Berlin Abides

[Brenna Graham is a grad-student researching for a year in Rome, Italy. When she’s not flitting about the continent, you can find her at the nearest gelateria or buried in any one of Rome’s dustiest libraries.]

Berlin radiates vibrancy and is arguably the most exciting European capital to visit right now, but it is also a complex city that certainly does not shy away from displaying its terrible past. For Americans traveling in Europe the evidence of history is much more palpable and present than we are typically used to, and when visiting Berlin for the first time, the painful freshness of that history can be almost overwhelming. Wandering through the hugely expansive city among the fantastic museums, currywurst stands, and street art you are constantly reminded of the atrocities of World War II and the Cold War. Not that your entire trip will be overshadowed by doom and gloom, but noticing and appreciating these sometimes rather subtle displays of history can emotionally and intellectually enrich your visits to Berlin’s most awesome museums-bars-clubs-museum-club-bar-bar-club-museum-club-club-club-clu-club-cl-c-c-.

The first and most obvious reminder of the recent brutality of Berlin’s history is the impossible-to-ignore TV Tower or Fernsehturm. The 1200-plus-foot-tall tower built in East Berlin in 1965-69 by the Soviet-aligned German Democratic Republic looms large over almost every horizon.

There are hardly any skyscrapers in the city center, so the TV Tower dominates the skyline and is a tremendously visible marker of the former divisions of East and West Berlin and the competition between the two halves. The tower is by a significant margin taller than anything built in former West Berlin. It is also a testament to the ugly functionality of communist buildings from the era, because, let’s be honest, despite its iconic status as a city symbol today, it’s not particularly pretty.

With the TV Tower projecting remembrance of the Cold War through the sky there are smaller but perhaps more moving reminders of that conflict on the ground. While you wander through the city you might come across a double row of larger cobblestones running down the edge of a street or across a sidewalk. This line of stones is punctuated by plaques that read “Berliner Mauer 1961-1989.”

The stones denote the location of the Berlin Wall as it zigzagged around the former West Berlin. At times the line actually leads to a scrap of wall, perhaps covered with graffiti or old gum, but still oppressively tall, solidly concrete, and frighteningly imposing.

The paintings of the East Side Gallery (which, terribly, is facing destruction right now at the hands of developers) provide an at-times humorous approach to the remains of the wall, but crossing the double-line of cobblestones multiple times, sometimes consciously, sometimes without noticing, while traversing the city puts into sharp perspective how circumscribed and divided it used to be. I made a point to look down and watch for those stones, to jump over the line whenever I approached it, to be aware that only a few short years ago what I had just done was impossible.

While watching for the line indicating the former wall you might also notice something else on the ground (that isn’t cigarette butts or dog droppings). Occasionally you might see little brass plaques, the size of a cobblestone, inscribed with information about the life of a victim of the Holocaust. Created by artist Gunter Demnig, these “stumbling blocks” or “Stolperstein” are scattered throughout the city, often at the victim’s last known residence, and make for a subtly haunting indicator of how pervasive Nazi terror was.

If you did not know in advance that the stumbling blocks were there you might never notice them, but once you happen upon one, read the name, see the dates—both of birth and death, if known—suddenly events that happened seventy-five-plus years ago seem so much more personal, even if you do not know anyone who was involved.

So scattered among all the excellent cafes, museums, currywurst stands, clubs, large-scale official monuments, Dunkin’ Donuts (seriously, they have them there), and hip expats, Berlin shows you its deep, deep scars. By marking the city with its past–letting the TV Tower stand and loom, delineating the presence of the wall, and shining a brassy, bright spotlight on the specific individual tragedies of the Holocaust–Berlin is confronting its terrible demons, while still looking and moving forward. Clearly, Berlin abides.