Berlin was kind of a weird city for me. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Probably due to where we were staying (Alexanderplatz), which was previously part of communist East Berlin, it was a strange mix of stark, brutalist buildings from the 70s and opulent classical architecture * from Germany’s better days, both sitting side by side on wide, open boulevards built too ambitiously large in preparation for city that never recovered its pre-war population. The end result was that I felt like I was walking through a city with no real inhabitants, but instead populated almost exclusively by dour curry wurst stall-holders sizzling pale, limp sausages on every street corner.
*Probably wrong about the architecture classification, but basically they looked really grand.
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[caption id="attachment_817" align="alignnone" width="4592"] The German church
[caption id="attachment_822" align="alignnone" width="4592"] Currywurst errywhere
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Firecracker aftermath (no one cleans up after themselves??)[/caption]
We also arrived at a somewhat awkward time between Christmas and New Years, so the city seemed half tired, half resolutely partying on (or maybe that was a reflection of
my own emotions). What I initially thought were continuous gunshots going off 24/7 turned out to be firecrackers going off 24/7 everywhere and anywhere, including in the underground train station (which scared the shit out of me the first time).
We started our first real day with a tour that focused mostly on 20th
century Berlin. To Germany’s credit, the atrocities that Hitler and the Nazi regime were responsible for were in plain sight, from the monumental Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
, to the numerous museums and monuments dedicated to the victims of the Third Reich. Additionally, there was no public monument (at least, that we could find) for the fallen German soldiers of WWII, which is understandable given what ideals they were fighting for. Nonetheless, I do wonder what it’s like to live in a city where you are always reminded of the past atrocities that your country’s government committed.
[caption id="attachment_806" align="alignnone" width="3916"] Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
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[caption id="attachment_832" align="alignnone" width="4592"] The site where Hitler killed himself at the end of WWII. It’s now a nondescrapt carpark, to stop neo-Nazis from making it a place of pilgrimage
[caption id="attachment_819" align="alignnone" width="4592"] Book Burning Memorial outside the University – A window down into empty shelves capable of holding 20, 000 books (roughly the number burnt by Nazis in the infamous book burning of 1933)
[caption id="attachment_816" align="alignnone" width="4412"] The Book Burning Memorial plaque, with a quote from Heinrich Heine, which was oddly poignant in how predictive it was of what was to come:
That was only a prelude, there where they burn books, they burn in the end people. (Heine, 1820)[/caption]
A question that commonly comes up is how Hitler managed carry out the atrocities he planned with the support of a government, and the majority of the German population (at least, for the most part of his reign). At the Topography of Terror museum, video files of Nazi perpetrators denying all responsibility initially made me angry/sad (sangry?!), but then I thought that perhaps the coward’s excuse had some reason to it. The roles ushering victims along the path to death were so many and so fragmented that it could be easy to cope with the truth by telling yourself that you simply paraded innocent people through the streets (to certain death at a concentration camp), or simply fielded correspondence (that got innocent people arrested), or simply followed orders (to pull the trigger). In addition, Hitler had worked hard from the start of his reign to build populous support, giving the impression that life was improving for the common German with campaigns improving quality of life (holidays!), national infrastructure (rail/roads), finances and international prestige (Hitler held host to the 1936 Olympics). Adding to this was a general atmosphere of complicit terror, aided by his systematic eradication of all political opposition, a move which trickled down into the community, where speaking out spelled certain death. [Also, all of my Year 12 history was coming back, which helped a lot with appreciating the things we saw].
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[caption id="attachment_825" align="alignnone" width="4592"] Kind of crazy how systematic the plan to exterminate Jews was. It can be seen in this official document (just one of many), which clearly sets out goals for the arrest and persecution of Jews.
The Sachsenhausen concentration camp was actually quite bare, as it had been stripped of its bunks and buildings in the post WWII tumult. For me, at least, it made it harder to visualise what happened here, although walking through the gate and seeing that infamous slogan did give me chills. The recounts of the various forms of torture and death were really sobering, but I think it was hard to appreciate because it just so cold that we were actually running from place to place to stop our toes falling off. In saying that, it was easier to imagine the misery of winter, when temperatures would drop below zero and the prisoners were in pyjamas rather than plushy down jackets. It was built literally at the edge of the town, and although most the townsfolk were ignorant to its realities (wilfully or otherwise), some stories of kindness did emerge. Looking at the monuments around, it was also deeply affecting to think how many different groups of people were targeted. There were not only Jews, but Dutch dissenters, homosexuals, political prisoners, those from nuerous Eastern European countries… just how far the Nazi hold spread was actually quite terrifying to think about.
[caption id="attachment_835" align="alignnone" width="4592"] SS Guards’ houses leading to the entrance of Sachsenhausen, built in the “ideal” German style typically seen in the Alps. They are inhabited today by townspeople.
[caption id="attachment_820" align="alignnone" width="3448"] Gate A (Entrance): Work will set you free
[caption id="attachment_836" align="alignnone" width="4592"] Memorial to Soviet soldiers who liberated the prisoners that were left in Sachsenhausen. Those healthy enough to move were forced on a death march away from the approaching Allied forces.
[caption id="attachment_831" align="alignnone" width="4592"] Foundations of Station Z (The exit): Prisoners were led from room to room on the pretense of getting a medical, and shot in the back of the neck while they thought they were getting their height measured (gassing happened later on). They had to develop new, more detached ways of killing, as the soldiers were beginning to show signs of psychological distress.
[caption id="attachment_829" align="alignnone" width="4592"] The sleepy town today – you actually wouldn’t guess that there was concentration camp in the town, as there are barely any signs pointing the way/ads for tours etc.
Shortly after the trauma of WWII, peace in Germany didn’t seem to last long before the Cold War set in, dividing Berlin in half politically and physically. Most of the wall (over 100km of it) was built in 6 hours overnight, so citizens literally woke up to a city divided. It was only torn down in 1990, which is crazy to think that it happened just a few years before we were born, and definitely within our parent’s life times (like, what was the international opinion about this Wall situation, and why weren’t people out on the streets protesting every weekend?? Maybe it’s like how we view North Korea now, sort of on the periphery of our political consciousness?). Anyway, maybe that’s why the city seems kind of grungy and incongruent, like it hasn’t really figured out its vibe yet – I guess it’s only relatively recently that it has
been a city united.Kinda derelict building opposite us - found these all over where we were staying
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[caption id="attachment_843" align="alignnone" width="4592"] Segments of the Berlin Wall
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In terms of Landmarks, we also visited the Reichstag dome. It was foggy, so the audio guide pointing out important buildings and spectacular views was pretty much lost on us. Nonetheless, it was quite an impressive building, with an open dome/funnel system above parliament. Below, it was also really interesting to see the extraordinary resilience of the Reichstag, from being set on fire during Hitler’s reign, to falling into almost complete obliterated disrepair post WWII/during the Cold War. Despite all this, it was still rebuilt, and to me, stands as symbol of Germany’s will and ability to use the past to guide towards a better future.
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[caption id="attachment_824" align="alignnone" width="4592"] On the roof of the Reichstag
[gallery ids="475,474" type="columns"]The open roof of the domeFood
– Berlin (food-wise) is a pretty much a bleak, dark place in my memories. There weren’t all that many food options nearby that weren’t hotel/cafeteria style food or currywurst stalls, and there wasn’t a kitchen or fridge in the hostel, so we pretty much survived on crackers and bread. To be fair, something about the texture/flavour of German bread is quite addictive, especially the potato bread, which sounds like an abomination, but really combines two of the four essential food groups for winter dining (the other two being sauerkraut and sausage).
[caption id="attachment_852" align="alignnone" width="4592"] Currywurst
We visited a Christmas market the first night, where the stalls were 90% currywurst/roast pork, and 10% gluhwein. One time Anwyn and I went to an actual restaurant. I took a picture to mark the occasion when we had a whole vegetable for the first time in a week. MuseumsJewish Museum –
a really cool architectural space, with some art installations designed for the space.
The Shalekhet – Fallen Leaves
(Kadishman) is an installation whose design works very well in the space. The museum has a couple of empty “voids” – angular spaces that stretch straight up through the building. In this space, Kadishman has laid the floor with heavy, iron plates which have been crudely carved out with individual faces stretched out into silent screams. Although you try to tread as softly as possible, the clanging sounds ring out like cacophony of cries up into the vertical space of the void.
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The Holocaust Tower
was another interesting space. It was a cold, jagged room with black stone walls, stretching straight up into a vacuum of pitch black nothingness. The only light was a vent at the very top, representative of the sliver of hope that people may have turned their faces towards in the dark despair of the Holocaust.
Although we didn’t have much time to look through the exhibit, I actually hadn’t realised how widespread anti-Semitism has been across almost every century and continent. Persecution seems to have been the constant backdrop in the life of a practicing Jew at any point in time.Bauhaus Archives
Out of the turmoil of WWI, the Bauhaus was a movement that extolled simplicity, functionality and efficiency. More than just an art form, it was a school that dedicated itself to merging art, design and architecture. For example, all the lights in the school were designed by the students themselves. I had seen bits and pieces of the Bauhaus in Melbourne, but I remember being not very impressed by how plain everything was. I think with the historical context of what they were doing, however, you can kind of start to appreciate how ground-breaking everything was. For example, the tubular chair which can probably be found at every BBQ in the outer suburbs was originally a Bauhaus design. It was an exercise in building the first chair that moved away from the typical four-legged chair, and specifically extolled the Bauhaus adage of balance, simplicity and functionality by using the least material possible, and achieving balance in both form and practicality (when the person sat down in it). I also really liked the Mies van der Rohe house built for the Barcelona International Exhibition in 1983.
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[caption id="attachment_799" align="alignnone" width="500"] One incarnation of Breuer’s tubular chair
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From: https://eilishscreativespace.wordpress.com/mies-van-der-rohe/[/caption]New Years/Berlin by Night:
Maybe we didn’t go to the right places, but Berlin clubbing is really kind of weird. It’s like everything you imagine a Euro club to be – mostly in kind of dodgy buildings with scaffolding (aesthetics or just holding the walls up?!). The music was more like a minimal electronic beat that barely changed pace or intensity, reducing the chain-smoking dance floor to just sort of aggressively stepping side to side. The policy seemed to be minimal visibility at all times, so once the cloud of cigarette smoke lifted, it would be swiftly replaced with enthusiastic gusts of smoke machine. At the end of it, it was kind of fun… but only if you tried hard to.
Sitting in the hallway of the hostel, eating peanut butter out of the jar was not exactly how I envisaged spending the morning of New Years, but it was a good a place as any to write some resolutions.
I’m writing a couple here to keep me accountable:
- Be a better daughter/granddaughter
- Be less critical of things
- Actually ring in the New Year this year lol
[gallery ids="302,314" type="rectangular"] Misc.
[caption id="attachment_818" align="alignnone" width="4592"] Foggy mornings with the needle
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Walking along the Spree[/caption]
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[caption id="attachment_853" align="alignnone" width="4592"] “Do you want some bread?” “Anwyn, all we’ve bloody eaten for the last week is bread”