August 2004


Berlin Emotions

So Wednesday evening I wrote very briefly about my trip to Berlin, and I closed by saying I was on my way to bed.

I lied.

I really wanted to write this in peace and quiet– or rather in peace and Kai Tracid’s CD, “Contemplate the Reason You Exist.” Its ended up taking me a couple of days to get everything written the way I would like to have it written.

Berlin is, without a doubt, one of the most perplexing places I have ever visited. Well over a decade since the Wall fell, the city remains oddly divided, and for me, the city has so many different emotional experiences that I can, and have, gone from immensely depressed to total and complete outrage in the space of one block. At other places one feels victorious.

Tuesday and Wednesday this week represent my second actual real visit to Berlin (using the airport fails to count in the case of Berlin). AK was an excellent host my first time, and I recognize now that I was perhaps not the perfect guest – It was at the end of a three week trek around Europe and I know that I was physically and mentally exhausted. I was also not sufficiently aware of Berlin’s history to fully appreciate what I saw-I knew some of the history, in that abstract was that Americans tend to “know” the history of the wall.

I guess what I really didn’t understand, quite frankly, was The Wall. I didn’t get it, even after having watched the History Channel, it didn’t sink in what it meant to have a divided city.

The one thing I made a point of doing while in Berlin the first time was to visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which is, quite frankly, one of the most emotionally exhausting museums I have ever visited in my life. It is incredibly depressing to visit the museum and to see people’s struggles to get over, under, or through the Berlin Wall.

Ultimately, I left Berlin, the first time, far better educated about Berlin’s Cold War History than when I had arrived.

But that is only one aspect of Berlin’s 20th Century History.

The other, of course, is that of the Nazis and Hitler’s rise to power, and that is how, in the space of one block you can go from being incredibly depressed about the human condition that led to Berlin being divided after World War II to immense anger when you visit the Topographie des Terrors, an open air museum that examines the history of final solution and the SS (and I might note, I only looked at half of the exhibits. I didn’t have the strength to look at the “permanent” on this trip. I will return to view it all.)

From depression to anger in one block.

I remember back at George Washington High School when my social studies teacher, Mr. Grenawalt, had Gene Amole from the Rocky Mountain News visit. Mr. Amole (now deceased) brought with him a Nazi flag he had obtained while a soldier during World War II and opened it up at the start of his talk and asked us what it meant.

I don’t remember our answer then-it was probably some pseudo-quasi-intellectual bullshit, but as I reflect back on that experience tonight, I am moved (This is, I might note, perhaps one of the greatest compliments one can pay a teacher-remembering them a decade later by name and being able to remember an in class experience. For each teacher I remember, there is one who fails this test.). I think it has gained significant meaning for me, and I feel the urge to cry-so many people suffered because of Hitler’s rise to power, and so many people died because of his policies-I’m having trouble describing what I am thinking right now, but I know that I want to blame somebody-but I do not have anybody to blame.

That’s one of the problems today-one wants to blame somebody, but the Germans of today are not to blame for the Germans of the past. To do so would be akin to blaming white man in America for enslaving African-Americans in the past-I am not responsible for my ancestor’s actions (and, come to think of it, they weren’t in America at the time).

For the moment, however, I am going to bypass the Nazi-Ugliness and focus on the wall because that is the aspect of Berlin history I am most interested in.

Tuesday afternoon I walked from Alexanderplatz down the length of the street to the Brandenburg Gate, through the gate and into the vista where two of the most important speeches ever given by American Presidents were given. John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which gave hope to generations, and Ronald Regan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall.”

I paused in the gate, touched the walls, and slowly walked back, going from the free west to the not-so-free east. It was, in a real way, amazing. I had walked through the gate on my first trip to Berlin, but between the fact that I lacked context and the fact that the gate was, at the time, a gigantic advertisement for T-Mobile while the actual gate was undergoing repairs, Tuesday afternoon represented my first real emotional experience. I emerged into the former east and immediately knew that the times had changed.

I spotted a Starbucks.

The area inside the Brandenburg Gate has clearly prospered since the Wall fell. Haute Coulter and Culture is available here, as are run-of-the-mill Bentleys; yet the further east you go, the more you realized that the city has not yet healed from being divided. There are clearly areas that are doing well and areas that are, well, depressing.

Alexanderplatz, ironically, is one of these really depressing places. It operates today as an economic center, but I felt that its massive expanses of concrete were not really comfortable or clean. I didn’t feel unsafe, I just didn’t think it was a cohesive and comfortable area-it is an example of inner city design that is not really on the human scale. Rui and I had gone up the television tower and I realized, as we sat in the rotating restaurant and looked down, how great a tour AK had given me-suddenly I realized where the world time clock was, were the TV tower was, spotted where I had gotten a photo of me with Marx and Engles, where the Museum Island was located, and the relative locations of different things.

For this, I owe AK a very big Thank You.

Berlin, like New York City is a city that will always have immense interest from tourists. New York City has a many historical sites of interest to tourists: The Statute of Liberty, Ellis Island, the World Trade Center, but the present and future drives the City: People go for Times Square and its bright lights, in essence the “now-ness” of the city. Berlin faces a far different future because history will always be the focus of Berlin. The present and future will always be overshadowed by its past: Hitler’ rise to power and the infamous Wall.

2 comments to Berlin Emotions

  • MT

    UGH!!!! Nothing like a good Starbucks to ruin the moment. UGH!!!! It’s a new type of invasion! UGH!!!!

  • IUMike

    New Bush campaign spot: Bush standing in front of the East Berlin Starbucks, saying yet another country freed from a terrorist regime. OK, it was his daddy who did it (or rather, claimed credit for it) and the Russians won’t appreciate being called terrorists, but who’s gonna let a few facts and a few pissed off Russians get in the way of stealing another election?