchful guards. Pictures of few who tried to do so are displayed on walls near the Reichstag, where the new German Parliament stands.

Berliners had a tough time for the most part of 20th century. During the Nazi regime, any opposition to the authorities were dealt harshly at the various concentration camps, which were established for eliminating the enemies of the Reich and their cluster of “undesirables” that ranged from the Jews and Communists to the homosexuals, gypsies, and mentally ill.

From Berlin, you can visit the 1936 Sachsenhausen concentration camp, located 35 km away, where one needs a strong heart to go around the ruined barracks, punishment cells, execution grounds and crematorium that shows signs of unthinkable brutality.

The life of Berliners, who unfortunately got their fate sealed in the eastern quarter, didn’t get any better at the end of the Nazi era; many claim that to be worse under the Communist regime. You will get some idea about that at the Stasi Museum, which draws a picture of daily life in East Germany, constantly filled with fear, restrictions and suspicion. The museum is housed inside the former headquarters of the Ministry for State Security, better known as “Stasi”, which considered itself as the shield and sword of the party and the government.

Since unification, lots of water has flown through the Spree river. Berliners are happy now, enjoying their beer, sausage, football and music. I am not sure if they feel proud or ashamed of the past, but recent construction of a large Holocaust Memorial in the city centre depicts a view of modern Berlin.

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