Berlin is a huge, complex, beautiful city. It cannot be captured to any real extent by an Australian dropping in for a rushed three day look around. This article is simply an attempt to capture what we saw and experienced in our short time there and our sense on our departure day was that we only touched the surface of a city that we just had to return to one day and spend the quality time it deserves.
We arrived mid-morning at Tegel Airport but getting into the centre of Berlin was a bit of a struggle. There were plenty of buses but at the time we arrived, it was difficult to board one given the large number of passenger arrivals coinciding with us. Eventually finding a bus heading into Berlin Hauptbahnhof, we gained some valuable standing room with our large bags. Thinking to save time, we decided to jump off the bus half way along its route and use a taxi to take us the last section directly to our Hotel in the Charlottenburg District. Unluckily for us, we got one of those taxi drivers who immediately decided we were ignorant tourists and took us the long route to our hotel. In a new city, we have learned it saves time and money if you exude a sense of local knowledge with taxi drivers. Our hotel was just down the street from Kurfurstendamm Railways station so after our first experience of using the Berlin metro, we knew we wouldn’t need any more taxis.
Hotel Bristol was in the general area known as West Berlin and was great place to start getting a sense of the nature of a city that has been the centre of so many significant events in twentieth century history. As a former history teacher, I had taught many units of study where Germany and Berlin were the key factors; whether it be the causes or the aftermaths of the two world wars, I thought I had a reasonable grasp of what had happened to this city. I had a comfortable sense that my encounters with Berlin would just expand my understanding. The experience over the next few days found me realizing that I knew very little…I didn’t even comprehend the simple demarcation of Berlin into the East and West that occurred after 1945.
The first site where I encountered the real Berlin was the Wilhelm Kaiser Church, the so called ‘Bombed Church’ that was just down the street from where we were staying. The idea that sacred places are not sacrosanct in war time has always puzzled me. Even in 1985 when the Berlin Wall was being worked on, this didn’t stop the Church of Reconciliation, cut off by the Wall from its parishioners, being blown up ‘to increase the security, order and cleanliness on the state border with West Berlin’. Churches became ordinary buildings in Berlin when they were in the way of opposing ideologies. Our visit to the museum at the bombed Wilhelm Kaiser Church was inspirational.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Church as it is today beside an oil painting of the building at the end of the 19th Century. The third photo is the Church of Reconcilation being blown up in 1985.
Bernie Gunther visits the Berlin Zoo
…Bruno stopped, glanced around him, and then dropped the bag into a wastepaper basket that was beside a garden-seat. He walked quickly away, east, and in the direction of his chosen station at the exit on the Landwehr Canal.
A high crag of sandstone, the habitat of a herd of Barbary sheep, was situated opposite the Chicken House. According to the guidebook it was one of the Zoo’s landmarks, but I thought it looked too theatrical to be a good imitation of the sort of place that would have been inhabited by these trotting rags in the wild. It was more like something you would have found on the stage of some grossly overblown production of Parsifal, if such a thing were humanly possible. I hovered there awhile, reading about the sheep and finally taking several photographs of these supremely uninteresting creatures.
Kerr, Philip. The Pale Criminal: Bernie Gunther Thriller 2 (p. 38).
Not far further along towards the Tiergarten is the Berlin Zoo. Being a big fan of Philip Kerr’s detective novels, the Berlin Zoo is familiar to me as a setting in some of his novels. His ‘Pale Criminal’ tale has his hero Bernier Gunther fighting crime amongst the animal cages. We didn’t have time to enter the Zoo but just going past the main entrance was fascinating enough. The whole area between the Wilhelm Kaiser Church and the Zoo has largely been rebuilt since the end of the war and is now a place of piazzas and shopping centres. One of these shopping centres, nicknamed the Bikinihaus, is situated right next to a wall of the zoo. On our last night we went for a drink in this building so we could at least get a glimpse of the monkeys spending their lives capering over “the high crag of sandstone” that was their home.
We were riding bikes hired from our hotel and they came into their own as we rode from the Zoo’s amazing entrance to the edge of the Tiergarten, the huge park that dominates this area of West Berlin. Riding directly without too much lingering through this beautiful urban park meant that we didn’t do justice to its many features. Being in the centre of Berlin, it has been a silent witness to the many changes to the city over the centuries. Almost destroyed by the bombing of Berlin during World War 2, the bulk of its trees have only been restored since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The name Tiergarten (Animal Park) comes from the park’s previous life as hunting grounds. In the eighteenth century when it was fenced off, it was stocked with deer and imported wild animals for hunting by the Electors of Brandenburg, their family and friends. Extraordinary statues memorialising this period adorned our path through the Tiergarten.
Approximately half way through the Tiergarten, our bike route was interrupted by a large roundabout with roads heading off in five directions. Fredrick Wilhelm I (1688-1740) was the cause of this impediment to our day’s cycling when he ordered sections of the forest removed to provide a road to the new Charlottenburg Palace. In the centre of the roundabout is the very impressive Victory Column (Grober Stern). It was built in 1864 to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War. It was moved from its original position to its current site as part of a plan by the Nazi architect, Albert Speer, when Hitler was determined to change Berlin into the centre of his proposed world empire (Germania!). It was probably saved from Allied bombing by its move from in front of the Reichstag.
After surviving the bike path around the roundabout without fatality, we continued through the next section of the Tiergarten to find ourselves at the Luther Bridge which took us over the Spree. From here it was a direct ride along its bank to the centre of Berlin where the Reichstag is located. In many ways, so much of my background as a student of European History living in the second half of the Twentieth Century prepared me for this encounter with ‘Berlin Central’. I was very excited about where I was and it didn’t let me down in any way. Ignoring much of the legislative centre, we rode directly to the Reichstag. This is the most famous site in German political life since the end of the 19th century. My main memory of its story was that it was mysteriously set on fire in 1933 and became a symbol of the collapse of the rule of law in Germany and the rise of the Nazis. Even my fictional hero, Bernie Gunther, had a suspenseful meeting with a contact in the burnt-out shell of this building. It was never used by Adolf Hitler and of course was heavily bombed during the WWII. After the war, it was located just over the border in the British section and little was done to it except ensure its structure did not collapse further. It wasn’t until after the Berlin Wall came down that it could be restored to its former glory and once again become the home for the Parliament of the new Germany.
The Reichstag at the end of the war (Wikipedia Commons) and the rebuilt Reichstag in 2018.
I heard my footsteps ringing on a deserted Königsplatz as I approached what was left of the Reichstag building. Only Bismarck, standing on his plinth, hand on sword, in front of the western doorway, his head turned towards me, seemed prepared to offer some challenge to my being there. But as I recalled he had never been much of an enthusiast for the German parliament – had never even set foot in the place – and so I doubted that he’d have been much inclined to defend the institution on which his statue had, perhaps symbolically, turned its back. Not that there was much about this rather florid, Renaissance-style building that looked worth fighting for now. Its façade blackened by smoke, the Reichstag looked like a volcano which had seen its last and most spectacular eruption. But the fire had been more than merely the burnt offering of the 1918 Republic; it was also the clearest piece of pyromancy that Germany could have been given as to what Adolf Hitler and his third nipple had in store for us.
Kerr, Philip. The Pale Criminal: Bernie Gunther Thriller 2 (p. 8).
One of the many curiosities of the Reichstag is the inscription above the entrance, “Dem Deutscher Volke”. It translates as “To the German People”, a motto chosen by the original architect. It did not appear in the space provided for it until 1916. The letters were cast from melted-down cannons captured during the Napoleonic wars.
After inspecting the Reichstag from all external angles, we didn’t have too far to ride before we were in sight of that other great symbol of German identity and freedom, the Brandenburg Gate. Just by crossing the road, mounting the footpath and moving through the arches of the gate, we were doing something that so many Germans were unable to do between August 1961 and December 1989. The Gate itself had been originally built by Fredrick Wilhem II as a monument in the 18th century. It was built on the site of a city gate that led to Brandenburg. It is also at the start of one of the great city thoroughfares in the world, the Unter den Linden that leads down to where the old City Palace of the Prussian Monarchs had been located.
One of my issues as a tourist is how much of my viewing of a particular site should be governed by its history. For me understanding the background of places I visit is paramount but I realise that a large percentage of visitors only come for the beauty or the architectural splendour of what or where they are visiting. The day we walked through the Brandenburg Gate into the area at the top of Unter den Linden, the area was full of visitors, jostling for space to get the best view. A large number of these were taking selfies where the subjects of the photos was themselves, not the miracle that was the Gate in the background. It is not only amazing that the Brandenburg Gate is still standing, but that it has been meticulously restored so that the results of the damage caused by years of constant incendiary bombing have been erased. This monument to German independence and freedom was the centre of the cyclone of 365 bombing raids during WWII.
Walking down Unter den Linden was a bucket-list event for me. There is so much to see that is visually splendid that it was difficult to comprehend that this famous street was left in ruins at the end of the war. Much of what we see today are buildings that have been restored from original plans and photographs. Having to select just a few examples from this walk, I would always start with the magnificent bronze statue of Fredrick the Great, the King of Prussia in the late 18th century. The statue was unveiled in 1851 and its ‘life-journey’ has exemplified the life of Berlin since then. To protect it during the bombing of WWII, it was encased in concrete! Having survived but being out of favour, it was taken apart by the East Germans in 1950 and eventually put up again in Potsdam in 1966. The reputation of Fredrick the Great recovered in the 1970s so this dramatic piece was returned to Unter den Linden and re-erected not far from its original position.
The grand avenue, Unter den Linden, was originally built by Prussian kings as the pathway from their Palace in the centre of Berlin to the hunting grounds of Tiergarten. Arriving at the beginning of Unter den Linden on Museum Island today can be both overwhelming and very confusing. As you cross the bridge over the Spree, the most dominant feature of the landscape is the Berlin Cathedral on the other side of a spacious park called the Lustgarten. To the left of the Cathedral is the Altes Museum, a building that almost detracts from the grandeur of the Cathedral by its looming dominance over this landscape. Its columns still bear the blackened scars of the bombing over 70 years ago. Its demand for our attention was made even more so by the statues of statuesque Amazons fighting wild beasts at the front entrance. It was originally built in 1823 to house the royal art collection and was known as the Royal Museum until 1850. Like all the other grand buildings in the centre of Berlin, it was heavily damaged during the war and restored and reopened in 2011.
The Lustgarten is a welcoming, landscaped gathering area for locals and tourists alike. A formal garden is generally hailed for its serenity and beauty but this open space in the centre of Berlin has had its curious moments in history as the photo to the right shows. Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor in 1933, a month after the Reichstag fire and so by 1936, the central facilities of Berlin like the Lustgarten were freely available to him for such spectacular Nazi parades as the one shown here.
Being a little stunned by the impact of the two buildings still standing around the Lustgarten, we moved on before settling the question of where was the old Palace of the Prussian Kings, their City Palace or the Stadtschloss? If we had taken more notice of the usual construction site over the road to the right of the Lustgarten, we might have gained an inkling of what had happened to the Palace of the old Prussian monarchs. Originating in the fifteenth century, it eventually became the centre of Prussian rule before losing much of its prestige after World war 1. It was bombed twice during World War II and the burned-out shell was eventually dynamited by the East German Communist Government and replaced with the ‘Palast de Republik’. This building was found to be contaminated with asbestos and it too was demolished starting in 2006. A replica of the old palace called the ‘Humboldtforum’ is due to be finished in 2019 on this site. If I needed anymore reason to return to Berlin and walk down Unter den Linden again, seeing the rebuilt City Palace will be just one of the attractions.