Whenever someone mentions Berlin, unlike most books, films or documentaries would have you believe, the first thing that pops into my mind is an up-and-coming and vibrant, if a little confused, city that is making up lost time by surpassing some of its European counterparts for being a chic, suave and fashionable destination. It succeeds where some cities don’t in appealing to those that love a contemporary European city as well as those who seek Bohemian surroundings in the 21st century.
At least that’s what my impression of Berlin has been from the few times I’ve been able to visit. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to show the vain side of Berlin, especially seen as it regularly hosts events such as the Fashion Week and an annual film festival, but it’s a safe bet to say that this is not how the city sees itself. As demonstrated in political opinion polls over the past couple of years, there is still a strong presence of the Communism that enveloped the Eastern side of the city, with some Berliners going so far as to say that they wish the Wall were still intact. While this is understandable given that, contrary to how some people would have you believe, the East enjoyed a stable economy and a somewhat comfortable, if restrictive, lifestyle there is a very real danger that the significance of this element in the city’s past is washed over by the city’s future.
As with most historical monuments, they are always at risk of becoming monuments to forgotten times as their importance is watered down by the passing of time and development of younger cultures. The difference with Berlin is that it comes across as more of a living historical monument, not one that is pegged down to specific locations. Of course this would comply with the events that have taken place across this city and it is only fitting that there are constant reminders to that affect.
Not being a native of the city or the country, my voice might not carry much weight, but I can’t help thinking that it is of crucial importance that the city does not sacrifice its immediate monuments to its past for the sake of simple aesthetics. There is an active campaign led by the Berlin government to fill in all bullet holes from times of conflict, including the War and the time of the Wall, but as a tourist and as someone who has regularly enjoyed the city from a historical point of view it is small things like the bullet holes that pockmarked the front of the art museum by the Berliner Dom that show you are standing very much in something real. You don’t see the city council of Rome petitioning for the removal of the ruins because they look a bit scabby.
Few mainstream European cities are caught in such a vacuum of history as Berlin, with its role in the Second World War and the era of the Wall resonating almost everywhere you might go. The building once used by Hermann Goering is now, somewhat ironically, used by the tax-man; there are eye-sore Communist buildings sat next to flash car salesrooms by the Brandenburg Gate. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Berlin might come across as a bit of a confused city. In comparison to the Deutsche powerhouse that is Munich, anyone can see the differences between the two cities and how they reflect their historical backgrounds. Munich has embraced its Bavarian culture which can be seen in their architecture, Berlin seems caught up in the two substantial periods of its lifespan.
Whilst it is easy to get too caught up in the past of Berlin, there is a lot to enjoy in its present. If, like me, you like to see the more diverse, interesting parts of a city, then I would point you in the direction of Oranienburgerstrasse. First introduced to me by my German teacher as “the road where the prostitutes are… don’t talk to the prostitutes!” it is by far one of my favourite places to go (no, not like that). When you turn in off Friedrichstrasse, and walk down you will see a barrage of restaurants eventually leading to the Kunsthaus Tacheles, a striking façade of a building that just demands your undivided attention. Once the home of various shops and other reputable establishments in the Eastern side of the city, it became a palace for the artists and squatters of the city who in turn evolved it into a visual piece quite in a league of its own. It houses a nightclub, a workshop, a café and from taking a quick look inside one of the doorways, the walls are plastered in posters and graffiti, the original surfaces buried under decades of urban artwork. Suffice to say it has had as colourful and eventful a life as the city it resides in. Further down is an equally striking monument to a culture of the city, albeit of a more traditional nature; the synagogue which stands on one of the corners of Oranienburgerstrasse was savaged during the war time and since being rebuilt it has functioned as a museum and Jewish community centre. Once again, this street embodies a sense of the old clashing with the new, a recurring theme that defines Berlin.
A more sombre, but impressive part of the city is one that sits as testimony to one of humanity’s darkest acts. The Holocaust Memorial, an epic yet simple tribute to all of the Jews who were killed under Hitler’s regime can be spotted a mile off as it stands out from its surroundings: 2,711 blocks of concrete which form a network of criss-crossing walkways with the path dipping lower the closer you get to the centre. The purpose of this is simple – to recreate the feeling of being a Jew during the Third Reich, not knowing who or what is coming around the corner next as everything and everyone grow gradually darker around you. The effect really is staggering, and for all of its critics, it is still somewhere that I could spend an age walking around without losing interest.
When writing a piece like this, there’s always going to be an element of bias. I’ve got an image in my mind of what Berlin means to me and the times I’ve had there, and obviously that’s not going to be the same for everyone. After talking to a girl once about the city and going off on one about how great it is (much as I have here), she unenthusiastically shot me down and said she’d been and didn’t see what the fuss was about. Understandable because not everyone takes to Germany after visiting there and I can understand why, but as I said, for me it’s been the place where I’ve had some lifelong memories. From walking through the streets at night and having a mass snowball fight by the Bode Museum to being left on a foreign U-Bahn station after half my class and the teachers got on the wrong train a bit too quickly, from watching Germany play Uruguay in the 2010 World Cup 3rd place play-off to walking back to our hostel at sunrise with an Irish girl after a night at The Matrix club in Kreuzberg. A city that is undeniably special, whether because it is so atypically German or because of the events that have defined it, Berlin will always be one of the stand-out culture capitals of Europe.