Guest Blog Post by Shane Breslin
It’s less than 30 years since the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, hastening the end of one of global history’s most tumultuous periods. “The short twentieth century” was coined by historian Eric Hobsbawm to describe a period which started with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, and Berlin played a central role in so much of it.
It was the capital of the rising economic powerhouse of Germany-Prussia in 1914 and the seat of Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose declaration of war on Russia on August 1st precipitated The Great War.
It saw most of the public life and death of Adolf Hitler, who ruled from Berlin after the Nazi Party came to power in 1933 and took up residence in his underground Fuhrerbunker in the city in January 1945 until taking his own life four months later. The war wreaked havoc on the city’s people and its architecture, with so much of it decimated by continued aerial bombardment.
It was split in two in a crazy agreement by the World War II victors, in effect creating a western city state in West Berlin deep inside East German after partition, and when tensions inevitably increased the wall was erected in 1961 to maintain divisions and limit movement from East to West.
Berlin was also the site of one of the most famous political speeches of the century, when Ronald Reagan, from under the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, urged Mr Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”.
Since the Berlin Wall was indeed torn down and Germany reunified in 1990, Berlin has re-emerged as a major world city, as the restored capital of once again Europe’s dominant economy.
It’s fair to say that history is never far away when you take in some time in Berlin.
There are other factors at play, too.
In the 1920s, in the Weimar interlude between the two wars, Berlin was seen as a haven for artists and intellectuals, and it’s impossible to escape the fact that the modern city still cherishes its art.
While the weather might be cold and dull, and the city has plenty to offer in the realm of concrete vistas, still art and colour is everywhere – from the reconstituted East Side Gallery, which saw artists from all over the world come together to transform a 1.3km section of the Berlin Wall into a series of artworks, to the graffiti which adorns almost every exposed vertical surface.
On virtually every street there are private or co-operative galleries. Even shopping centres on Friedrichstrasse, Berlin’s main commercial drag, house galleries. Whether that’s a reflection of lower rents or a higher place for art in the hierarchy of human needs remains uncertain, but there’s no escaping how important art is to the Berlin psyche.
Then there’s the food.
One of the first things we encountered, on the short walk from Schonefeld airport in the south of the city to the adjoining railway station, was a van selling the ubiquitous “currywurst”, a Berlin speciality. The idea of a sausage smothered in a mix of curry sauce and tomato ketchup didn’t take our fancy, so we moved on quickly.
Currywurst included, convenience food is everywhere, on every street and corner, much of it in various forms of baked goods. If you enjoy a croissant or pretzel, Berlin is the place for you.
Indeed, if food is your thing at any level, Berlin should have you well set. It has been heralded as the vegan capital of Europe, and even boasts an entire street dedicated to all things animal product-free, Schivelbeiner Strasse (or Vegan Avenue), which includes cafes, restaurants and bars as well as clothes shops.
We discovered, in Factory Girl, a particular foodie joy. If you have no allergies, try the brunch platter for €10.50 – countless cheese and bread variations, served with a range of condiments. Never has honey, olive tapenade and nutella gone so well together. Another breakfast haven was the House of Small Wonders, with its unique decor, Japanese tone and constant waiting list.
We’ve come to expect exceptional transport systems in major European cities, and Berlin is no different. From the twice-hourly express train from Schonefeld airport to a single integrated transport ticket that allows you unlimited single-day travel from the airport and including all buses, trams, overground trains (or S-Bahn) and the underground (or U-Bahn) for just €7.70 (regular adult), with reduced fares available if you’re older or younger.
If language barriers scare you, don’t be put off. Our German is not even rudimentary, unfortunately, so while we stumbled and stuttered in restaurants, invariably our server was able to switch seamlessly into English – often with a mid-Atlantic accent and better pronunciation than ours. And it wasn’t only the hospitality industries. We were approached by a mannerly homeless man on the U-Bahn one morning, and when we managed to communicate that we couldn’t speak German, he was able to transition into English to ask for a few cents to buy water. Impressed, we acceded readily.
But the history. The history is everywhere, and it’s pervasive.
There are literally hundreds of museums, way more to see in a decade, never mind a fleeting weekend. (There’s even an entire island in the middle of the river Spree. Unsurprisingly, it’s called Museum Island.) On noticing that our hotel (the beautiful little boutique i31, situated in Mitte and a bargain via hotels website and mobile app Agoda) was 200 yards from the Naturkundemuseum (Natural History), we spent an afternoon there.
Naturkundemuseum houses the largest reassembled dinosaur skeleton in the world, as well as a bewildering assortment of animal specimens housed in jars stretching all the way down a massive room and all the way to a high ceiling. All the world is here; once alive, and now preserved in large glass jars. Catching a glimpse of a ghostly hammerhead shark was a particular highlight. Naturkundemuseum is also the home of a piece of movie joy – lie back in a darkened room and watch the history of the universe in 7 glorious minutes. We didn’t understand a word of it, but we didn’t need to.
We also made it to the German Historical Museum, a sprawling expanse of two massive buildings situated in the heart of official Germany, just off the Bundesstrasse halfway between the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate at one end and Alexanderplatz at the other.
Three hours had passed before herself had even got as far as World War I – at that pace, given that plenty of German history has happened since then, it would have taken her a day and a half to properly get round it all.
It is stunning.
Two photos stood out, both taken at Auschwitz in 1942.
The first: Daniel Baumwitter, a picture of absolute human defiance. The name-plate summarily informed us of the details. Registered at Auschwitz on February 6th, died February 19th. Less than two weeks in that hell on earth for this 60-year-old Jewish man. What must those 13 days have been like for him and countless others? Can we ever really know?
The other was of Krystyna Trzesniewska. Where Daniel was all sinewy defiance, Krystyna, a 13-year-old Polish girl, is pure tears. The photo was taken at Auschwitz on December 13th, 1942, and the sheer terror in her eyes strikes right to the core. I will never be the same again for having seen them.
Krystyna Trzesniewska turned 14 in Auschwitz in January 1943. Her date of death: May 18th, 1943.
May Krystyna, Daniel and all the rest of those stricken millions, may they all rest in peace.
Progressive in its outlook while preserving humanity’s despicable past, Berlin is a triumph.
Irish politician Mary Harney once famously, and controversially, said that us Irish should look to Boston more than Berlin. Culturally, linguistically, ethnically, there remains a lot of truth in those words.
But no matter which way you cut it, we are part of Europe.
For much of our time in Berlin our chief concern was huddling against the bitter wind. That underlines how far our Europe has come this past 70 years.
We live in a Europe where people can travel safely and freely.
It is a Europe under threat, but it’s one worth celebrating, cherishing, protecting.
Go, and enjoy your trip.
Guest Blog Post by Shane Breslin